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Mexico: Crusading Anti-Drug Journalist Dies

Mexican journalist Jesús Blancornelas at his Zeta weekly's office in Tijuana, Mexico. The journalist, who died Nov. 23 in Tijuana at the age of 70, dedicated himself to exposing drug trafficking activity and had survived an attempt to murder him in 1997. He lived constantly under escort since that occasion. (Photo: Omar Torres / AFP-Getty Images)

Jesús Blancornelas, a renowned Mexican journalist and editor of Zeta weekly magazine in Tijuana, passed away in a local hospital early Thursday, Nov. 23. He was 70 years old. Chiefly known as a fierce opponent of drug traffickers, Blancornelas also once served as vice president of the Mexican Society of Journalists, which he helped to create in 1998 to fight for press freedom. He was considered Mexico's leading expert on organized crime and the corruption it creates. For his crusading work, he was recognized by the United Nations, Reporters Without Borders, the Inter-American Press Society, among other groups for his contributions to freedom of expression. More than 15 government soldiers provided 24-hour armed protection for the courageous editor.

Blancornelas was the 1997 recipient of Worldpress.org's International Editor of the Year award. The award announcement stated, in part:

For nine years, ever since his friend and partner was assassinated, Jesús Blancornelas had been living with the likelihood that the drug lords would come for him. Yet the editor of Zeta, a feisty regional paper in Tijuana, Mexico pulled no punches: In one investigative report after another, and in regular blistering editorials, Blancornelas pounded away at the drug cartel run by Ramon Arellano Felix. And sure enough, last November, the gunmen came, as many as 10 of them with heavy weapons. Blancornelas survived, badly wounded, shielded by his mortally-wounded driver-bodyguard. Undaunted, he carries on his crusade.

Citing his age, Blancornelas had retired in April as director of his weekly newspaper, which he founded in 1980.

The international press provided comment and analysis on Blancornelas' passing, and his legacy. Paris-based International Herald Tribune (Nov. 25) reported:

Crusading journalist Jesús Blancornelas, who relentlessly investigated drug cartels and government corruption despite an attempt on his life and the killing of colleagues, died of a chronic illness Thursday in Tijuana, his newspaper said in a statement. His son, Cesar Rene Blanco, told a local radio station that Blancornelas had a lung defect since his youth that caused it to collapse, leading to pneumonia and other complications. His other lung was pierced by a bullet in a Nov. 27, 1997 assassination attempt, in apparent retaliation for his investigations into the drug underworld.

When Blancornelas accepted the UNESCO annual World Press Freedom Prize in 1999, he indicated that he briefly considered leaving the profession after being shot four times in the 1997 assassination attempt. He said he thought about the danger his job put his family in, but decided to carry on.

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" 'If I quit I'll be considered a coward,' he said. 'What's more, the mafias would make me an example for other journalists, telling them, "See what happened to him, worse could happen to you. That's why I decided to continue.' "

Blancornelas was rewarded for this fearless stance when he received the Daniel Pearl Award for courageous journalism in 2005 by the Los Angeles Press Club.

The Zeta staff suffered its share of tragedy, aside from the attempt on Blanconelas' life. According to India's NDTV.com (Nov 24): "The winner of several journalism awards, Blancornelas founded Zeta with Hector Felix Miranda, who was shot to death in 1988. In 2004, gunmen fatally shot Zeta assistant editor Francisco Ortiz as he sat in his car with his young children."

Justice was served in the Miranda killing, as reported by the Guardian Unlimited (Nov. 23):

Two men were convicted in Felix Miranda's shooting, including a bodyguard at a local race track owned by Jorge Hank Rhon, a businessman from one of Mexico's most powerful political families who is now mayor of Tijuana, across the U.S. border from San Diego.

After the killing, Zeta published a full-page notice each week under Felix Miranda's name, asking, "Jorge Hank Rhon: Why did your bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestina kill me?"

Hank Rhon has denied any connection to the attack.

Rhon was less than gracious when queried about Blancornelas' passing. According to Mexico's El Universal (Nov. 24): "Hank Rhon … told reporters Thursday the city didn´t plan to pay tribute to Blancornelas. When asked how he would remember the journalist, Rhon said, 'I'm not going to remember him.' "

The International Herald Tribune (Nov. 25) provided some background information on the crusading editor's life:

Blancornelas began his journalism career in the 1950's, and covered the news from Tijuana for nearly five decades, investigating government corruption and the rise of violent drug gangs like the Arellano Felix brothers' Tijuana cartel. Colleagues said the Zeta founder was a maverick committed to exposing the ills of Tijuana and Baja California state.

"Zeta was the main critic of the government at a time when most news outlets followed the official agenda," said Sergio Haro, a Mexico-based reporter who worked with Blancornelas for seven years until 1993. "He was a courageous journalist."

Blancornelas received posthumous recognition from leading Mexican government officials. President-elect Felipe Calderón called his family to offer condolences and Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy referred to the journalist's death as "a great loss." Elorduy further noted that Blancornelas had dedicated his life to his work despite great sacrifices made due to constant threats to his life.

Blancornelas authored six books, including one about the 1994 assassination in Tijuana of Luis Donaldo Colosio, a presidential candidate for the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. He is survived by his wife, Genoveva Villalon de Blanco, and three sons.

Zeta, the newsmagazine that he co-founded, dedicated its Nov. 24-30 issue to Blancornelas' legacy:

The journalistic legacy of Jesús Blancornelas is found in seven newspapers in three states: San Luis Potosí, Sonora and Baja, California. He began working as a journalist in April of 1955 in the sports section of The Sun in San Luis, where he arrived by chance when he participated in cycling competitions and a reporter, Rubén Téllez Sources, invited him to write reviews of the sport.
The last time that he wrote a news article for Zeta was the first week of September. It was titled, "The route of the narcotics detective," and explained the illegal steps taken to move drugs from Central America and Mexico to the United States.

Sunday, Nov. 19, he went into Prado Hospital. Little by little, his healthy lung, damaged perhaps by the shooting in Nov. 1997, ceased to work. The founding director of Zeta thus culminated his life.

Raúl Gibb Guerrero, Dolores Guadalupe García Escamilla and Alfredo Jiménez Mota were named Worldpress.org's 2005-2006 International Editors of the Year.

 
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