News At Any Cost

At a glance, the office of Tijuana's weekly newspaper, Zeta, gives just a hint of the kind of publication that is produced inside. It sits on a residential street in a middle-class neighborhood, and only a small plaque seems to distinguish it from the rest of the block's modest family homes. Look closer and a theme emerges: the building is set back from the street, with much of it obscured by a concrete wall; no first-floor windows are visible; and the front door has heavy grating.

Watching the paper's editor and publisher, J. Jesús Blancornelas, arrive for work dispels any doubts. A caravan of three vehicles pulls up, two Suburbans and a blacked-out Chevrolet Caprice. Out pile fourteen serious-looking men -- soldiers in the Mexican Army -- bristling with M-16 assault rifles, shotguns, copious clips of ammunition, and body armor. That level of protection would be surprising for a journalist in Baghdad, let alone for one in a quiet neighborhood thirty minutes from downtown San Diego.

The precautions are for good reason, though. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a significant majority of illegal drugs destined for the U.S. -- marijuana, cocaine, and heroin -- transit through Mexico. Tijuana, host to one of the world's most heavily traveled border crossings, is a strategic chokepoint. In the first four months of this year, there were 163 homicides in Tijuana, many drug-related.

Local journalists know how dangerous it is to shine a spotlight on the trade and the corruption it fuels among Mexican officials. Nine reporters have been killed in northern Mexico in the past decade, with the perpetrators enjoying what the Committee to Protect Journalists calls a "nearly perfect record of impunity." In such an environment, Zeta stands out, both for the work it has produced and the costs it has incurred.

Since Blancornelas started Zeta twenty-five years ago, it has been challenging the nexus between drug lords, local officials, and business leaders. As a result, Blancornelas has been wounded in an assassination attempt, and two top Zeta editors have been killed, the most recent one in June of last year.

The deaths have had a curious effect on Blancornelas. He evinces a determination to continue, but a regret for ever having started. It's a mix of emotions that can't be made any simpler by the fact that many journalists in Tijuana see Blancornelas not as a hero, but as obsessed and vainglorious. Meanwhile, the man Blancornelas believes is behind at least the first murder at Zeta is not only still free, he's Tijuana's new mayor.

"If my colleagues hadn't been killed," says Blancornelas, "I would have retired a long time ago. But I can't now. I need to fight and to clarify what's happened. That's my purpose."

We are in Zeta's conference room, where the windows look out onto a wall inches away. Blancornelas is primly dressed in a blue blazer and pants, trailed by a whiff of cologne. He speaks in precise, measured tones and, at least with strangers, smiles little.

Blancornelas did not start out as a muckraker, or dream of being one. "I was a sportswriter," he says. "But when I arrived at the paper that had hired me in Tijuana they said they only had an opening for politics. Thirty-five years later here I am."

It has been a circuitous path. With his assignment to cover politics, Blancornelas quickly gravitated toward covering the corruption endemic in the system. As Mexico's press slowly retreated in recent decades from its traditions of self-censorship and domination by the state, Blancornelas was alternately promoted and forced out of a series of papers. In 1977, frustrated after an owner had quashed one of his columns, Blancornelas and a colleague, Héctor Félix Miranda, co-founded the independent newspaper ABC. Blancornelas quickly found himself facing questionable charges of fraud, and he fled to the U.S. In 1980, he and Félix started Zeta. Though the paper was based in Tijuana, Blancornelas worked in exile in the San Diego area. Two years later, after Mexico inaugurated a new president, the charges were dropped and Blancornelas returned to Tijuana.

In the early 1980s, Tijuana was breaking free of its traditional role as a party town for American sailors and teenagers. At the center of the change was a drug cartel known as the Arellano Brothers. They were stunningly violent -- victims were often not just killed, but tortured and dismembered -- and for years effectively controlled Tijuana, living openly and opulently. Unlike many local papers, Zeta did not shy away from the Arellanos. One cover story in 1985 announced, THE MAFIA INVADES BAJA CALIFORNIA. In it, the paper peeled away some of the mystery surrounding the gang, explaining how it arrived in Tijuana, the local officials on the take, and even their addresses. In response, Blancornelas says, the government bought every copy of Zeta on the street. Zeta responded by printing another batch, this time with CENSORED! splashed across the top.

The paper was harassed from the start -- shots fired at the office, a break-in where nothing was stolen but the papers' files were rifled through. Then, eight years after its founding, Zeta suffered its first casualty.

Zeta's cofounder, Félix, chronicled life in Tijuana in an irreverent column, which he signed "Félix the Cat." It was a sort of Page Six for the drug-running and high-society crowd, and loaded with innuendo.

One of Félix's favorite targets was Jorge Hank Rhon, a local businessman who was elected mayor in August 2004. Hank Rhon was the son of one of Mexico's most prominent politicians, and came to Tijuana to run the city's storied race track, Agua Caliente, which the DEA has long suspected of money laundering. He was also an eccentric, owner of a private zoo with an estimated 20,000 animals, and the host of lavish parties.

Hank and Félix were initially friends, and Félix was invited to Hank's parties, presumably so he would provide favorable coverage. But the two had an unexplained falling out, after which Félix persistently needled Hank in his column, dubbing him (in a reference to Hank's alleged appetite for cocaine) the "Abominable Snowman."

In April 1988, not long after their friendship disintegrated, Félix was murdered. Two assailants were caught and convicted a few months later. Both worked in security at Hank's race track, and one was Hank's chief bodyguard. They acknowledged that they had hid at the track after the murder, and according to coverage in Zeta, cashed a $10,000 ticket while there. Hank, who has consistently denied any involvement, reportedly paid for his chief bodyguard's defense.

Blancornelas recalls the investigation, or lack of one. "They arrested two people," he says, "but never the intellectual author." Every week since the killing, Zeta has run an ad: "Jorge Hank Rhon, Why did your bodyguard kill me? -- Héctor 'Gato' Félix Miranda."

The attack, and Zeta's response to it, would become part of a pattern. Blancornelas launched his own investigation, often scooping the police. At times, though, it became unclear which was more important, the journalism or the investigation itself. Soon after the killing, one Zeta cover announced, THERE WERE FOUR. Blancornelas says that at the time he knew of only three suspects but decided to publish the wrong number in the hope that other papers, driven by competitive zeal and a desire to prove Zeta wrong, would get the police to divulge more information.

In the years following the assassination, Zeta's coverage continued to center on Félix's murder, Hank, and, particularly the Arellano gang. In 1997, Blancornelas wrote a piece connecting one Arellano henchman to the murder of two Mexican soldiers. Four days later, two cars cut Blancornelas off as he was on the way to work and fired roughly 200 bullets into his car. Blancornelas was hit four times but survived because his driver, who died, shielded him.

Since the attack, Blancornelas travels only between home and work, and is never without his platoon of bodyguards. "I don't go to the movies. I don't go to restaurants," he says. "I go back to my house Friday afternoon and stay until Monday morning. I don't leave for anything."

His reporting and sacrifices have made Blancornelas something of a cause célèbre. He's been profiled in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, and has won a raft of U.S.-based awards. The general picture painted is of a lone vigilante in a sea of corruption.

It's an image that irks many in the local press corps. "Blancornelas wants to think he's the only honest journalist in Tijuana, and it's just not that way," says Dora Elena Cortes, an award-winning journalist who has received her share of threats for reporting on narco-trafficking. "He's an excellent reporter. But he's also a magnificent PR man."

The distaste seems to go both ways. When I name a handful of journalists I plan on contacting, Blancornelas says that most aren't worth my time. One local reporter, who preferred not to be named, talks of respecting him but is irked by what the reporter perceives as Blancornelas's mix of haughtiness and paranoia. "The closer you get to Blancornelas, the more you see him as a human being," says the journalist. "He's arrogant and not generous with other reporters. But he's also brave and has given his life to a cause. Both perspectives are true."

Other papers report on the cartels, but rarely do they dig as deep as Zeta. Last year, for instance, the paper published a piece on the murder of a former state attorney, alleging complicity between the Arellanos and the local police. Francisco Ortiz Franco, the reporter who wrote the article, was so concerned about the fallout that Blancornelas agreed to put his byline on it instead.

Blancornelas is sixty-eight. He had been talking about finally stepping back and handing Zeta to the paper's younger journalists, which includes his son. Then last June, Ortiz, the forty-eight-year-old writer and editor whom Blancornelas tried to protect, was shot to death in his car, with his two children in the back seat unhurt. Ortiz had just begun writing about drugs. Weeks before he was killed, he had published a piece naming Arellano men who, with the apparent aid of somebody in the attorney general's office, had procured police IDs. Ortiz had also recently been hired by a Latin American press association to take another look at the Félix case.

The murder brought international attention -- and a federal-level investigation from Mexico City, a first. But other trends continued. Despite the scrutiny the case has brought, the investigation has languished; there have been no arrests. Suspicions abound. Blancornelas says the state attorney called about the killing about ten minutes after it happened. But the police, whose headquarters were just two blocks away from where Ortiz was shot, did not arrive for half an hour.

And again, Zeta seems to have spearheaded the investigation. It named several Arellano gunmen it said were responsible, as well as a number of police officers it said worked as lookouts. "We know who killed Ortiz; we've published it," says Blancornelas. "But the police haven't done anything, not even investigated to dismiss our reporting."

Such a lack of accountability is typical in Tijuana, and fuels a culture of rumor and innuendo. When drug traffickers assassinate a local official, the presumption usually isn't that he was a good guy who paid the price, but that he was in the pocket of rival traffickers. (Some local observers who have complained about Blancornelas implied just that about him, but provided no evidence.)

Still, Blancornelas takes a somewhat flexible view of what constitutes journalism. One of the first issues of Zeta after Ortiz was killed was headlined, THE SUSPECTS. Among the three named in the article was Jorge Hank Rhon, who at the time was in the middle of his mayoral campaign. Neither the police nor the investigators from the Committee to Protect Journalists have uncovered evidence linking Hank to Ortiz's murder. Asked about it, Blancornelas acknowledges he has no evidence pointing to the mayor. "We only said 'suspects,'" he says. "It was up to the police to go from there."

In a city where the truth is almost impossible to ferret out and the risks of trying are high, it's no surprise that the man who stubbornly seeks answers to the mysteries is a bit of a zealot.

Giving a tour of Zeta's newsroom one Monday morning, Blancornelas pokes his head into an empty office. He points, a bit defensively, to a poster on the wall: "It's better to lose your story than your credibility." In the office next door is a bank of computers, and Blancornelas steps up to one. "This was Ortiz's computer," he says. "We don't let anybody use it now."

Blancornelas insists that he's not on a crusade. Few in Tijuana believe it, and his habits undercut his case. "Seven years after I was left for dead, I often feel good," he says. "I have my grandchildren. But other people have died. I can't sit. I work Friday, Saturday, Sunday. All the time." Has it been worth it?

"No. I wish I had just continued to write about sports."

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