September 27, 2010

COLBY COLLEGE: Journalist speaks of silence, anger, finding one's voice

Alfredo Corchado accepts Elijah Parish Lovejoy award

By Scott Monroe smonroe@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- Alfredo Corchado felt numb when he returned as Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

click image to enlarge

HONORED: Alfredo Corchado, right, Mexico bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News, enters Lorimer Chapel at Colby College in Waterville where he was honored as the recipient of this year's Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award. Colby College President William "Bro" Adams is at left.

Staff photo by David Leaming

The journalist had been away as a 2009 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and realized -- following years of investigative reporting that resulted in multiple death threats from Mexico's ruthless drug cartels and gangs -- that he no longer wanted to put his life on the line.

But that changed on Feb. 1 this year when he went to check out a case in which 13 teenagers had been gunned down. The hitmen had been wrongly tipped off that the teenage birthday party was for a group of rival gang members. The result was the execution of innocents --13 of 36 kids -- while the survivors hid in closets and underneath bodies.

"I will never forget the day of the funeral, the sight of a dozen hearses on that street, the sight of coffins, the wailing from parents, friends, brothers and sisters," Corchado said. "I'm grateful that it was a rainy day, because I felt so angry that I was able to mask my running tears with raindrops. And on that sad morning, I broke my silence and found my voice again."

Corchado's telling of that story came Sunday night in front of a packed crowd at Colby College's Lorimer Chapel, where he accepted the college's 2010 Elijah Parish Lovejoy award.

Colby President William "Bro" Adams said the award, which recognizes journalists for fearlessness and freedom of the press, was given to Corchado by a selection committee because he was deemed "the most intrepid reporter working the most dangerous beat in the Western Hemisphere."

Corchado, 50, said he would accept the award, but "on behalf of the love I feel for my profession and the enormous respect and admiration I have for those reporting in the line of fire," especially his colleagues in Mexico.

In fact, Corchado said the award would honor more than 60 Mexican journalists murdered in the last decade, including nine this year and one just last week.

Corchado said he's no braver or courageous than his other Mexican colleagues and he talked about the award as a chance to highlight the plight of his fellow reporters who face complex choices involving corrupt government officials, censorship, bribery and the threat of death in the course of reporting. Mexico, he said, is today among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists -- on par with war-stricken Iraq and Somalia.

Born in Durango, Mexico, Corchado was raised in California and Texas. He graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1987 and has received honors from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and Harvard's Nieman Foundation. He now lives in Mexico City.

He is now writing a book due out next year, with the working title "Midnight in Mexico," about his reporting and personal experiences.

For Corchado, reporting has involved an ongoing quest to strike a tough balance, to report fairly and extensively on the region's chaos and corruption, while also staying alive during "the bloodiest period in Mexico since the 1910 Mexican Revolution," he said.

Corchado recounted that danger in great detail: a news editor stabbed more than 30 times and a newsroom attacked with a grenade. Corchado said he was once approached in Laredo by a man who warned him to stop writing stories by The Zetas -- a criminal organization involved in the drug trade -- and the man described "how they would cut me into pieces and dissolve my remains in acid inside a barrel, a common technique in Mexico."

Organized crime also exerts control over media, paying off reporters to act as spies and to censor stories.

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