Tijuana's weekly paper Zeta – its prosperity started with a gunshot

Difficult not to be swayed by their enthusiasm

The young editors can make as much as $875 a week,

Sturdy bearded, and dapper in a navy-blue jacket and taupe slacks, Jesus Blancornelas has come to this nondescript street on an overcast morning in the Paraiso district of Tijuana, a street lined with the pastel stucco and plaster homes of the city's solid middle-class, to shorn a photographer inhere his professional life collided with success and death.

Jesus Blancornelas: "We, the writers, owned the paper — we couldn’t be fired. It was difficult for the government to pressure us."

Jesus Blancornelas: "We, the writers, owned the paper — we couldn’t be fired. It was difficult for the government to pressure us."

Blancornelas stands with his back to this curious geographical point. The photographer directs him to turn this way, then that, and Blancornelas complies. His eyes, however, stray from time to time, drawn, almost against his will, to the monument erected at shoulder-height behind him on the street. This monument is a simple thing. A white marble shrine. Beneath it lies a plaster bust of a middle-aged masculine head. Your Journalist Friends Remember You, black letters inscribed in the white marble say, Héctor Félix Miranda, July 21, 1940-April 20, 1988.

Zeta paperboy. “From 1977 to 1979 we rose to a daily circulation of around 50,000."

Zeta paperboy. “From 1977 to 1979 we rose to a daily circulation of around 50,000."

Blancornelas’s journey to this street and its shrine actually began in San Luis Potosi, a kind of Bible Belt state in central Mexico, known for its conservatism, its adherence to tradition. His father ran a car dealership, his mother was a homemaker. Blancornelas did not study past sixth grade, but, he says, he loved to read. He read everything he could, read a great deal about Mexican history.

Four years after Miranda's death, the ad still runs.

Four years after Miranda's death, the ad still runs.

Also, he loved to ride his bicycle. He started riding one regularly when he got a job as a delivery boy at an auto parts shop. He then developed what he calls a more formal interest in the sport and joined a racing team. It was there that he was befriended by a reporter from the local daily newspaper, El Sol de San Luis, who was assigned to cover the bicycle teams and their competitions. A typically overworked Mexican journalist, the reporter had little time to attend all the races and strategy sessions, so he asked Blancornelas to take notes of these events and drop them by the newspaper office.

By 1989 the paper grew from 80 to 130 pages.

By 1989 the paper grew from 80 to 130 pages.

Little by little, Blancornelas’s reports became more complete. He worked hard at giving detailed and accurate descriptions, and his hard work eventually paid off. One afternoon he left a report that was more thorough than its predecessors, “something in really substantial writing about everything that had happened in a race.” The next day he opened the newspaper and saw his words printed exactly as he had written them. Thinking there must have been some kind of mistake, Blancornelas went to the newspaper to complain. “Everything’s just fine,” his journalist friend told him. “In fact, why don’t you come to work for us as a reporter?”

And so in 1956 Blancornelas, at the age of 20, left the racing team, his job at the auto parts store, and started to work at El Sol de San Luis for $9.00 a week.

Some 30-odd years later, Blancornelas would make considerably more, and the scope of his thorough reporting would encompass personal interviews with the president of Mexico. His troubles, when they came, would be championed by the New York Times and Nicaraguan president Violeta Chamorro. Newsweek would call and ask his opinions of Mexican politics, and the New Yorker would devote ten well-written pages to the sensational event that profoundly altered his life.

But before he arrived at international notoriety or at the white marble monument in Paraiso, Blancornelas had to travel. Not so much out of desire, but rather as a result of his journalist’s pesky curiosity. Blancornelas worked at El Sol de San Luis until 1959.

He and the other young staff writers realized there was no way for them to advance at the paper unless some of the older editors quit or died. Fortunately a friend of his was hired at the then newly established El Mexicano in Tijuana. He called Blancornelas and told him the paper was recruiting writers from all over Mexico. Blancornelas applied and in 1960 was hired at a salary amounting to $15 a day. Since the paper had no need for an additional sports reporter, especially one specialized in cycling, Blancornelas was farmed out as an assistant to a half-dozen fulltime writers. One week he covered state government, another week social events. Never having a stable position provided him, he says, with an excellent apprenticeship.

In 1964 Blancornelas was hired as the assistant editor of La Voz de la Frontera in Mexicali, and it was there his troubles began. Blancornelas instituted a tradition of investigative journalism at the paper, much to the displeasure of Baja California’s then-governor, Ing. Raul Sanchez Diaz.

“In 1968 the paper started to gain influence from its investigations of the rates being charged for electricity. We actually showed that the tariffs were quite high in Mexicali, higher than those charged in California or in Monterrey, Mexico. People were being charged for the utility’s huge bureaucracy. And it was because of our discovering and publishing these findings that I had to resign from the newspaper. The governor told the paper’s owners that either they had to change the paper’s politics or he was going to attack their business. So they sold the paper to the governor and I left.

“I had to leave Baja to find work, and in 1975 I went to Sonora, where I was hired as editor-in-chief at the Imparcial newspaper. There I started an investigation of the presidential race and voiced my opinion of who I thought could win as president of Mexico. The owners of the paper didn’t approve of my work, and I was fired.

“A friend of mine, Enrique Galvan, invited me to come back to Baja California to take charge of the newspaper Noticias. I returned to Tijuana in 1976, and soon I was in trouble again. General Cuenca Diaz, who had been secretary of defense, was nominated as a candidate for governor. After some investigation, our position at the paper was that the general was not a good candidate for governor. He was more than 80 years old, he was used to giving orders, could not take orders, could not work well with others. The owner of the newspaper did not like my investigations, nor what I had to say. So once again I was forced to leave.

“After all these experiences I also saw other co-workers who were in the same position I was in. We got together, and I suggested to them that we start our own newspaper so we could do and say what we wanted without having to worry about being fired. I sold my home in Hermosillo, Sonora, and along with three other writers, including the columnist Héctor Félix Miranda, we each put up $5000 to start the paper ABC. ”

Blancornelas may have thought that owning a newspaper was a more or less certain way to avoid losing his job, but he was wrong. ABC’s establishment in 1977 triggered a chain of events that ultimately cost Blancornelas several friendships, and his investment and forced him into exile.

“From 1977 to 1979 we rose to a daily circulation of around 50,000. We also launched a series of investigations of the governor and found that some 40 members of his family were on the government payroll. The governor had five airplanes at his disposal and a helicopter. Not only this, but we also found that he had an obscure relationship with prostitution. We started working as a team with the San Diego Union. I and a close friend of mine from the Union named Alex Drehsler worked together on a story of how cars were stolen in the United States and brought back to Mexico. We also worked on a big story involving tax evasion and gas purchased in the U.S. that was sold in Tijuana.

“You have to understand that this sort of reporting created a special kind of Mexican chaos. We, the writers, owned the paper — we couldn’t be fired. It was difficult for the government to pressure us. The governor, especially, was not used to this new system. The governor or any other important politician was used to being able to call a newspaper and demand that he be omitted from a story or that a story not be published or even that a journalist be fired. ABC belonged to the writers, and this created all kinds of problems for the government. So they attacked me directly and accused me of fraud. Fraud! Fraud in my own newspaper! They got ahold of two of the other co-owners of the paper and convinced them I had embezzled 500,000 pesos from the paper. And soon enough, there came the police with a group of government workers, and Félix and I were literally thrown out of the paper.

“In March of 1980 I found out there was a warrant for my arrest. I had presented evidence to the judge that showed the fraud had never happened, but I knew I would not get a fair trial. I fled to the United States, where I lived for two years. First I lived in Point Loma and later in Chula Vista in an apartment on Telegraph Canyon Road. The San Diego Union was very kind to me. They printed eight stories about the closing of ABC.

“After I moved to San Diego, I was invited to Washington, D.C. by a group of journalists who asked me to speak to the Commission on Human Rights about what had happened. I also went to New York, to the United Nations, and they conducted an investigation of what had happened. Various ambassadors from the U.N. contacted the Mexican government and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a Mexican here who says you guys are harassing him.’ And a U.N. committee also suggested to Senator Ted Kennedy’s office that I be granted political asylum. But nothing ever came of it, realistically speaking. Anyway, my point was not to get political asylum as much as it was to call attention to the fact that Mexico was committing an injustice to one of its own citizens.

“So, I lived in the United States with foreign help. I could work in the U.S., but Immigration would not allow me to earn money in the U.S. Money had to be sent to me from Mexico. And I had to prove this every six months to Immigration. Every six months they would put me in a room and ask me how long it was going to take me to resolve my problems.

“I received invitations from many universities to come and speak, but Immigration forbid me to leave San Diego. They didn’t want me to speak. I had become a problem both to Mexico and the United States. Even if I had to go to Los Angeles, I had to first notify Immigration.

“As a result, I pretty much stayed in San Diego. It was in my apartment on Telegraph Canyon Road that the idea for Zeta was born. I needed something to defend myself. All the newspapers in Tijuana were saying that I was a terrorist, that I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and an agent of the CIA, that I was paid to stir up trouble. There was even talk that I was going to publish some conspiracy to kill President Reagan. I just laughed at all of that. Actually, it was good for us. Félix and I had the idea of starting the letter-size Zeta. An American printer on Market and State streets gave us credit. We paid for the printing from the sales, and if there was anything left over, we split it. The more the papers [in Tijuana] said about me — things to have people look down on me in Mexico and the United States — the more papers we sold. We started by printing around 2500 copies and kept increasing from there. Some people, however, didn’t want to place ads with us because they said the paper was physically too small. The newspaper boys agreed. They said its size made it difficult to carry — it didn’t fit well under their arms and that it needed to be bigger. So we enlarged it to a tabloid format.

“We decided on the name ‘Zeta’ because our first paper had been called ‘ABC.’ So, we thought maybe we should call our next paper ‘DE,’ and if it’s taken from us, we’ll call the next one ‘EF.’ Then someone had the idea that maybe we should call the paper ‘ABCZ,’ but that seemed too long. Finally we agreed that we should just go ahead and skip to the last letter of the alphabet, zeta. And that was that. But some people thought we had named it after the film by Costa-Gavras that had supposedly inspired political movements and terrorism. But that was never our intention.

Zeta started in 1980 and lasted maybe ten issues in its small format. It went through several phases. At first we thought we’d publish on Fridays and Mondays. That worked for a while, so we increased it to Fridays, Thursdays, and Mondays. And that worked, so we increased to Thursdays, Fridays, Mondays, and Tuesdays and Saturdays. It wasn’t big, maybe 16 pages, but we managed to bring it out six days a week until 1982, when the big devaluation happened. We had no choice but to scale back to a weekly paper. It wasn’t what we wanted. It’s what happened. We had no other choice.

“The paper started to grow in 1986, when the PRI started to lose its first elections in Ensenada. All the other newspapers said that the PRI was going to win, and we said no, it’s going to lose. People really started to pay attention to us and to believe in us. We increased to 32 pages. Our next big surge in growth, the biggest, occurred in 1988, when Héctor Félix was assassinated.”

The street where the murder occurred is unremarkable in every respect. It was, however, raining on that April morning. Blancornelas had slept late. The paper didn’t have a very large staff at that time, so it was normal for him to work until midnight, go home, sleep, and return to the office at noon. At 10:00 a.m. he got a call from Zeta’s receptionist saying that Félix had been in an accident and that his condition was critical. Blancornelas immediately sent his son, a staff photographer, to see what had happened. Blancornelas showered, and just as he was about to leave, he received another phone call telling him that Héctor Félix Miranda was dead.

There had been omens. In the early hours of March 1, 1987, someone fired 14 shots from a submachine gun at the Zeta office.

“We knew it was a submachine gun,” Blancornelas says, “by the pattern the bullets made. It was a perfect, continuous arc. The women who worked at the paper were the first to say they wouldn’t be intimidated. They announced immediately they weren’t going to leave. The men, on the other hand, were nervous.”

In December 1987, Jesus Michel Jacobo, Zeta’s correspondent in Sinaloa, who often reported on the state’s drug trade and human rights abuses, was murdered.

Death threats. Submachine guns. Assassination. These somewhat melodramatic methods of dealing with what Americans refer to as bad press are common occupational hazards for Mexican journalists. An unreleased report completed in April 1992 by the Mexican government’s National Human Rights Commission contends that as many as 29 journalists have been murdered so far during the first three years of the Salinas administration. The tally, however, is not exact and could be as low as 27, depending on whether you count the deaths of two security guards killed in a leftist terrorist attack on La Jornada, a Mexico City-based daily. On the other hand, Reporters sans Frontières, a French group that monitors attacks on press freedom, suggests that only 17 have been murdered during the same three-year period. This discrepancy, the very debate over the number of deaths, is common to, and characteristic of, the fuzzy-edged world of official response to attacks on Mexican journalists.

A number of organizations in Mexico, the United States, and in Europe monitor governmental and private abuses of press freedom in Mexico and elsewhere. These organizations often conduct their own scrupulous investigations of these incidents. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, requires three independent sources to verify each fact in any given case of murder or intimidation. The question of whether or not a Mexican journalist was killed because of something he wrote or if she was the victim of blind crime is often difficult to answer.

This confusion, something else that Jesus Blancornelas might well typify as a special kind of Mexican chaos, is no doubt related to the morally ambiguous position the journalistic profession holds in the minds of many Mexicans. Ninety percent of Mexican journalists earn between $100 and $500 a month, and the public consensus is that many are on the take. And many, apparently, are. According to a 1992 report issued by Reporters sans Frontières, “more than 80 percent of Mexican journalists accept [bribes] from government officials.” This arrangement is highly convenient to Mexican bureaucrats and politicians. In addition to guaranteeing favorable press, wide-scale bribery enforces a public attitude of doubt and cynicism toward journalists that is easy to exploit when one of them is murdered. When investigating an honest journalist’s death, Mexican authorities will often circulate rumors that the journalist was either gay and killed by a disgruntled lover, or was killed while drinking with prostitutes, or, if the journalist was reporting on drug trafficking, was actually involved in drug trafficking himself.

There is an interesting and possibly valid chauvinism Tijuanenses indulge in from time to time. Their home, they will tell you, is less corrupt than more tradition-bound states to the south. This particular regional exemption, however, was one that Héctor Félix Miranda could not claim. His murder, on the morning of April 20, 1988, was attended by all the mystery and intrigue that surrounds the deaths of journalists in Colima, Mexico City, or Quintana Roo. Although three suspects in Félix’s murder have been arrested and jailed, the intellectual author of the crime, as Blancornelas calls it, is still at large. And there is a rumor you can still hear, some four years after the assassination, from the mouths of well-born Tijuana natives, and journalists, and tour guides, that Héctor Félix Miranda was killed because of a homosexual affair gone bad.

In many respects, it was remarkable he lasted as long as he did. Co-editor and co-owner of a growing, independent weekly newspaper, Héctor Félix Miranda did not rely on bribes to pay the rent, was his own boss, and could write and say whatever he wanted. And he did. His column, “Un Poco de Algo,” lambasted the mayor, the governor, the president, and prominent Tijuanans in the sort of randy, profane Spanish Mexicans speak on the street but never print in newspapers. To an American eye, his column would have seemed raucous, perhaps, on occasion, libelous; to the Mexican, his writing was, obviously, lethal. Other Mexican journalists have been stabbed to death for more decorous prose.

With much of the local American imagination captured, as of late, by the North American Free Trade Agreement, by a best-behavior Mexico promising a fiscally harmonious future, it is difficult to remember the events that followed Félix’s death in 1988. As recently as January 5, 1993, the Los Angeles Times reported that President Salinas had appointed the head of the National Human Rights Commission as his new attorney general, “...just days before Salinas [was] scheduled to meet with President-elect Bill Clinton.” Some individuals who monitor the deaths of Mexican journalists are, off the record, quick to dismiss Salinas’s actions as nothing more than window dressing and accuse Salinas of “extremely profound cynicism.” The Reporters san Frontières 1992 report states that of the 17 journalists killed during the first half of Salinas’s six-year term, some of the murders have been committed by “police officers or carried out under the orders of civil servants who are trying to ingratiate themselves with the President’s office.” The report also quotes Jorge Castaneda, a Mexico City-based academic and contributor to foreign newspapers, as saying, “If you are perceived as an enemy of the President, [beware] there are many people who want to do the President a favor.”

In the early spring of 1988, however, the free-trade agreement did not loom on the Mexican horizon as it does now. There was considerable public sentiment that unless pressure was brought to bear on the government, the investigation of Héctor Félix Miranda’s murder would be mishandled or would quietly grind to a halt. There was, at that time, no other political leverage than outcry. Thousands marched through downtown Tijuana on the afternoon of Félix’s death. In the days that followed, there were more protests, and both of Tijuana’s journalist associations drafted letters of protest to the president and Baja California state attorney general. It was also at this time that Jesus Blancornelas began to run his now-famous full-page, black-bordered weekly ads in Zeta. The ads, which have changed over time, still appear under the title of Félix’s old column, “Un Poco de Algo,” and under his byline. In their current incarnation, they demand the capture of whoever “authored” Félix’s murder and clearly indicate Jorge Hank Rhon as chief suspect.

In much the same way Félix seemed fated for trouble, Hank was destined to play the lubricious and lurid villain in a subtropical cause célèbre. A wealthy Latin American playboy with an overweening fondness for exotic animals — pet elephants, camels, snakes, and rare white Bengal tiger cubs — Hank, the spoiled son of a former Mexico City mayor and current Salinas cabinet minister, was president of Caliente race track in April 1988. Félix had often insulted him in his column, and Hank’s name gained greater currency after the assassination. It may or may not be mere coincidence that all three of the men arrested and convicted of Félix’s murder worked for Hank and that one of them, arrested in May 1990, was close enough to his boss to ask Hank to be his daughter’s godfather. Blancornelas, to say the least, has his own opinions. But they are opinions that seem increasingly beside the point.

They are beside the point because of the unforeseen ways in which these events have played themselves out. Félix’s murder resulted in an unprecedented boom in Zeta’s popularity. The paper’s circulation soared from 20,000 to 50,000. By 1989 the paper grew from 80 to 130 pages. The two rounds fired from a shotgun through the windshield of Félix’s blue Ford LTD ultimately provided Blancornelas with the unassailable moral clout and financial solidity that made him a force to be reckoned with in Mexico’s national political arena.

In early November of last year, President Salinas granted Jesus Blancornelas a 45-minute, one-on-one interview in Mexico City. Content aside, the interview itself was a fair indicator of Zeta’s recent and far-reaching influence — it is difficult to imagine either Bush or Clinton granting a similar interview even to any preeminent American newsweekly, say, the Village Voice or the L.A. Weekly. But the interview was also significant in that it pointed to the poor timing of Félix’s assassins. Baja California is a state central to Mexico’s aspirations for the free-trade agreement, and Tijuana is Baja’s economic center. What happens politically in Tijuana is necessarily of interest to politicians in Mexico City. And Zeta, launched as it was by Félix’s death into large-circulation popularity, was therefore destined to become the sort of independent weekly that Mexican presidents would have to take seriously.

Blancornelas has set about creating the kind of paper that, while not always able to bring justice to the power elite, is at least capable of making them less and less relevant. Jorge Flank Rhon’s large home sits down the street from Zeta’s modest and industrious offices in which, just inside the foyer, on the left wall, Héctor “El Gato” Félix grins and gestures obscenely from a framed memorial eight-by-ten. Upstairs, a half-dozen young journalists tap away at IBM clones, churn out page after page of analysis and scandal.

Oddly absent from Zeta’s offices is any space for an advertising department. The paper has no paid ad salespeople. Advertisers, rather, come to the paper with their camera-ready layouts and checks. Zeta, however, is filled with full-page ads for cellular phones, Carl’s Jr., condo developments in Otay Mesa — for, in short, the city’s burgeoning entrepreneurial class. It is the same class that, historically, with its drive and impatience with corruption, has moved societies to operate on more equitable terms. And it is this class that provides Blancornelas with the capital he uses to pay his staff well. His five young editors can make as much as $875 a week, and his writers receive as much as $250 for a mid-size investigative piece. These fees and salaries, well beyond the Mexican national average, insure that Blancornelas’s staff does not have to rely, as a matter of course, on less orthodox sources of added income to make ends meet.

The editors, in charge of a given area — local politics, entertainment, or sports, for example — each manage and edit a crew of four to five journalists. In addition to writing articles themselves, the editors also copy edit their underlings’ stories and offer criticism and advice. Like American editors, they complain of their writers’ problems with grammar, sentence construction, and, particular to Spanish, diacritical marks. Since no comprehensive manual of style exists for Mexican journalists, each publication tends to develop its own, and Zeta’s young editors are in the process of composing one specifically for their paper.

One of the most striking things about Zeta’s staff is, in fact, its youthfulness. Most of the weekly’s writers and editors are under 40; a number are in their mid-20s. Blancornelas has recruited many of them from the very new communications departments at the Autonomous University of Baja and Northwest Ibero-Americana University. Because communications is itself a fledgling discipline at these schools, Zeta’s editors say it’s not unusual for recruits to have little practical experience in writing news. Many communications instructors are young and inexperienced, and it’s not uncommon for students, especially those who work or have worked part-time for Zeta, to know more than their teachers.

While this inexperience may give headaches and longer hours to editors, it yields a liveliness to Zeta, whose content is often heavy with the complex ins-and-outs of state and local politics. The paper offers quite a few smart little features, like the “Numeroz” column, similar to the Harper’s Index, that gives figures for, say, the number of children currently working in local maquiladoras or the number of people killed during the past month by African bees in Hidalgo state or the number of AIDS cases diagnosed in Mexico during the past nine years. In addition, there are regular columns written by priests, Communists, socialists, PRIistas, and PANistas.

Zeta publishes what would seem to the American reader an inordinate number of fact-and opinion-rich letters to the editor, many written by attorneys. Javier Ortiz Franco, a former attorney, now senior editor at Zeta, explains that because most of Mexican law is handled in the form of briefs submitted by attorneys to the court, Mexican lawyers become skilled writers out of necessity. This, he says, is why it’s not uncommon for Mexican attorneys to become journalists, or occasionally write articles, or, at the very least, become avid letters-to-the-editor writers.

Muckraking, however, is what Zeta is famous for. Known alternately as the “feisty and often controversial Tijuana weekly” or the “muckraking weekly Zeta” in the dozens of international wire service and newspaper reports in which the paper’s name appears, it is rare to open an issue that doesn’t contain several scandals. Zeta’s staffers and correspondents scour Baja with an insatiable zeal for accountability. Immediately after the recent floods, the paper produced a lengthy feature that cataloged deaths and damages and took various governmental agencies to task for their inability to respond rapidly and effectively to the crisis. And Zeta’s passion extends to less dramatic failures. A recent issue offered a detailed expose of certain Tijuana Montessori schools that employed instructors who had not been properly certified.

This continuity of threat will be further ensured by the journalists who have learned their trade at Zeta. When speaking to Blancornelas’s young editors, it is difficult not to be swayed by their enthusiasm, not to see them as the silver lining in the cloud, as the moral to this story. They are young and intelligent and seem to share a sense of historic moment. The Mexican press is changing, they say. New Zeta-like weeklies are opening all over the country. They point, in particular, to Siglo 21 (Century 21), the paper in Guadalajara run solely by people like themselves, in their 20s. Last year, Siglo 21 won a national award for its investigative reporting of the gasline explosions that nearly destroyed the city. Its reporters were the only ones in the Guadalajara who did not accept and repeat the municipality’s explanations for the disaster. Zeta’s young editors hope to continue in this tradition. They speak reverently of Blancornelas and say that he has provided them with enough space and time to write stories that will help gain them national attention.

“Blancornelas is a very good teacher,” says his arts editor. “He’s had so much experience in newspapers.”

Back at the memorial to Félix, Blancornelas’s hands have become restive. He has stood patiently while the photographer snapped away, but it now appears that his patience is wearing. Earlier that morning the photographer had wondered aloud if Blancornelas would agree to pose at the site of Félix’s murder. When asked, he had immediately agreed. He is, if anything, a newsman, and he understands well the illustrative power of a strong image.

He understands and, at the same time, is uncomfortable with it. In this place where he stands, so much he had hoped for was lost and gained. He glances down at his friend’s white plaster face, he glances away. He turns to face the monument, he turns away. He clasps and unclasps his hands. His face is unreadable. The camera focuses, shoots again.

Blancornelas clears his throat, takes two steps forward, and politely, without rancor, brushes past the photographer. “It is enough,” he says.

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