Alfredo Corchado, who covers the exceedingly dangerous border between the United States and Mexico for the Dallas Morning News, told a large audience at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton last Thursday night he was hopeful that the rule of law could be reasserted in that country.
Born in Durango, Mexico, Mr. Corchado, a Harvard Nieman Fellow who has won the Elijah Parish Lovejoy award for courageous journalism, and who is the last reporter the Dallas newspaper has in Mexico — it once had 13 — came to the U.S. at the age of 6 to work the fields of central California with his family. They were participants in the U.S.-Mexico guest worker arrangement designed to bolster the U.S. work force during World War II and the Korean War.
Many Mexicans, who in the recent past have seen their country drained of talent that in previous years would have returned to strengthen that country’s middle class, would like to see a return to that program, which allowed Mexicans to go back and forth, he said, “especially now that Mexico is facing the fight of its life.”
There are, in fact, two corrupt forces pushing up against each other in the region, he said — the Sinaloa cartel, “the most powerful crime organization in the world,” and Mexico’s own corruption-rife government, a dynamic that he said has led to widespread murders, more than 95 percent of them unsolved.
Some 40,000 have died by violent means along the frontier since 2006, Mr. Corchado said, and the victims had not just been those connected to the drug trade, but also many innocents, including college students, would-be immigrants, and 70 journalists, “about half of them killed in the past three years.”
United States citizenship, he said, afforded him a certain level of protection, “although I fear it’s growing thin. Organized criminals will stop at nothing if you threaten their well-being and profits. As my father said, ‘They don’t know the word forgiveness.’ ”
Still, he said, he persisted, citing a recent large march protesting the violence in Mexico and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent efforts to form a lobbying group of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans.
As an aside, Mr. Corchado said when he and Mrs. Clinton crossed paths two years ago, he reminded her that in 1992, when she was campaigning for her husband, he had served her a helping of menudo (hominy, red chiles, and tripe) at his family’s restaurant in El Paso. “She took a bite and smiled and said she liked it. When we remet, she said she remembered, though I’m not sure I believe her. Anyway, it was nice.”
Colombia, he said, returning to Mexico’s situation, had “taken more than a decade to see results. They are not out of the woods entirely, but they have made some big gains. They have retaken territories once occupied by drug traffickers. The question is whether Mexicans have the fight to reinstate a civil society. Will they in the coming elections elect someone else who says, ‘Enough is enough.’ It’s a defining moment for Mexico, and we’re all watching to see where it goes.”
Legalization, he said, answering an e-mailed question later from this reporter, “might reduce the killings, but there probably would be a rise in drug consumption and the root of the problem, the impunity with which organized crime has gone about its business in Mexico, would remain unaddressed. Legalization wouldn’t strengthen the rule of law and the judicial institutions. And somehow organized crime would readjust.”
When he told his parents he wanted to be a journalist, Mr. Corchado said that he would not write about organized crime. He does so now, he said, “not because I necessarily like it, but because I see it as part of Mexicans’ journey to look for their country’s democratic soul.”
He thought of the frontier as his home, he said, and wanted to keep bearing witness so that some day he could see things turn around.
Some of the 82 attendees at his talk last Thursday were not as hopeful as he, doubting that any success could be achieved, given the corruption within and without the government.
“While we have had a history of violence, ours is not a culture of violence,” he said, adding that “my greatest inspiration comes from the border itself: El Paso, a city with something like an 85 percent Mexican-American population, is one of the safest cities in the U.S.”
Mr. Corchado has come a long way since dropping out of school to continue working in the fields. His mother, he said, had lobbied long and hard to get him to open his eyes. “When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, the radio would play his speeches in Spanish and my mother would ask us to hush so we could listen carefully to his words, especially to these: ‘Some men see the way things are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and say, Why not?’ ”
“She later bribed me with a new 1978 Camaro with a T-top. She helped me with the down payment, but I paid off the car. Whatever success I have had is really a testament to my belief in my parents’ dreams.”