About the Book by Katherine Corcoran Titled “In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Coverup, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press”

From a Los Angeles Times review by Stuart Miller of the book by Katherine Corcoran titled “In the Mouth of the Wolf: A Murder, a Coverup, and the True Cost of Silencing the Press:

The assassination of Regina Martinez in 2012 was horrific: a respected Mexican investigative journalist brutally beaten in her home before being killed. But it was the context surrounding her death that was especially distressing: 10 journalists had been killed in Mexico in 2010 alone; Martinez was the fifth killed in the state of Veracruz since Javier Duarte became governor in 2011. (Duarte is now in prison for embezzling billions of dollars.) The government’s investigation into the journalist’s death was clearly a sham, built on propaganda and false arrests.

Most Americans are unaware of tragedies like this one. Or if they heard about this one back then, they presumed it was just another case of drug cartel violence. Katherine Corcoran’s new book, “In the Mouth of the Wolf,” aims to uncover the truth behind Martinez’s murder while also underscoring the larger implications for civil society — and not just in Mexico.

Corcoran was the Associated Press regional bureau chief based in Mexico City in 2012. While she’d only briefly encountered Martinez, she was familiar with her work and knew that the killing of a journalist of her national reputation was a step beyond even for Mexico — even for Veracruz under Duarte.

“My first motivation for investigating this was that there were so many unanswered questions around these journalist killings, and I thought I could clarify more definitively what was behind them,” Corcoran said in a recent video interview from Indiana, where she’d been speaking at the University of Notre Dame, her alma mater. (She still spends most of her time in Mexico City.) “It was only getting worse, and I thought the only thing I can do as a foreign journalist is bring the story to a wider audience. Maybe that would cause more concern in Mexico.”

In her early years reporting on the case, Corcoran saw this as a definitively Mexican story, not something related to journalism in the U.S. “But then the whole context here changed and it became cautionary tale,” she said, pointing to a hostile environment for the American press thanks to the arrival of a demagogic president who attacked the truth as “fake news” and journalists as the “enemy of the people.”

“Something that would have ruined someone’s political career 10 or 20 years ago — like Herschel Walker paying for abortions — is just shrugged off, which has to do with the idea that facts aren’t important,” Corcoran added. “In political campaigns we’re seeing ‘unfriendly’ media being excluded from events. The idea that politicians only want a mouthpiece is common in a way we’ve never seen before.”

This, she said, is exactly how the system functions in Mexico, and we should read her book not merely as the investigation of a corrupt land beyond our borders but as a harbinger of our future at home: “We have traditionally felt none of this stuff could happen in our system, but I wanted to show the erosion has already started.”

Corcoran doggedly pursued evidence to try to pin down the person or people behind the killing. She interviews journalists, family members and others about what stories Martinez had been working on and who might have felt threatened. She also dug into everyone linked to the case in any way.

Many times Corcoran almost walked away, both because so many people were uncooperative, leaving her stuck in numerous dead ends, and because she feared for the safety of those who did cooperate, especially Martinez’s nephew and the journalists who had worked with her. (Only two people took Corcoran up on her offer to change their names. “I wanted to show how brave these people are in the face of these risks to get this story out,” she said.)

But the book also strives to bring Martinez, her friends, her mentees and her enemies to life, creating a portrait of a culture where official autocracy is barely in the rear-view mirror and intrepid journalists struggle — frequently at great personal risk — to prompt change or at least some accountability.

While Corcoran narrows her gaze to a single suspect by the book’s end, that ultimately was not her main concern.

“I discovered enough for an angle of investigation by authorities,” she said of her prime suspect. He still wields power in Veracruz and the government doesn’t seem inclined to pursue the case. “But you never know. Politics is always changing, so it’s worth putting this out there. Still, the rest of the story is as or maybe more important than the whodunit. I wanted to explain the why.”

Narcotics have been responsible for some journalists’ deaths, but Martinez’s case was more devastating because her killer walked the halls of power.

There’s a criminal governance in Mexico that is sometimes aligned with the narcos but sometimes is just the people in charge creating their own criminal enterprises,” Corcoran said. “I wanted to explain to the world what is behind this. Outside of war zones, when journalists are attacked it’s more often because they are uncovering criminal activity by the government. These governments prey on their own people and that’s why they need the silence.”

Even though the book is done, Corcoran remains committed to holding those in power accountable in Mexico and beyond. “I’m not going to drop the subject because it’s very important,” she said, “and I see parallels between Mexico and what’s happening in the United States.”

Corcoran runs a program with a Mexican journalist training editors in investigative reporting. It is crucial, she says, as Mexico appears to be backsliding. The country had seven decades of one-party rule before creating multi-party elections, but she says free elections without institutional reform leave the country open to autocracy’s return.

Journalists have been complicit in this. Corcoran’s book documents how pervasive corruption has been in the press. Some reporters were easily bought off while others held back out of fear for their lives. Violence persisted because it worked: “Part of the reason so many journalists were killed was the press reaction was to silence itself and shut down, which was what they wanted.”

This at least, Corcoran believes, has begun to change: “The quality of journalism is improving and there is also a dramatic increase in the solidarity among the journalists.”

She hopes her book can also shine some light closer to home. “We have to help the public understand what we do,” Corcoran said. “When you make decisions about voting or hear about contaminated water supplies, it’s journalists who uncover that and help people live their lives. Independently reported information is necessary to the freedom of society.” This is one unchangeable fact, Corcoran believes, that knows no borders.
Also see the New York Times review by Mark Bowden headlined “A Reporter’s Baffling Murder and a Crisis of Press Freedom.”

Those of us lucky enough to practice journalism in a country where, with rare exceptions, we do not risk death, torture or imprisonment for our work, may find it hard to imagine what it is like for those who do.

In her book “In the Mouth of the Wolf,” Katherine Corcoran investigates the murder of a fellow reporter in Mexico, offering a chilling and nuanced look at press freedom in a country persistently rated among the most dangerous in the world for journalists. At least 12 have been killed there so far this year.

Regina Martínez was beaten and strangled in her home in Xalapa in April 2012, one of six journalists murdered in Mexico that year. She was a fiercely independent woman, 48 years old, who had exposed human rights abuses and government corruption in her home state of Veracruz for decades. The official investigation concluded that she was the victim of a crime of passion by a jilted lover who had robbed her. A suspect confessed, but none of the evidence added up. Those who knew Martínez considered his story preposterous. He later retracted his confession and said he had been tortured into making it.

Corcoran, who was then the Mexico and Central America bureau chief for The Associated Press, had never met Martínez apart from one phone conversation, but she felt a deep connection. Both women had begun their careers in the 1980s, inspired by the role of journalists in exposing government betrayal and failure. For Corcoran, the work had led to ever more exciting and lucrative opportunities. She was managing a team investigating extrajudicial killings by the Mexican Army. Her work was important and exciting, and with her A.P. credentials and American citizenship, plus vacations home, she could pursue it in relative safety and comfort.

Martínez, on the other hand, lived her work. Writing for Mexican newspapers and magazines that often challenged and criticized powerful interests, she had no protection from the cartel leaders and government officials stung by her reporting. She labored for small wages and accumulated powerful enemies. Corcoran, like other American journalists working overseas in dangerous places, could only admire at arm’s length the bravery and dedication of reporters like Martínez, for whom the job was, as Corcoran puts it, “an act of faith, a belief that what you did was essential to society and human freedom.” Now Martínez had been killed. Corcoran felt a tug of professional conscience. How could she let the state’s flimsy account of the murder stand? So she set out, at considerable risk, to find the truth herself.

What follows is a murder mystery but also, more important, a portrait of a nation where no one knows what to believe, or whom to trust.

“A society without truth is a scary place to live,” Corcoran writes.

With those in power free to manufacture false narratives to serve their ends — and fully backed by law enforcement — journalists who don’t wish to live as targets, as Martínez did, become complicit in ways small and large. They report what they are told to report and ignore what they are told to ignore. When Corcoran meets a Mexican newspaper editor, a woman educated abroad and a graduate of a prestigious American fellowship program, she is stunned to learn that the editor “had no problem following directions from drug gangs on what to report.”

“If it’s a question of life or death, I have no trouble making a decision,” the editor tells her. “The lives of my reporters are most important.”

Corcoran, who also ran a team but had the strength and security of a global news agency behind her, realized that if she were in a different position, she might feel compelled to do the same. “The American way of fighting back — of exposing the bad guys, of believing that publishing what you know is power — didn’t hold up in a place with shaky rule of law.”

The author’s search for answers leads her into a hall of mirrors. Was Martínez’s death a cartel hit? A crooked politician’s payback? Corcoran seeks out a colorful array of characters who worked and lived alongside Martínez, colleagues and friends — even purported lovers — and finds she can trust none of them. Even those closest to Martínez may have been paid informants, or paid liars, while some of those who admit they spied on her seem to have genuinely liked her and wanted to help her. Corcoran meets with polished, seemingly genuine government officials who confidently repeat a narrative that she knows to be false.

Even those who appear most eager to help her become suspect. A polite man she does not know approaches her in a restaurant — tall, white-haired, neatly dressed, well spoken — and says he overheard her conversation and felt he could offer valuable inside information. Was he innocent or sinister? Uncertain, she gives him her phone number.

She writes: “We all started to doubt one another. It was the power of paranoia.”

Corcoran perseveres. I will not give away where all this leads, other than to say that in nonfiction the journey can be more important than the ending. Those of us raised on detective novels, TV shows and movies want stories with a satisfying conclusion, something rare in real life. She is a fine and honest writer, a dogged reporter, and her story paints a dystopian portrait of our southern neighbor, where decades of rampant impunity have led to horrific abuses of power. More than 100,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since such records have been kept, most of them since the drug wars began in 2006.

Martínez and other murdered reporters are only a small share of an extraordinary toll, but as Corcoran makes clear, the impact of their loss is enormous. “In the Mouth of the Wolf” shows the consequences of a press corps ruled by terror and derided by the powerful: news organizations devoted to propaganda, a nation where citizens can no longer discern or even understand the difference between activism and journalism. When journalists are afraid to report honestly, society grows morally and intellectually rudderless.

So Corcoran is recording a tragedy far more sweeping, and perhaps familiar, than the death of Regina Martínez, which is awful enough. As she pursues the truth about one brazen attack on the press, she watches the changing scene in America with dismay:

“My country started to look more like Mexico. Truth became optional; and information, a weapon used to control and manipulate. The independent press, the bedrock of our democracy, was called ‘the enemy of the people,’ corrupt purveyors of ‘fake news.’ The ‘good’ press was one that supported the government, something I had never encountered in the United States in my 30-plus-year career.”

In that sense, her book is more than a mystery; it’s a cautionary tale.

Mark Bowden is the author of “Black Hawk Down” and, most recently, “The Steal,” with Matthew Teague.

Speak Your Mind