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ND alum launches book on murder of Mexican journalist

Katherine Corcoran ’81, a freelance journalist and former visiting fellow for the Kellogg Institute, returned to Notre Dame Tuesday to launch her new book: “In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Cover-up, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press.”

Corcoran served as the Associated Press (AP) bureau chief for Mexico and Central America from 2010 to 2016. This is the first stop on her book tour.

During her time as a Kellogg fellow, Corcoran worked closely with political science professor Guillermo Trejo, who spoke on a panel with Corcoran. He runs the Notre Dame Violence and Transitional Justice Lab, and much of his research focuses on transitional violence and human rights in Latin America.

Alejandra Xanic, a Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative journalist from Mexico, joined the panel via Zoom and offered commentary on the book. American studies professor emeritus Robert Schmuhl moderated the discussion.

“In the Mouth of the Wolf” investigates the assassination of journalist Regina Martinez as she was on the verge of exposing government corruption within the Mexican government. Corcoran said that her experience as a journalist in Mexico and as one of Martinez’s contemporaries inspired her to write the book.

“Sometimes writers say that they don’t find a story; the story finds them. And that was truly the case for me in this particular instance,” Corcoran said.

On her first day as bureau chief in Mexico, the Associated Press received a threat from a drug cartel that forced Corcoran to make key decisions about correspondent security. A few days later, a journalist was murdered in the city of Ciudad Juarez.

“From then on, one of the big topics for me to handle was the safety and the attacks on journalists in Mexico,” Corcoran said.

Corcoran said that attacks on journalists in Mexico were a new phenomenon at that time, though they’ve become more frequent over the last decade. She recalled spending many nights awake as bureau chief, worrying about correspondents in the field.

Regina Martinez was murdered inside her home in April 2012. Corcoran remembers this as a turning point because this was not just a faceless, local journalist being murdered. Though Corcoran did not know Martinez personally, she had tried to hire her for a story and greatly respected her work.

“She had this sort of investigative bend,” Corcoran said of Martinez. “I thought, if she had been [in the U.S.], she would have uncovered some scandals, she would probably win some prizes, she would have been fairly well known.”

In Mexico, Martinez was not celebrated — in fact, her reporting was often thwarted. Corcoran said that Martinez’s bravery in the face of pushback inspired her to investigate the death.

“It was clear to me that [Martinez’s murder] was a campaign to silence the truth. Before her death, the government did a pretty good job of disseminating bad information about these journalists and kind of implicating that they were part of the drug cartels or they were being paid off, and that’s why they got killed,” Corcoran said

This was not the case for Martinez’s assassination. She was a well-known journalist who reported for the national magazine, “Proceso,” which is based in Mexico City.

“I started to notice that the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists were democracies like Mexico, where they had the most killings and the most attacks on journalists,” Corcoran said.

Trejo provided the context for the situation in Mexico, likening it to a war. Though Mexico is officially at peace, he said, a quarter of a million people have died in this conflict. More than 105,000 people have disappeared, a number that far outstrips the number of disappearances in Argentina or Chile under recognized dictatorships.

Trejo said that Martinez and Corcoran were reporting from the same framework in Mexico, something he calls the “gray zone of criminality.” This is not conventional white-collar corruption, but a highly organized system where government officials and members of the military collude with drug cartels and criminal groups.

“Mexico has a 99% impunity rate in this type of selective assassinations. That means that we know practically nothing about the perpetrators of many of these journalists,” Trejo said. “This book … starts digging holes in Mexico’s giant wall of impunity.”

Xanic thanked Corcoran for the book, saying that it taught her a lot about Martinez’s death as well as the craft of reporting. 

“It would be great if people in the public could read this book because I think it will explain what we as reporters conceive as our role in society and democracy,” Xanic said.

Corcoran reflected on the difficulties she faced when writing the book, reporting in a country that continues to be dangerous for journalists. Fifteen journalists have been killed in Mexico this year, an increase from years past. The process of writing the book took six years, in part because Corcoran had to navigate threats against her and the people providing her information.

“I was ready to quit right up to the very end,” Corcoran said.

Despite these obstacles, Corcoran said she hopes the book is a reminder of the importance of a free press. The recent attacks on the press in the U.S. reminded Corcoran of the narratives that Latin American “caudillos” used to maintain control.

“They actually have an official count of attacks on the press in the United States, which didn’t exist five years ago, six years ago,” Corcoran said. “Where does this road go if we … continue to control and deny the free press? That’s what the book is about.”

Contact Katie Muchnick at kmuchnic@nd.edu