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Editor Defied, Survived Drug Cartel

Journalism: Jesus Blancornelas survived a murder attempt after exposing Tijuana's Arellano Felix gang.


TIJUANA — Is there anything that could persuade muckraking Tijuana journalist Jesus Blancornelas to lay down his pen?

A nearly successful assassination attempt by the Tijuana drug cartel failed to silence him. He waves away the inconvenience of life with 13 army bodyguards as just another bizarre plot twist in his episodic career.

And indeed, the bearded and bespectacled Blancornelas--with his classic khakis, crisp white shirts and dry wit--seems more like a slumming college literature professor than the editor of the city's premier investigative journal.

Yet his gritty, take-no-prisoners reportage is legend on both sides of the border. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists once anointed him "the spiritual godfather of modern Mexican journalism."

"Many people told me I should retire after the 'accident,' " said Blancornelas, 65, employing a gentle euphemism for his near-execution. "A lot of my friends said, 'Move to the United States and get lost.' "

He's still here. Today the award-winning journalist is unveiling a story few live to tell in a new book, "The Cartel: The Arellano Felixes: The Most Powerful Mafia in the History of Latin America."

Blancornelas still does not dare promote it publicly in Tijuana. Published in July in Spanish by Mexico City's Plaza & Janes, Blancornelas' book peers into the secret lives of the disco-loving Tijuana drug lords who partied their way to hegemony. But its most intriguing tale may well be that of Blancornelas.

In an era when journalism sometimes careens closer to "Hard Copy" than Watergate, Blancornelas has stubbornly made his Zeta newsweekly an indispensable institution that lends a whole new meaning to public service.

Notorious cartel gunmen might elude arrest--but not Blancornelas' irate indictment. Gunmen find their photos staring sullenly back at them from Zeta's cover. When Tijuana authorities fail to make sense of high-profile murders, stunned citizens turn to Zeta for an explanation.

Blancornelas abandoned his relentless coverage only once--and not voluntarily--when cartel gunmen attacked him, killing his bodyguard, Luis Valero, as they drove down a busy street at midday on Nov. 27, 1997. Blancornelas did something unheard of: He survived.

He began his next column from his convalescence bed: "Thanks to God, my faithful friend Luis Valero, and the marvels of medical science, I am alive."

Today, Zeta is produced from a barely marked office that is a virtual safe house. On a recent sun-drenched day, a scowling tough guy parked in front of Zeta climbed out of a battered car with a missing headlight, pulling his shirt over a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. No problem: He's one of Blancornelas' bodyguards.

Inside, the courtly Blancornelas sits down under a poster of beatific winged cherubs, pours a visitor a cup of coffee, and talks about the days, two decades ago, when Zeta was at the forefront of a new wave of investigative journalism emerging from Mexico's heavily censored press.

Baja California was a vanguard then of a political opposition movement--the National Action Party--that in 1989 produced modern Mexico's first opposition governor, and today, its first opposition president, Vicente Fox.

Co-Founded Zeta in 1980

Born in San Luis Potosi in central Mexico, Blancornelas began as a sportswriter in 1955. He moved to Tijuana in 1960 and became Baja editor of El Mexicano. He said border corruption stories bounced him out of three publications before he co-founded the weekly ABC.

After ABC's government exposes met with a hostile reception, Blancornelas fled to San Diego and co-founded Zeta with a colleague, Hector Felix Miranda, in 1980. They distributed it across the border and then reinstated themselves in Tijuana.

Five years later, Zeta broke the story of the arrival of the Arellano Felix brothers, who would become the leaders of the Tijuana drug cartel, in a cover story on a marijuana warehouse guarded by local police. Blancornelas said he did not realize its significance until plainclothes officers bought all 20,000 copies. He republished the issue--emblazoning "Censored!" on the cover--and Zeta was on the map.

Not everyone was happy about that, or with Felix Miranda's crusading column. Zeta's office was sprayed with bullets in 1987. Gunmen killed Felix Miranda in 1988 on his way to work. Authorities convicted two men of the murder, both security guards for the racetrack run by Jorge Hank Rhon--the Tijuana-based son of one of Mexico's most powerful men and a frequent target of Felix Miranda's column.

But the murder was never completely solved. Every week since, Blancornelas has run a letter signed with Felix Miranda's name, demanding: "Jorge Hank Rhon: Why did your bodyguard assassinate me?"

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