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Co-Editor of Newsweekly in Tijuana Slain

The journalist is ambushed on a busy street. It's one in a string of attacks against editors of the politically outspoken publication.

June 23, 2004|Richard Marosi and Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writers

TIJUANA — A masked gunman shot and killed a journalist in front of his children and several witnesses on a busy street Tuesday, the latest attack against editors of a news magazine known for investigating drug trafficking and corruption.

Francisco J. Ortiz Franco, a founding editor of the Zeta newsweekly, had just buckled Daniel, 10, and Andrea, 8, into the back seat of his Chevrolet sedan when a man approached the car and fired from close range. Ortiz Franco, 48, was hit in the head, neck and chest, authorities said. He died at the scene.

The children told police their father had noticed a vehicle following them on the way to a physical therapy appointment in the Colonia Revolucion, a mostly commercial area. Witnesses said the killer emerged from a black pickup truck.

The early morning attack took place against a backdrop of spiraling violence as rival Baja California drug cartels vie for control of the narcotics trade in this border city. Zeta has published numerous exposes over the years on the Arellano Felix drug syndicate, as well as the protection given to it by government officials and police.

Ortiz Franco was the third journalist targeted for death at the newsweekly, whose motto -- "Free like the wind" -- appears atop blaring front-page headlines.

Zeta's co-director, J. Jesus Blancornelas, narrowly survived being shot five times in 1997 by drug cartel gunmen who killed his bodyguard. In 1988, gunmen killed one of the newsweekly's founders, Felix Miranda, in a crime that some say has never been fully solved.

Other news organizations also have found themselves targeted.

"This is nothing new for us, many of us have been threatened," said Manuel Cordero, a reporter for El Sol de Tijuana, a daily newspaper. "We know the risks of our profession. If you write something that bothers the narcos or the money launderers or the people in power, there could be consequences."

During a news conference Tuesday, Baja California Gov. Eugenio Elorduy Walther extended sympathies to the victim's family and co-workers and condemned the killing, which he said "presents a threat to the authority and society of Baja California." He said a manhunt was underway for those responsible.

In a statement, Mexican President Vicente Fox also expressed outrage at the killing of Ortiz Franco, saying his government had instructed federal authorities to collaborate with local authorities to "solve this reprehensible act as soon as possible." Fox expressed his conviction that "a free and critical press is the best guarantee for a strengthening democracy."

Ortiz Franco was described by a friend as a quiet and fiercely dedicated journalist. He had worked at the news magazine for more than 20 years and wrote a weekly political column. In a recent one, he bemoaned the lack of substance in the political campaigns of the three major candidates running for mayor of Tijuana.

"In a city like Tijuana, with so many problems, the candidates should act with greater seriousness," Ortiz Franco wrote.

Zeta's pull-no-punches reporting style has earned the publication near-institutional status and has long been a thorn in the side of some corrupt politicians and drug traffickers.

The weekly's editorial offices, located in a quiet residential neighborhood, have been sprayed with gunfire and gun-toting bodyguards stand watch outside.

The publication came under fire shortly after its founding in 1980, when it started chronicling the rise of the drug cartels.

In 1988, Miranda, known as "El Gato Felix," was murdered on a Tijuana street. Two security guards at Tijuana's Caliente race track were later convicted of the killings and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Ever since Miranda's killing, Zeta has published a full-page ad in every edition asking the guards' employer, racetrack owner Jorge Hank Rhon, why they killed Miranda.

Hank Rhon, a candidate in the Tijuana mayoral election in August who was a frequent target in Miranda's columns, has denied any involvement in the murder.

Hank Rhon was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but Carlos Barbosa, president of the state Institutional Revolutionary Party of Baja California, which Hank Rhon will represent in the August mayoral election, deplored the assassination.

"The trend toward increased violence in Baja California is extremely worrisome," Barbosa said.

Blancornelas said in a statement that his publication "demanded an investigation that will lead to the capture of the assassins." Blancornelas said he would decline to suggest possible suspects until he talked to investigators.

Marosi reported from Tijuana and San Diego and Kraul reported from Mexico City

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