“ the Truth”

I Just Report
P H OTO G R A P H E D BY LO R I STO L L

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

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t’s just after 10:30 a.m., and a three-car convoy kicks up clouds of dust as it turns onto Tijuana’s Avenue de las Americas. The lead car, a silver Ford Explorer, screeches to a halt and blocks one end of this mostly residential street, while a second car blocks the other. Three plainclothes 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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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 fortresslike building. Jesús Blancornelas, the crusading newspaper editor Tijuana’s drug barons have vowed to kill, has survived another morning commute.

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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 spiritual godfather of modern Mexican journalism.” Despite death threats, an attempted assassination and the murder of three close associates, Blancornelas 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 publishing a letter from a cartel hit man. On the blistering morning of November 27, 1997, he and bodyguard Luis Valero were driving to work in the editor’s red Ford Explorer when Blancornelas noticed a green sedan and another car tailing them. Valero, looking in the rearview mirror, said, “This doesn’t look good.” Suddenly, the green car sped up and

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, bullfighting, football and – one of his passions – bicycling. As he cycled through

P H OTO S : ( N E W S PA P E R ) BY LO R I STO L L ; ( F E L I X B R OT H E R S ) © A S S O C I AT E D P R E S S

cut him them off. “Oh my God,” shouted Valero as he slammed the Explorer 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 continued 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. Although his wife asked him to stop reporting on the drug cartels, he was back at work after four months in hospital and rehab. His first story? Finding 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.”

(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

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 political reporter because there were no jobs for sportswriters. The government controlled the newsprint supply and doled out advertising, so the papers’ owners and editors warned him not to write about the opposition. But Jesús thought, Reporters should report the truth, no matter what the consequences. Frustrated, he lost – and quit – several jobs, usually when his editors censored 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

publish the truth. He chose the paper’s motto: “Free like the wind.” “There was nothing like Zeta before,” says Joel Simon, executive director 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 border. 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 headline, “The Mafia Invades Baja California.” Stunned readers got a glimpse into the booming Mexican drug trade. It even included the names of gov5

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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 machine gun, a warning to call off an investigation. In 1988 two gunmen killed Zeta cofounder and reporter Héctor Félix Miranda as he drove to work. The hit men were caught and convicted, but Blancornelas claims police never found out who ordered the assassination of his friend and partner; he points to a local controversial politician who employed one of the killers as a bodyguard. 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 Miranda’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 Blan6

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, elegantly tailored journalist is speechless. “Sometimes I think Zeta was a mistake,” he says. “We’ve lost three people. They are worth so much more than a newspaper!”

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fter several Mexican journalists were killed by drug traffickers and a newspaper office in Nuevo Laredo was shot up last February, some newspapers in northern Mexico ceased narco-trafficking investigations. Blancornelas understands this “self-censorship” but doesn’t agree with it. “It’s not because I’m courageous, but we owe it to our citizens to let them know what’s going on. I just report the truth.” Not courageous? Many would disagree. “He’s a hero, committed to uncovering the truth, at whatever cost,” says immigration activist Enrique Morones. “Jesús Blancornelas is in a class of his own.” When the Inter American Press Association awarded him its 2002 Grand Prize for Press Freedom, it noted, “Not even the bullets of a would–be assassin have silenced Blancornelas. He is a symbol of dignity and a model for all journalists throughout the Americas.” Blancornelas says he didn’t go look-

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, corruption and murder.” His work has put several people behind bars and identified the drug lords who are controlling 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 journalist and the government rushed to declare the 1994 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio a conspiracy, Blancornelas and his staff dug and dug, questioning everyone, 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 pessimistic 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 explains. “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 generation 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 Conversations,” is syndicated to 42 Mexican

newspapers. And, because he’s the only Zeta journalist with governmentsupplied 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, gasping 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 constant 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 instructions, “Aim for his head this time.”

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