Silence or Death in Mexico’s Press

In Tijuana, An Unlikely Anniversary

By Adela Navarro Bello

It might not seem to be much of a journalistic achievement for a newsweekly to reach its 30th anniversary when there are outlets in the Americas that are two centuries old. But this newsweekly is in Mexico, along the dangerous border with the United States.

Mexico’s northern border is one of the most dangerous places in the world to exercise free, independent, and investigative journalism. It is not an overstatement to say that, month after month, reporters are murdered or threatened or simply disappear. Since President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa took office nearly four years ago, those attacks have accelerated.

On April 11 of this year, Zeta celebrated its 30th anniversary. We did so in the midst of threats, and we carry the burden of our murdered editors, as journalist Miguel Angel Granados Chapa said in a speech to commemorate our anniversary. The assaults on Zeta, founded by Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor Félix Miranda in 1980, and its independent and investigative journalism, have indeed been dreadful.

The two founders of the publication were attacked. Félix Miranda was killed in April 1988. Blancornelas miraculously survived an assassination attempt in November 1997 in which his bodyguard and assistant, Luis Lauro Valero, was murdered. The painful loss of yet another colleague would tear at Zeta’s editorial board in 2004. Editor Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco published photographs and names of Arellano Félix drug cartel members just weeks before being killed in June 2004.

Under such circumstances, it has not been easy to continue our work. The newsweekly almost shut down on a few occasions. “Not another life—how many more do I need to understand it is not worth it?” Blancornelas asked himself during that painful year of 2004. The perseverance of those who stood by Blancornelas in his sorrow allowed Zeta to carry on. Our passion for doing what we know, what inspires us, and what our Baja California readers need, has permitted Zeta to move forward. Six more years have gone by, and here we stand.

Zeta has new management and a revamped editorial board, but press conditions have not changed. Impunity reigns in Mexico, particularly along the northern border where the murders of journalists, including the attacks on Zeta,have gone unsolved. With guns and money, drug traffickers have control over police, judges, prosecutors, and entire towns. This makes investigative journalism extraordinarily difficult.

In January 2010, Zeta’s editors were once again threatened. Members of the Arellano Félix drug cartel disclosed their intentions to kill us and attack our premises. Intelligence officials in the United States and Mexico warned us about this threat, and we were provided with protection. Yet those who allegedly ordered the attack are still free. We can still be their target. And we know from experience that bullet-proof vests and armed bodyguards are not conducive to conducting interviews, pursuing investigations, and gathering news.

Although our physical and editorial freedom is threatened, Zeta staffers continue doing our work. Week after week, we inform the people in Baja California about what goes on in the state, about abuses committed by a government that promised change and is increasingly looking like the one it replaced. We report on complicity between authorities and criminals; widespread police corruption; and the names and faces of those who flood our streets with blood, drugs, and lead.

To reach 30 years old then—in a place where the government can provide no guarantees for free expression, for the exercise of investigative journalism, for life itself—is actually a heroic achievement. With the support of our readers, we will uphold the principles and legacy set forth by Jesús Blancornelas.

We have marked 30 long years under threat. And here we stand.

Navarro is co-editor of the Tijuana-based Zeta and a 2007 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award.

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