Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post. Her biography of Latin American founder Simon Bolivar was published in April.

Eight years ago, in an interview at the University of Virginia, former secretary of state George Shultzcommented that U.S. foreign policy would do well to begin with our neighbors. If the neighborhood is healthy, he said — if, say, U.S.-Mexico affairs are humming — the world as a whole stands to profit.

No secretary of state had put it quite that way. Henry Kissinger famously dismissed everything south of the border as irrelevant, warranting attention only when Latin American “irresponsibility” required U.S. intervention. John F. Kennedy suggested that an alliance might be beneficial, but between 1961 and 1963, he sent special action forces into the Canal Zone and, under the auspices of the School of the Americas, trained 16,000 Latin American personnel in counterinsurgency warfare. Indeed, all the way back to the U.S. founders, if Latin America was thought of at all, it was as a pesky, ungovernable ghetto. As President John Adams put it, “You might as well talk about establishing democracies among the birds, beasts, and fishes as among the Spanish American people.”

And so it has been for almost 250 years, until time, trade and the tides of immigration have made “Spanish American people” very present in American life. Today, one out of 10 people living in the United States is of Mexican origin. Forty years from now, one out of three will claim Hispanic ancestry. As Shultz might put it, those neighbors are more than neighbors now; they are cousins, sisters and brothers, and they own a few rooms of the house.

Nowhere is that kinship more evident than in the American Southwest, where lands once owned by Mexico — including Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California — are riven by a 2,000-mile border. Families are caught on opposite sides of it. That much is certainly true for Alfredo Corchado, whose electrifying book “Midnight in Mexico” recounts a harried life in those borderlands.

“Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness” by Alfredo Corchado (Penguin Press)

Corchado is the son of a bracero worker, a guest laborer who crossed from Durango in the 1960s to work the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Growing up in a cramped trailer, Corchado helped his parents pick melons, lettuce, beets, “every imaginable crop to help keep America fed.” In time, his parents earned green cards and saved enough money to start a modest restaurant in El Paso, across the bridge from Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez.

An ambitious, newly minted American, Corchado excelled in his studies, became a reporter for El Paso’s Herald-Post and the Wall Street Journal and, finally, in 1994, an international correspondent in Mexico for the Dallas Morning News. Criss-crossing the border to cover immigrant life and eventually settling in Mexico City, he was happy to be back in his native land, which held many memories and a host of family members. He was there in 2000 when Mexico broke convention, tossed out the ruling party, elected Vicente Fox president and set its sights on first-world status. He was there when the country seemed poised to soar. And he was there when it fell apart.

Enterprising, obsessed — a journalist with informants on both sides of the border — Corchado found himself documenting a mounting bedlam. By 2006, as Fox ceded the presidency to Felipe Calderon, as institutions collapsed and as lawlessness threw open the doors to organized drug cartels, Mexico was hurtling into chaos. It had become “the land bridge between the top drug-consuming market in the world [the United States] and the Andean cocaine supply. In time, Mexico would become more of a victim to the United States, as American demand for drugs would increase while Mexico’s weak institutions would further crumble under the stress of the growing cartel power.”

Corchado followed every lead that came his way: evidence that Mexican officials were being bought off with cartel money, signs that the U.S. government’s hands weren’t exactly clean. In 2007, as he struggled to report the intricate circuitry of drug money flowing this way and that over the border, a U.S. investigator notified him that the cartels had issued an order to kill him.

By then, it seemed no one in Mexico was safe. Young women in Juarez were being murdered by the hundreds. Mexican journalists were being mowed down in their chairs. Drug hoodlums terrorized streets in the bright light of day, leaving long wakes of mutilated corpses. When Calderon sought George W. Bush’s military assistance and announced that Mexico would no longer tolerate gang reign, a drug war was unleashed for which no one was prepared, least of all U.S. authorities.

In the intervening six years, Mexico has suffered unspeakable losses. “By the time this book is published,” Corchado writes, “nearly one hundred thousand people will have disappeared or been killed.” It is a conservative reckoning. One Mexican journalist places the casualties at 80,000 dead and 30,000 disappeared. If so, it’s a body count that exceeds American deaths in the Vietnam War. It’s a hecatomb that has left Mexican towns numb with grief and U.S. citizens all too aware that a quick spree across the border could be fatal. There are El Paso residents who haven’t crossed the bridge to Juarez in years.

Even as he tries to batten down that story, Corchado documents his own race against time with white-knuckle alarm. Searching for clues about the death threat against him, he gives readers an intimate sense of the murky alliances: the drug thugs who lunch with U.S. government officials, the cheeky prostitute who holds more valuable information than any high-level bureaucrat, the broadcast journalist who can’t tear herself away from the gore. And he tells of the ways that covering a war zone — and being a primary target — can play havoc with one’s love life and family. “You’ve stopped being a reporter,” his girlfriend tells him. “You’re part of the story now.”

The portrait that Corchado paints is all the more heartrending for Mexico’s extraordinary promise. Here is a country that stands every chance to pull itself into an unprecedented era of abundance. Here is a nation known for its vast cultural heritage, a populace renowned for its national pride and work ethic. Six months ago, the Economist called Mexico Latin America’s second-largest economy, a country whose financial power outpaced Brazil’s last year and will grow twice as fast in 2013. Mexico’s net emigration is down to zero; its fertility rate is plunging to a level below that of the United States; its poverty has been mitigated by universal free health care and impressive economic remittances from its immigrants. Investment is at a peak: In Guanajuato, Mazda and Honda are building immense factories; in Puebla, Audi is constructing a $1.3 billion plant. The fashion industry, also, has found a viable home in Mexico.

Growth is not a problem. It is security and the drug war that are Mexico’s largest worries. The country cannot afford for its police and military to be bought off by Zeta or Sinaloa or Gulf cartel goons. That cycle of corruption needs to be broken.

Watching Corchado struggle in the crucible, trying to do the right thing by his two homelands, one can’t help being reminded of Shultz’s counsel. The dawn that will follow this “midnight in Mexico” will come only if we take some of the responsibility. The health of this neighbor is integral to our own.

Marie Arana is a writer at large for The Washington Post. Her biography of Latin American founder Simon Bolivar was published in April.


A Reporter’s Journey Through a
Country’s Descent Into Darkness

By Alfredo Corchado, Penguin Press. 284 pp. $27.95