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PHOTOGRAPHED BY LORI STOLL

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IJust

Report

the

Truth

Throughout his career, Mexican journalist Jesús Blancornelas has exposed crime and corruption, regardless of the personal cost

BY

ROBERT

KIENER

I t’s just after 10:30 a.m., and a three-car convoy kicks up clouds of dust as it turns onto Tijuana’s Av- enue de las Americas. The lead car, a silver Ford Ex- plorer, screeches to a halt

and blocks one end of this mostly residential street, while a second car blocks the other. Three plain- clothes soldiers wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying automatic rifles jump out to scan the streetscape. Four more armed guards pour out of the third car. With military precision, an armour-plated Grand Marquis backs into the entrance of the weekly news-

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PHOTOS: (NEWSPAPER) BY LORI STOLL; (FELIX BROTHERS) © ASSOCIATED PRESS

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paper Zeta, and the high gate is slammed shut. Surrounded by bodyguards, one of the most heavily protected men in Mexico emerges from the car and is hurried into the two-storey fortress- like building. Jesús Blancornelas, the crusading newspaper editor Tijuana’s drug barons have vowed to kill, has survived another morning commute.

C ourageous. Stubborn.

A ruthless pursuer of

the truth. Blancornelas, 69, has been called all

of these, and more, as

he has devoted his life

to shining a light on

Mexico’s notorious “narco traffickers.” The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists calls him “the spir- itual godfather of modern Mexican journalism.” Despite death threats, an attempted assassination and the mur- der of three close associates, Blan- cornelas has not stopped publishing the colourful weekly newspaper, with a circulation 30,000, he built from scratch. Blancornelas has paid dearly for his commitment to the truth after pub- lishing a letter from a cartel hit man. On the blistering morning of Novem- ber 27, 1997, he and bodyguard Luis Valero were driving to work in the ed- itor’s red Ford Explorer when Blan- cornelas noticed a green sedan and another car tailing them. Valero, look- ing in the rearview mirror, said, “This doesn’t look good.” Suddenly, the green car sped up and

cut him them off. “Oh my God,” shouted Valero as he slammed the Ex- plorer into reverse. The car lurched as it was sprayed with bullets. Valero managed to push Blancornelas to the floor but was killed as several assassins surrounded the Explorer and contin- ued firing. Blancornelas, covered in shattered glass, slumped over. He had been shot in the ribcage, liver and lung, but was alive. Then a gunman approached the

car to make sure both men were dead – but was killed instantly by a fellow assassin’s bullet that ricocheted into his eye. In hospital Blancornelas received the last rites but stubbornly clung to life and eventually recovered. Al- though his wife asked him to stop re- porting on the drug cartels, he was back at work after four months in hos- pital and rehab. His first story? Find- ing out who ordered his assassination. “He’s got ink in his veins,” says David Gaddis Smith, editor of the San Diego Union Tribune column “The Week in Mexico” and a longtime Blancornelas watcher. “He keeps fighting.” “If I quit,” Blancornelas says, “my attackers might go after other people.”

The guns. The danger. The killings. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nearly 50 years ago, when he began writing for his small hometown newspaper in San Luis Potosí, Jesús Blancornelas dreamed of being a sportswriter for a large daily. He reported on boxing, bull- fighting, football and – one of his pas- sions – bicycling. As he cycled through

one of his pas- sions – bicycling. As he cycled through the town’s busy streets to

the town’s busy streets to interviews, the cub reporter imagined how one day he’d report on the Tour de France. He met his wife, Genoveva Villalón, while working on the San Luis Potosí newspaper, and they moved to Tijuana, where Jesús began working as a polit- ical reporter because there were no jobs for sportswriters. The govern- ment controlled the newsprint supply and doled out advertising, so the pa- pers’ owners and editors warned him not to write about the opposition. But

Jesús thought, Reporters should re- port the truth, no matter what the con- sequences.

Frustrated, he lost – and quit – sev- eral jobs, usually when his editors cen- sored him. With three young sons and a wife to support, he and a friend and fellow reporter, Héctor Félix Miranda, started Zeta in 1980. Finally, Jesús could

“I JUST REPORT THE TRUTH”

1980. Finally, Jesús could “I JUST REPORT THE TRUTH” (Left) When assassins tried to silence Jesús

(Left) When assassins tried to silence Jesús Blancornelas for good, the story was put on Zeta’s front page; (right) Blancornelas has exposed drug lords such as Benjamin and Ramon Felix

publish the truth. He chose the paper’s motto: “Free like the wind.” “There was nothing like Zeta be- fore,” says Joel Simon, executive di- rector of the Committee to Protect Journalists and a former Mexico-based reporter. “Jesús forbade his reporters from taking bribes, and he covered all political parties.” The weekly didn’t flinch from investigating powerful and violent Tijuana-based cartels that moved marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine and heroin across the US bor- der. Many of its readers soon agreed with such advertising slogans as “The truth is known on Fridays.” One of Zeta’s biggest scoops was in 1985 with a story with the banner head- line, “The Mafia Invades Baja Califor- nia.” Stunned readers got a glimpse into the booming Mexican drug trade. It even included the names of gov-

PHOTOGRAPHED BY LORI STOLL

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ernment officials Zeta claimed were being bought off by the cartel. Angered, local government officials bought every copy off the newsstands. The next week, Blancornelas reprinted the expose, with a “Censored” banner across the front page – and photos of the government workers buying up the papers. As Blancornelas and his associates were quick to learn, shining a light on Tijuana’s cartels came at a heavy price. More than once the narco-traffickers told Zeta staff to stop writing about them, or else. One night a gunman strafed the headquarters with a ma- chine gun, a warning to call off an in- vestigation. In 1988 two gunmen killed Zeta co- founder and reporter Héctor Félix Mi- randa as he drove to work. The hit men were caught and convicted, but Blancornelas claims police never found out who ordered the assassina- tion of his friend and partner; he points to a local controversial politician who employed one of the killers as a body- guard. The politician has denied being involved, but since the murder every issue of Zeta has run a full-page picture of Miranda asking him, “Why did your bodyguard assassinate me?” Assassins struck again in 2004, killing Zeta editor Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco, who had written about narco trafficking and was investigating Mi- randa’s murder. Says Blancornelas, “The drug smugglers know they cannot buy us, so they’ve decided to kill us.” The murders of three close friends and the assassination attempt on Blan-

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cornelas have taken their toll on this much-honoured journalist. As he shows a visitor pictures of his three murdered colleagues hanging in the newspaper’s lobby, he shakes his head. For a moment the soft-spoken, ele- gantly tailored journalist is speech- less. “Sometimes I think Zeta was a mistake,” he says. “We’ve lost three people. They are worth so much more than a newspaper!”

A fter several Mexi- can journalists were killed by drug traf- fickers and a news- paper office in Nuevo Laredo was shot up last Febru-

ary, some newspapers in northern Mexico ceased narco-trafficking in- vestigations. Blancornelas understands this “self-censorship” but doesn’t agree with it. “It’s not because I’m coura- geous, but we owe it to our citizens to let them know what’s going on. I just report the truth.” Not courageous? Many would dis- agree. “He’s a hero, committed to un- covering the truth, at whatever cost,” says immigration activist Enrique Mo- rones. “Jesús Blancornelas is in a class of his own.” When the Inter Ameri- can Press Association awarded him its 2002 Grand Prize for Press Freedom, it noted, “Not even the bullets of a would–be assassin have silenced Blan- cornelas. He is a symbol of dignity and a model for all journalists throughout the Americas.” Blancornelas says he didn’t go look-

“I JUST REPORT THE TRUTH”

says he didn’t go look- “I JUST REPORT THE TRUTH” Blancornelas’s son, René Blanco Villalón, is

Blancornelas’s son, René Blanco Villalón, is carrying on Zeta’s fearless journalism

ing for trouble. “If I’d been based in, say, Washington, D.C., I would have reported on Watergate. In Tijuana our biggest story has been drugs, corrup- tion and murder.” His work has put several people behind bars and iden- tified the drug lords who are control- ling the country’s major cartels. Blancornelas cannot easily conduct interviews in person. But thanks to his almost 50 years as a journalist, he has an impressive Rolodex of sources. “People from all over the country, all walks of life, call me with informa-

tion,” he explains. He gets calls and e-mails from disenchanted police, even drug dealers in jail. People trust him not to reveal their identities. “I check every lead.” When virtually every Mexican jour- nalist and the government rushed to declare the 1994 assassination of pres- idential candidate Luis Donaldo Colo- sio a conspiracy, Blancornelas and his staff dug and dug, questioning every- one, double-checking facts – and proved the gunman acted alone. “They were the only journalists in the country who

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got that story right,” remembers Smith. The grey-haired journalist is pes- simistic that drug trafficking, and the corruption and murder it spawns, will disappear any time soon. Why? “There is no drug cartel in Mexico that does not have police on its payrolls,” he ex- plains. “This problem will take years to clean up.”

Although Blancornelas has handed over the day-to-day administration of Zeta to his son, René Blanco Villalón, and Adela Navarro, his influence is everywhere. “Jesús has inspired a gen- eration of journalists,” says Simon. Mexican reporters Darío Fritz and María Idalia Gómez, who won the 2005 National Journalism Award for their investigative work, say, “His work should be studied in journalism schools everywhere.” Blancornelas has written 11 books, including the bestselling El Cartel, a biography of the Arellano brothers. His weekly column, “Private Conver- sations,” is syndicated to 42 Mexican

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newspapers. And, because he’s the only Zeta journalist with government- supplied bodyguards, Blancornelas sometimes puts his byline on a staffer’s story that’s deemed dangerous. When René rushed to the scene of his father’s attempted assassination in 1997, he found him near death, gasp- ing on a stretcher. “I was terrified for him, but I raised my camera and took his picture. He would have killed me if I hadn’t done my job.” The photo ran on Zeta ’s front page. Jesús Blancornelas will continue to report for Zeta, write his column and come into the office. And he will keep living in his virtual prison – even his home is ringed by a three-metre-high wall and bodyguards. They are a con- stant reminder of the death threats that remain over his head. As Blancornelas explains, “After the failed assassination, the FBI told me they’d known of two contracts on my life.” One was for $80,000. The other, for $250,000, included the chilling in- structions, “Aim for his head this time.”