"I need to give you a message," the man told Alfredo Corchado as he was leaving a restaurant in Laredo, Texas, in 2005. Violence was on the rise in Laredo, and Corchado, the Mexico bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, was in the border town to investigate a possible connection to organized crime in Texas.
The message was simple: Drop the story.
"If you do anything stupid right now, there's a van outside and we're here to pick you up," the man said.
And, indeed, there was a black van, waiting.
"We'll do you a favor," the man continued. "As we're chopping you into pieces, we'll tape it so we can send it to your mother in El Paso."
In response, the Morning News assigned additional reporters to investigate the situation and take the focus off Corchado―but he didn't drop the story.
"Forget Iraq, forget Afghanistan. This is right on the border," Corchado says. "I've been covering democracy all these years, and it doesn't really matter when all these institutions are being held hostage by organized crime." For his coverage of drug trafficking and government corruption along the border, Corchado recently received the Lovejoy Award for courage in journalism, bestowed annually by Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
Named for publisher Elijah Parish Lovejoy, who was killed in 1837 for his abolitionist views, the Lovejoy Award in recent years has gone to Paul Salopek, a Chicago Tribune correspondent who has reported extensively in Africa; Anne Hull, a Washington Post national reporter who coauthored the paper's award-winning series on conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; and longtime New York Times foreign correspondent John F. Burns. This is the first time the selection committee has honored journalism focused on border violence, says committee member Rebecca Corbett, deputy Washington bureau chief for the New York Times.
Enduring death threats is not a requirement for the award, says selection committee chair Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor of the Chicago Tribune. What matters is an intrepid nature and a devotion to high-quality journalism―qualities Corchado embodies, Corbett says.
Corchado, 50, never planned on covering drug trafficking. Born in Mexico, his family legally immigrated to the United States when he was six years old, first settling in California as migrant farm workers. When he was 13, PBS interviewed Corchado for a piece on the lives of migrant workers.
"The fact that there were people interested in our situation, and how we lived, and the fact that the fields had no water, there were no toilets..just the fact that anybody cared, and they were interested in giving us a voice―I think that always kind of stayed with me as a kid," Corchado says. "When I found out that through journalism I could not only give others a voice but I could have that possibility of reconnecting with my roots and my culture as a reporter in Mexico, to me that sealed it. That's when I decided, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.' "
The family moved to Texas, and Corchado began his career as a student in El Paso, which he says provided an excellent training ground for being a foreign correspondent. His father, who wanted him to join the family restaurant business, was "horrified" by his career choice and warned him to steer clear of drug trafficking. Corchado tried to avoid covering the issue―"until the issue was something you couldn't ignore anymore."
"It wasn't something that I was looking for. It wasn't something that I wanted to do," he says. "But when it became clear that drug traffickers had really blossomed into sophisticated crime organizations, that's really when I got interested." Based in Mexico City, Corchado now spends most of his time on the border.
The spread of police and government corruption throughout Mexico has led to increased threats against journalists and ratcheted up the violence. The situation is especially dire in Ciudad Juárez, where a drug cartel war broke out two years ago. According to figures from the Morning News, nearly as many people were killed in Juárez in 2009 as in the fighting in Afghanistan.
"I don't think it's ever been a more dangerous time to practice journalism in Mexico than right now," says Angela Kocherga, the border bureau chief for Belo TV, a Texas-based television corporation owned by the same company as the Morning News. Kocherga and Corchado were forced to flee Mexico for a brief time in December 2005 when they reported on a leaked gang video that spilled cartel secrets and revealed government involvement in the cartels' operations.
"I do worry [about him], but we also can't be paralyzed by fear," says Kocherga, who is in a relationship with Corchado. "If I wasn't doing this myself, maybe I'd be more worried."
Corchado stresses that despite the threats he's faced during his career, his Mexican colleagues have it far worse.
"The danger that an American journalist faces really pales in comparison to the everyday threats that a Mexican journalist is under. It's two different worlds," he says. "I've always had the luxury of calling my editor in Dallas and saying 'Hey, things are kind of crazy here―get me out of here.'"
Tim Connolly, who oversees the Mexico bureau for the Morning News, says Corchado's long experience in the region and his wide array of contacts have helped him weather the threats.
"It's very important, because of the danger involved, to know what you're doing. He always keeps himself very informed of the situation," Connolly says. "We have the utmost confidence in him and his judgment, to both keep himself safe and to get the story."
Corchado has an impressive ability to gather information, says Ricardo Sandoval Palos, a project manager at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., and a former Morning News correspondent in Mexico City. "He knows the official sources and also the street sources. He has the ability to cultivate sources where most journalists don't normally tread."
Corchado's persistent coverage of the drug cartels since the early 2000s has laid a strong foundation for journalism on the border and jump-started coverage by other news outlets, Sandoval Palos says. "People look to him now to get the best, the most in-depth view of what's happening on the streets on both sides of the border."
The censorship imposed on Mexican journalists makes Corchado's coverage all the more essential, Kocherga says. "Now, more than ever, we need stories about what's happening."
Corchado has spoken to Mexican journalists who have told him, "We've been ordered not to say anything, we've been ordered not to print anything, we're not to report anything," he says. "You don't really know anymore what's going on in regions of Mexico; there's so much censorship."
Sandoval Palos agrees. "It's becoming ever more difficult for Mexican journalists to cover these stories," he says. "There are credible standing threats to anyone who dives into it."
As the danger mounted for Corchado, the Morning News installed bulletproof glass in the windows of its Mexico City office, suggested he drive an armored car and tried posting a security detail with him. That effort was abandoned, Corchado says, when everyone realized it wouldn't make much of a difference.
"If somebody wants to get you, they're going to get you," he says.
Corchado continued to pursue the connection between the Mexican government and the drug cartels until another serious warning in 2007: Sources in the United States told him they had heard that three journalists in Mexico were being targeted, and one would be killed in 24 hours.
"We think it's you," one source said.
The burgeoning threats made Corchado seriously re-evaluate his career. He chose to distance himself from the border for a while, and spent a year at Harvard as a 2008-2009 Nieman fellow.
"I had a whole year to reflect on it, and I thought, 'OK, well, this is not worth it,' " he says.
He returned to El Paso and Juárez determined to not get so involved in the stories he covered. But a massacre in January changed his mind. Gunmen burst into a birthday party in Juárez and killed 16 high school and university students. The shooters thought they were taking out rival gang members―but they had the wrong house.
Corchado was profoundly affected by the families' devastation. "These were the kids who were going to make it to a new life," he says. "It reignited the anger; it reignited the passion."
"How the hell can I walk away from this?" he thought at the time.
And so, despite the risks in Juárez, despite the constant fear Corchado feels for his family in El Paso and Mexico, he continues to investigate and uncover crime and corruption―while being sharply aware of the consequences.
Maybe it's not worth his life, Corchado says.
"But someone has to tell these stories. Somebody has to know these stories," he says. "Otherwise they just become invisible faces and just a bunch of numbers."