As a result of his investigations into drug trafficking in Mexico, Alfredo Corchado, Mexican-American journalist and correspondent for the daily The Dallas Morning News, received death threats and was forced to leave the country temporarily. He tells the stories about these threats in his book, Medianoche en Mexico (Midnight in Mexico), which has begun circulating in the U.S., in which he describes the collusion between Mexican government officials and drug cartel bosses.
WASHINGTON (Proceso).– The Mexico correspondent for the U.S. newspaper The Dallas Morning News Alfredo Corchado, doesn’t beat around the bush and states that when it’s about intimidating journalists and blocking their investigations, the Mexican government and drug trafficking cartels are one and the same.
“Corruption from drug trafficking is almost an institution in Mexico. Drug traffickers and the government are the same thing,” comments Corchado in a telephone interview with Proceso, arranged to talk about his book, Medianoche en Mexico (Midnight in Mexico,) published by Penguin Press, in which he recounts the death threats he received while doing his job as a journalist.
“What happened to me made me understand that I was fooling myself to believe that things in Mexico could change,” says Corchado, referring to the notion that democracy would end corruption in that country.
In fact, Medianoche en Mexico illustrates the connivance that exists among government officials and drug trafficking bosses, who have the government officials on their payrolls.
“The cell phone in my pants pocket vibrated,” he recalls at the beginning of the first of three parts the book is divided into. “I recognized the voice. It was a long-time reliable source, a U.S. investigator with informants within the most violent cartels in Mexico”. He got right to the point:
— Where are you? — He asked.
— In Mexico
— Where exactly?
— In my apartment. Why?
— They are planning to murder a U.S. journalist within the next 24 hours — said the investigator–. They mentioned three names; I think it’s you.
— What!? Who are they?
— I can’t tell you any more because I don’t know, but it could be something serious, with the Zetas.
— Who are the other reporters? asked Corchado, in disbelief.
— It could be anybody, but I bet it’s you. Hide.
— What? Where? Why?
Corchado recalls that he was speaking “Spanglish,” his normal language, and that he was making note of everything.
— Let’s talk tomorrow. I don’t know too much yet — said the investigator.
— Wait, wait…tomorrow may be too late — answered Corchado.
— Brother… stop messing with them, stop it.
Corchado has been a reporter with U.S. newspapers; The El Paso Herald Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Dallas Morning News. He was born in the town of San Luis de Cordero, in the State of Durango, but in 1966, when he was a child, he emigrated legally to the U.S, along with his parents and brothers, in search of a better future.
Since 1986, he has dedicated his professional life to writing about Mexico for an American public, a country in which he is a naturalized citizen. However, it was in 1994 that he began to touch on Mexico’s reality. In 2007, in the context of violence derived from drug trafficking, he was forced to leave Mexico after receiving death threats.
“I was threatened three times previously while I was a journalist in Mexico,” he explains.
“One time, a source had to hide me in the rear compartment of his 4X4 pickup, after I received a threat by phone. Another time, a mysterious man approached me in a bar to tell me that “Los Zetas” would cut my head off if I kept asking questions.
That other time, Angela (Kocherga, his girlfriend foto above) and I had reason to fear that a high government or Army official was after us, because of a story we aired about the first drug trafficking video that showed criminals confessing their crimes and being executed afterwards. Each one of the three death threats left me terrified,” he recalls.
In 2007, one of his sources — who he identifies as “a U.S. investigator”– warned him that he was under a death threat because of a story he published in the Dallas Morning News, which was based on information leaked to him by that same source.
“The U.S. investigator lowered his voice. He had confidential intelligence information about a meeting held in the house of Arturo Beltran Leyva, in Cuernavaca. Leaders of rival cartels and corrupt government officials had gotten together to end the violence retake control of the drug trafficking industry,” narrates the journalist in his book.
“The plan was to divide equitably the distribution of drug routes and to realign themselves, as they had done for several decades. The men talked, drank and agreed to meet again. The tensions between Edgar Valdez Villareal, “La Barbie”, and Miguel Angel Trevino Morales were very deep. Trevino Morales suspected that “La Barbie” had ordered the death of his brother. They cursed at each other and challenged each other to a gunfight. Their bosses, especially the host, calmed them down and warned them they were meeting to talk about business, not to resolve personal differences. The U.S. government placed an informant in that meeting to gather information about the ones who were in the meeting,” the book makes clear.
|From Durango his family immigrated to the US when he was a child and became an US citizen
Corchado insists that, according to the U.S. investigator, the Mexican government and the Armed Forces were aware of the pact that was negotiated in Beltran Leyva’s house.
After Corchado published the story about that agreement, he was told that he might be the victim of an attack against him. His girlfriend Angela and some friends advised him to inform Tony Garza, the then U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, about the threats. He did that. Garza issued warnings about possible attacks on U.S. journalists and spoke with the Mexican government.
“In Mexico, they kill you twice. First, with a bullet, an axe blow to the head or an acid bath; then they begin to spread rumors about you,” wrote the Dallas Morning News correspondent.
Instead of getting out of Mexico immediately, Corchado remained in the country for several days trying to corroborate the threat and find out who was responsible. After making inquiries among Mexican and U.S. officials and with his sources placed within organized crime organizations and police agencies, he determined that the threat arose from the fact that his story affected the distribution of bribes –amounting to about $500 million a year– that the cartels were distributing to the police, the Army and Mexican government officials.
“I called another source, a Mexican-American whose job was to deposit cash in U.S. banks for Mexican cartels,” points out Corchado. That source told him about how he met up with La Barbie in a trade convention in Cancun. The drug trafficker went to see one of his brothers, a U.S. customs agent who presumably had nothing to do with drug trafficking.
— La Barbie in a trade convention? You’re shitting me, dude! — said Corchado in disbelief.
— I didn’t believe it myself. But he said “Hi” to me in the men’s room, after he took a long leak, he washed his hands and waited until I washed mine. He called me by my name…I’m not kidding.
“My source asked him about the death threats and Barbie answered: ‘We’re not stupid. It’s not us, but I wouldn’t doubt it was the government,” says Corchado…continues next page..
What did we get ourselves into?
In 2004, when Corchado was covering the murders of women in Juarez (Chihuahua), one of his sources passed on a tip that La Linea, the group of gunmen working for the Juarez cartel, was responsible for the murder of the women. While he was covering a demonstration called to demand justice for those murders, his cell phone rang. “A man with a deep voice, who I had never heard before, told me exactly where I was standing.”
— I’m passing right behind you along the 16th [16th of September Ave. one of the main streets in Juarez.], — he told him, describing the corner and the building where (Corchado) was standing at that moment.
The second warning happened in 2005, during a visit to the cities of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas and Laredo, Texas, investigating a story about the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.
Corchado and some friends were at a well known Laredo restaurant, El Agave Azul (The Blue Agave). Just when they were leaving the place, a waiter approached Corchado and one of his friends to offer them some shots of tequila, “courtesy of the gentleman who’s in the corner,” the waiter told them. A little later, the individual who sent them the tequilas approached the Dallas Morning News correspondent.
|Photojournalists’ cameras hang by a picture of Veracruz state Governor Javier Duarte de Ochoa outside the office of Veracruz state’s representative in the capital, to protest the killing of photojournalists Esteban Rodriguez, Gabriel Huge and Guillermo Luna in Mexico City-Eduardo Verdgo Photo
— I’m glad to see you here again. We appreciate your interest in the two Laredos. As you can see, a lot of things are happening around here. We’re a friendly city, with great people and beautiful women. Look at how many good looking chicks we’ve got here — he said, pointing to the group of women talking with Ramon (his friend)
— Yes, I said to him, not yet knowing who the guy was or whether I was supposed to recognize him.
— We treat outsiders who come here very well, until they begin asking questions about Los Zetas.
Corchado recalls that “I had written stories about the brutality of Los Zetas and their ties in northern Texas, the violent way they acted and their confrontations with local police.”
— Things can get very crazy here. Let me tell you what happens when people begin to ask too many questions: They pick you up. They torture you, then they cut you up into many little pieces; a piece here, another one over there, they they put your body in a tank full of acid and they watch you until you dissolve — the man told him.
The third threat also happened in 2006. He received an envelope containing a DVD at his office in Mexico City. It’s contents were macabre: it was a video of the execution of four men, alleged gunmen (sicarios) for the Sinaloa Cartel. (Corchado’s) sources in the United States corroborated the authenticity of the contents. He tried to verify it with Mexican government officials. He asked for a meeting with Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, who was in charge of fighting drug trafficking during the Vicente Fox administration.
After several refusals, Vasconcelos agreed to meet with him. He scheduled a meeting with him at 7:00 p.m. at his office at the PGR, but didn’t see him until almost at midnight.
— Corchado, this is not a story for you. Why don’t you concentrate on stories about tourism? They are safer — the official told him.
— Are you threatening me?
— No, I’m trying to help you so you’ll be safe. I know you were born in Mexico. But don’t worry about the problems of a country that is no longer your country. Now, you’re a U.S. citizen, concentrate on other stories.
The next morning, The Dallas Morning News published the story about the of the four alleged gunmen. An edited version of the macabre scene could be seen on the newspaper’s web page. Corchado remembers that he and Angela immediately noticed the reaction from the Mexican press.
His girlfriend, who was working for a television network and who had also prepared a report about the execution, left Corchado in La Condesa, where both of them lived, because one of her sources had asked for a meeting.
Corchado sat down at one of the tables at the restaurant to wait for Angela. Half an hour later, while he was eating some chicken soup, Angela returned, her face in distress.
— What’s going on? — he asked.
— This is serious — she said, telling him that her source had advised her to leave the country as soon as possible.
They, the Army, the government, or both, are going to make life impossible for us. They are capable of anything and they would make it look like a car accident — she told him.
— What are you talking about? The government, the Army?
— That’s what they told me. They guy who was asking the questions and who executed the men in the video was a cartel member, he works with members of the Army of the Federal Police. I don’t know, I don’t know. What have we gotten ourselves into?
Corchado comments that “the sources were possible correct. They were federal police and soldiers working for one of the cartels, something we weren’t able to verify then, although we did so later.”
“I put my hands on my face, rubbing my temples, trying to make sense of the situation. My soup didn’t look so appetizing any more. My cell phone had been vibrating, interrupting our conversation. The screen said the caller’s ID was blocked. I answered, anyway.
A voice that sounded like a growl answered:
— Eat your soup now or eat it later. We like soup hot or cold, you son of a bitch.