Alfredo Corchado lives a charmed life. Son of a cook and a bracero (seasonal U.S. field worker from Mexico), the eldest of eight, he worked his way up the journalism tree to the lofty heights of Mexico City Bureau Chief of the Dallas Morning News. He has known personally the last four Presidents of Mexico. In fact, he seems to know everyone, and everyone knows him. The former is handy for a journalist; the latter potentially deadly in a country so steeped in blood.
This dazzling memoir begins with a bang. Corchado is about to go to dinner with his beloved partner, Angela, and friends when he gets a phone call from one of his sources. An American journalist in Mexico will be assassinated within twenty-four hours. No one knows the identity of the journalist or even if the rumor is true. But we do know that Corchado has recently been publishing exposés of people in high places, and it’s a fair bet that his head is on the block.
This is the stuff of thrillers (the rights to Midnight in Mexico have already been snapped up by Hollywood). One imagines Tom Cruise escaping via the rooftops. But Corchado does no such thing. He finds himself caught in a Hamlet-like dilemma. Stick or twist? Run or wait?
What follows is a combination of adventure story, personal memoir, a history of Mexico’s recent past, and a dissection of the drug trade that has devastated families and communities while perversely providing a living for the poor and downtrodden.
The book is packed with details about how journalists get close to their sources while somehow avoiding being assassinated. Corchado navigates the system through a combination of luck, bloody-mindedness and sheer chutzpah. At one stage he is kidnapped by a taxi driver. He looks through the back window and sees a car full of hoodlums following them. When the taxi slows down at a busy junction, he jumps out, gets swallowed up in a crowd, and walks home. Corchado seems to possess an ability to slip into the shadows whenever he scents grave danger. And of course, he has a nose for it.
Besides the derring-do and the historical background, one theme from the book that I enjoyed was Corchado’s take on his identity. He is a Mexican-American who moved in the opposite direction from his parents: from the U.S. back to Mexico. In the States he’s seen as a Mexican; in Mexico he’s seen as a gringo.
The book is very well-written. Corchado is particularly good at starting chapters with a literary flourish. Of the images he uses to describe Mexico’s corruption by the drug trade, one stands out: the problem isn’t a tumor that can be removed; it’s a cancer that has spread to every cell of the body.
While the book is a pleasure to read, occasionally the dialogue doesn’t ring true. Characters rattle something off in Spanish and then provide an immediate English translation, which isn’t how code-switching works. Also, one wonders how the author can remember people’s exact words years later. Surely he wasn’t taking notes when his life was in danger? My only other caveat is the number of names. I sometimes got overwhelmed and found myself leafing backwards to work out who’s who. But maybe the point is, it doesn’t matter who’s who because you can trust no one.
There is a heartbreaking chapter near the end – Corchado’s “rosebud” moment – which provides the fons et origo of his compassion and his sense of mission. And in the end, despite the endemic corruption, the mendacity of those in power, and the sheer bloodsoaked brutality of the cartels, Corchado somehow remains optimistic. Time and again he affirms his love of Mexico and his hope for what the future will bring. It may be midnight in Mexico, but a new dawn must come soon.