Customer Reviews: Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness
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Nearly 100,000 people have been killed or have disappeared since President Calderon launched a war on cartels in 2006. At the time, less than 20% of those detained for drug trafficking were convicted, cops were underpaid and forced to rely on bribes to put food on the table, low rates of tax collection limited funding, and the education system was run by a corrupt union. (The country lost an estimated $50 billion to tax evaders, criminals, and corruption.) The murder clearance rate was less than 5% at the time.

July 2007 was the last time author Corchado felt safe in Mexico - that was when a U.S. investigator with informants inside the cartels told Alfredo, a reporter covering the drug wars, he'd been targeted for assassination. Alfredo been threatened three times previously, but this was the first time a timeline (24 hours) had been attached to a threat. Past threats brought bulletproof office windows, iron bars on his apartment windows, and a panic button connected to Mexican security consultants.

I particularly appreciated the author's coverage of how the drug trade got started in Mexico. Opium production began in the 1940s when the U.S. needed morphine for soldiers in WWII, even though growing it was illegal in Mexico. Pot cultivation also began at that time, and demand exploded in the 1960s and 1970s. A few Mexican families controlled the entire production and distribution chain (cartel men married each other's sisters), and law enforcement couldn't get past these family ties. By the 1980s, Americans also developed a taste for cocaine, and Columbia became a supplier. The easy route went through the Caribbean, but American ships and planes made that too risky. Thus, Mexico became the preferred, safer route. Tunnels crossing the U.S. border were dug as early as the 1980s, and migrants were often used as mules, sometimes unwittingly. Today the Sinloa cartel (the largest) can buy a kilo of South American cocaine for $2,000; its value increases to $10,000 upon entering Mexico, $30,000+ upon reaching the U.S., and $100,000 when broken up for retail distribution. An estimated 500,000 Mexican jobs are attributable to the drug trade.

Another key topic - why the explosion of violence that began in 2006? Corchado tells us that Mexico's long-time ruling party (PRI) had grown older, more divided, and weaker, leading to lessened authority on drug matters. Another factor - the new PAN government decentralized government, making it easier (per the author) for the rule of law to be taken over by the cartels. The cartels started running wild, fighting amongst each other as they too became divided. Mexico's murder rate had fallen 37% between 1997 and 2006 - by 2008 it had tripled. A key enabler - the Bush administration's rolling back Clinton-era restrictions on the sale of high-powered weapons such as the AR-15 quickly flooded Mexico with these weapons.

A third major topic explained in 'Midnight in Mexico' is how immigration into the U.S. evolved over the years. After the Great Crash of 1929, Mexicans within the U.S. were sent back by the busload, no questions asked. Then Mexican braceros helped feed Americans and worked in some factories during WWII. For example, in 1940 Nevada, there were about one million whites working in the fields; this fell to about 60,000 by 1942. After WWII came the Korean War, and a renewed need for workers from Mexico - especially to feed the growing baby-boomers. There were an estimated 430,000 Mexicans that entered the U.S. legally in 1957 - among them, the author's father. (All it took was 25 cents to cover a phone call to his sister in El Paso, the bus ride to her house, and a soft drink.) By 1964 the number living and working in the U.S. had doubled to five million. In 1993, Mexico's then President Salinas pushed for NAFTA passage among congressional leaders as a way to keep otherwise immigrants home and employed in Mexico. Instead, NAFTA brought in subsidized corn from Iowa that made it impossible for Mexico's two million corn farmers to compete - this both added to the number of immigrants to the U.S. and weakened the PRI at the polls.

Where did the directive come from to kill Corchado, and why? Eventually he learned that it originated from the head of the Zeta gang (Miguel Treviño Morales, aka 'Forty'), Mexico's #2 drug cartel. He was upset about Corchado's reporting of a government-brokered cartel peace, and also wanted to know Corchado's sources so they could also be eliminated. He didn't want government corruption brought out into the daylight as this risked their ability to conduct business. Corchado estimates the drug business in Mexico is a $10 - $40 billion business, compared to $22 billion in remittances. Kickbacks to the government ran as much as $500 million/year. (The peace plan fell apart after a few weeks.) Morales is now on Mexico's most-wanted list, with a $7.5 million bounty ($5 million from the U.S.) for his arrest and conviction, and reportedly sleeps in his car (along with hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe his way out of capture), protected by 15 layers of security, often travels in ambulances or low-flying planes, and likes to live in the forests.

Bottom-Line: It takes incredible courage to fill author Corchado's shoes. I wonder what would happen to the drug war in Mexico if drugs were legalized in the U.S.
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on June 14, 2013
I think this is a remarkable book. Especially if you've lived in Mexico or in the Southwest, it's almost unputdownable. Corchado is a Mexican-American journalist from a modest family in Durango, and he's spent the last quarter century living in and reporting on Mexico for a number of newspapers. His great virtue, aside from knowing what the Hell he's talking about (rare on this subject) is his unyielding bluntness. There's no political correctness here: death is death, violence is violence; and corruption is corruption. It is of some interest, the fixing of responsibility, on this side of the border or on the other, but not entirely. What matters are consequences. During the sexenio of Felipe Calderon, Mexico embarked on an American-backed "war" on drugs within its own borders. A real war, with over 80,000 deaths--no one honestly knows how many. The violence, especially in the North, has been almost unimaginable. When I say that I seriously doubt anyone saw this coming--and I mean going as far back as the early 1970s--I am not kidding. A lot of people of my generation sooner expected to see a military coup than what amounted to a civil war between the Federal government and the narcos. But that's probably because they never expected the PRI to fall out of power, the "perfect dictatorship" to crack, and the stable accommodations between power, corruption, authority and regional governance to fall apart. Well, welcome to an unexpected consequence of democracy: institutional failure at nearly every level of Mexican society. And you can't call Mexico City to fix it anymore. Those days are gone for good. If the newly reinstalled PRI comes to terms with the cartels, it will no longer be from a position of strength. The balance of power has shifted and exactly who or what will emerge from the contest is unpredictable. The evident distate with which the new President's team regards the unimpeded operation of American intelligence and military resources in Mexico is a straw in the wind. Our Good Neighbor has learned a bitter lesson: when the yanquis go home, it's the Mexican's mess to clean up.

Corchado brings together his own story--terrifying at times, his family's and Mexico's seamlessly. Although the Great Mexican diaspora appears to be drawing to a close, we are only now beginning to contend with its monumental consequences on this side of the border. One of those is that we can no longer forget about Mexico when it suits us because the millions of Mexicans resident in the United States will not let us. The amusing gyrations of the political parties in seeking to at once contain and capitalize upon their numbers is just the start of the sea change that the next 50 years will bring to the United States. Corchado is pretty much the the perfect metaphor for the relation: the personal has become political and he can no sooner leave Mexico behind than he can do without the United States to "escape" to when things on the other side get too hot.

Corchado is not Alan Riding and this book isn't Distant Neighbors. Times change.

I repeat, if you want to get beyond the broadcast blather--and even a lot of crappy print coverage--you must read this brilliant, brave, and ultimately very distressing book.
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on August 18, 2014
I agree with all the one-star and two-star reviews. This book was a self-indulgent exercise that provided very little insight or information into the history and situation in Mexico. It read like a highschooler's diary instead of solid reporting. His writing coach to whom he gives praise in the Acknowldgements apparently didn't explain to Corchado the difference between journal writing and journalism. For comparison, I would hold up Luis Urrea's The Devil's Highway or William Rempel's At the Devil's Table regarding related subjects. Simply put, a good reporter removes himself from his story and acts more like a camera operator whom you completely forget is mediating between you the viewer and the story because the coverage is so absorbing and faithful. Instead, Corchado blathers on and on about his stupid girlfriend who was not even part of the story, about his mommy and daddy, about all of his high level contacts and great importance to the cartels (aka "name-dropping"),about his favorite restaurants in El Paso, but mainly about his favorite Mexican bands and songs, to which his English-speaking readers, for the most part, would not even relate. If you would like a better understanding of Mexican current affairs or other important issues such as immigration reform, I would pass on this book and would suggest that you check out Oscar Martinez's book, The Beast, instead.
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on June 17, 2014
I bought this book thinking the author had been through some adventures. I thought perhaps he went undercover or was taken hostage or something. Nope. Nothing really happened to him. Sure there was a threat but that was it. I kept reading hoping something interesting would happen but when I was more than 3/4 of the way done I stopped reading it in disgust. The other reviews can fill you in on what the author does write about.
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on August 17, 2014
I'm glad I bought this at the bargain bin at my local bookstore. It is mostly a description of the author getting (maybe) a death threat, then leaving Mex. City with his girlfriend, how they say isn't it awful, scary, as they go from one restaurant to another, with some back story about how beautiful she is, but not much about the drug war and the misery it's inflicted on the people who don't have the money and resources to bug out.
There are far better books on the topic - starting with Charles Bowden's Down by the River, and I'm sure many books by Mexico natives that I'm not familiar with because they haven't been translated.
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on May 27, 2014
Senor Corchado's love of Mexico and its people comes through with every word. Unfortunately, he couldn't decide if he was writing a family tragedy or a national one. The link between the two was not made clear. This might make two very compelling stories.
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on January 2, 2014
As a Mexican American returning to Mexico to report for a U.S. newspaper, Corchado has an interesting perspective. He has a lot of interesting anecdotes about his experiences in Mexico. But as another reviewer has noted, he has apparently re-created a bunch of conversations from memory. This detracts from the factual nature of the book. And since the conversations are pretty stilted, it also doesn't do much for it stylistically. He has attempted to write both a journalistic account of the situation in Mexico and a personal memoir. That's a hard combination to manage, and I'm afraid he didn't quite pull it off.
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on November 20, 2013
A powerful and amazing book about Mexico is written with the blood, sweat and tears of someone who knows Mexico as it once was and as it now is--a story experienced and told from the inside out and from the outside in. I lived in Mexico off and on for ten years. I certainly never got close to the dark side, although I always knew it was there and felt it getting stronger as the demand for drugs in the US continued to grow (and it was that dark side that made me say my final "adios"). Alfredo Corchado exposes the dark side of the cartel wars, the political corruption, the horrific violence that lurk both below the surface but that too often explode above it for all to see in all of its bloody glory. He is honest and insightful, never backing away from the truth (and he has gotten as close to it as anyone who has lived to tell about it). Corchado is an excellent writer who expresses himself with a journalist's precision but also with a humanist's powerful voice.The book touched me profoundly, as a poignant lament for a Mexico that once was, and as a yearning for a Mexico that once again could be. A must read for anyone who loves Mexico.
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on August 10, 2013
The authors life was interesting and his recitation of the various cartels in Mexico and their activities was informative; however, ultimately, the book was a disappointment because it did not evaluate the situation in a scholarly way and offered no solutions to the problem. It was a little repetitive as well, being primarily the authors "fears" about being targeted by one of the cartels for writing about them.
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on March 1, 2015
This is basically a book about Alfredo Corchado. He is the main character and the main focus of the "story." Supposedly he has printed a story that might have made the Cartel put a hit on him. He describes the tension by recounting one boring dinner party after another, and telling us about his girlfriend. It started tedious and stayed tedious. What irritated me so much was the description was so misleading. This has very little to do with cartels and everything to do with the wonder that is Alfredo Corchado, and his girlfriend, and where to eat when in Mexico City. Buy "Narco" if you want to read about the cartels.
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