The U.S. government says that Mexico is mostly safe for the several million American travelers who visit each year. Even so, a few unlucky souls have been caught in daylight gunfights between rival drug gangs or drug gangs and the government. Others have been carjacked or kidnapped. But the people who are most in danger in Mexico are Mexicans.
Alfredo Corchado has covered Mexico for The Dallas Morning News for almost 20 years, watching a country he cares passionately about spiral into a dark period of drug violence that some estimate has taken as many at 80,000 lives. In his new book, Corchado attempts to explain how Mexico got to the state it’s in.
Midnight in Mexico is also Corchado’s deeply personal story, about his love affair with another correspondent and his family’s conflicted relationship with the country of his birth. Corchado’s mother brought him and his three brothers to the United States to join their father when Corchado was 6. He vowed then that he’d go back to Mexico, and he has been arguing with his mother about that vow ever since.
“She had sacrificed all she knew to get us out, because she saw Mexico as stuck between hope and despair, divided between the rich and those who lived with nothing but their stubborn faith,” he writes. “Mexico, forty years after we’d left, remained unpredictable, untamed and raw. But I had been lured back thirteen years earlier by nostalgia and the promise of what Mexico could be.”
Instead of progress to that potential, Corchado watched the country struggle and often fail. Even what seemed like such a hopeful moment at the time — the toppling of the once-mighty PRI party that had ruled Mexico for decades — turned out to be a precursor to chaos.
Corchado writes sympathetically and with palpable frustration about Mexicans struggling to confront the violence of the drug cartels and the pervasive corruption. The two now go hand-in-hand, complicating any efforts the United States is making to help.
“So many officials were on cartel payrolls that it increasingly wasn’t a war against cartels, but a war within the government itself,” he writes.
He pulls no punches about the U.S. role in Mexico’s problems, from the American demand for drugs that has fueled the violence to U.S. policies that have done more harm than good. And Mexican officials aren’t the only ones who have been corrupted by the cartels.
“Along the U.S. side, agents were also being recruited by the cartels, lured by money or even sexual favors,” he writes. “Dozens of federal agents — as many as 170 in just four years, including agents of the border patrol, DEA, FBI and ICE — had given in to temptation.”
Corchado also feels the hurt of regular Mexicans caught in the crossfire: the father whose son was killed at a party because a hit man targeted the wrong house; the newspaper publisher who gives up on covering the violence because writing about it is too dangerous for him and his family; Corchado’s private driver caught in a corrupt police sting.
He is adamant that Mexico is personal for him. He can’t leave, not for good. Even when a death threat — Corchado’s fourth — forces him out of the country for a year, he is drawn back.
Sometimes Corchado’s story can be hard to follow because of a large cast of characters and constantly shifting timeline. The death threat opens the book and pops up periodically in later chapters, only to be resolved late with a confusing realization, one that angers Corchado, but it isn’t fully explored.
But overall, Corchado does a good job of explaining our hard-to-fathom neighbor to the south. His solid research and detailed understanding of the forces at work there make the book an important one for anyone who cares about Mexico, and his personal struggle with his homeland make it a raw, compelling read.
Susannah Nesmith is a writer in Miami.