Friday, November 20, 2009

Inside México talks with Dudley Althaus

I know and trust this guy's reports on Mexico.

International dateline

Inside México talks with Dudley Althaus

By Inside México | Original Print Publication: February, 2009

Dudley Althaus has lived in Mexico since 1987. One of the longest-serving foreign correspondents in Mexico, he has weathered the drug wars, hurricanes, and NAFTA. He parses the coverage of violence, the future of international news, and what it means to be an expat.

Inside México: You were just up on the border, and had a pretty grim story in the Houston Chronicle on Jan. 25. How was that trip?

Dudley Althaus: It was fine. I’ve been in Mexico twenty-one years. Drug violence is nothing new here. The trip was a little bit more “on your guard,” but you don’t walk around paranoid. I think Mexican journalists are in much more danger than US guys.

IM: Do you think violence is covered out of proportion to the rest of the news in Mexico?

DA: I don’t think it’s being covered out of proportion. Look, I wish I was covering other things. Ninety percent of my stories last year were about drug violence. We’re not making this stuff up. This is historic violence.

Juárez had 1,633 murders last year. Of those 1,633, the police had probably solved six. El Paso [Texas] had thirteen through October. Of those, they had solved twelve.

Mexico never had violence like this before. And it’s gotten increasingly violent over the last ten to fifteen years. It’s worrying, and I think people should worry. I think Mexico let this go too long… the Mexican tendency is to ignore this problem. They didn’t deal with this.

IM: Ambassador Garza just left. How would you compare him to previous Ambassadors to Mexico?

DA: Compared to other political appointees… Garza’s been quite effective. I didn’t see any major blowups he might have caused. But that might have been as much about changes in Mexico as Garza’s skills. I think that Mexicans in the past fifteen to twenty years have gotten much more worldly. Back in 1985, it was like, “how dare you criticize us.”

IM: Why did you come to Mexico?

DA: I mixed journalism with Latin American studies at grad school at the University of Texas in Austin. Then I got a job at the Brownsville Herald. That’s where I really learned Mexico, in Matamoros [across the border from Brownsville]. I got there in January, 1984. That was when people started hearing about Juan Garcia Abrego. He was basically the founder of the Gulf Cartel.

In 1984 a [one kilo cocaine seizure] was front page news. Five years later, in 1989, they seized nineteen tons of cocaine in a house. That’s a pretty dramatic difference. That’s how the Gulf Cartel got started.

IM: As a journalist, how has your perspective on Mexico changed in the time you’ve been here?

DA: My perspective has probably stayed about the same. I think I was very happy to see the one-party system fall. The country is moving forward a lot. There’s much more information coming out of the central government now. Having said that, it’s nowhere near where myself and many other people thought it would be after the fall of one-party rule. It’s not paradise.

IM: Many foreign correspondents spend less than five years in a place. What are the pros and cons to having been in Mexico this long?

DA: It used to be three years [for a foreign correspondent’s term] and then you moved on. The idea is that you keep people fresh… and you also don’t go native. I think the freshness is an advantage. I’ve probably gotten stale a couple of times.

On the other hand, a lot of people come in and they don’t speak Spanish very well, or at all. They’re just getting up to speed as they get transferred out again.

IM: What do you consider to be the important stories in Mexico right now?

DA: Violence and governability are extremely important. Water. Urbanization—the tremendous pressure on the city. Mexico’s population growth and jobs. Farmers. The oil industry.

IM: Talking about newspapers in general, where do you see international news coverage headed?

DA: Collapse. There are seven or eight US newspapers that are not here anymore. It’s grim. I think there’s interest in international news, but it’s not being valued as much anymore.

A model will emerge, but I think the golden age of foreign correspondents is over.

That’s Cantina talk. It’s getting to be like going to a wake all the time when you get together with the correspondents.

IM: Do you consider yourself an expat?

DA: Yeah. I don’t know what that means exactly. I’ve lived out of the country for the past twenty-one years. This is my home more than the United States.

I wanted to be in the States for the Inauguration. I’m 100 percent American. But at the same time, I feel comfortable in both places. I see good things in both societies. I guess that’s an expat.

I always thought I’d go home again, back to the States somewhere. [But] this is more my home. I don’t know where I’d go [in the US]. I guess I’m kind of rootless.

IM: Do you have a favorite Mexico moment?

DA: I've been here long enough that I'm kind of past the folkloric thing. My personal relationship and friends are very important to me. But beyond that, I'd say: bodysurfing under a setting sun in Puerto Escondido; the blooming Jacarandas in Mexico City; Day of the Dead ofrendas: talking my way into unknown provincial villages and having the privilege to share people's lives, if only for a while; watching a lightning storm over the distant mountains in the northern desert; eating a good taco on a Mexico City street, preferably late at night with friends and an ice cold beer.

Dudley Althaus is the Mexico correspondent for the Houston Chronicle. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, he served in the Navy and studied at Miami University of Ohio. He holds a Masters from the University of Texas at Austin. He has reported from South America, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Althaus lives in Mexico City’s San Ángel neighborhood.

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