Dora Elena Cortes, Tijuana's most famous fearless female journalist

Newsburgers hot off the grill

El Big
  • El Big

In Khartoum it's the Acropole. In Vientiane it's the Constellation. In London it's Biddy Mulligan's. In Tijuana the place to find "the buzz" is Big Boy -- El Big.

El Big, on Agua Caliente Boulevard, opposite the downtown bullring, is the 24-hour coffee shop/restaurant where politicians, cops, government spies, businessmen, and journalists gather for an unspoken waltz, an agreement that this is neutral territory where tips, plans, warnings, and information can be swapped.

Dora Elena Cortés

Dora Elena Cortés

Dora Elena Cortés comes here because, she says, this is where "the news comes to you." Cortés ought to know. She is the chief Tijuana correspondent for Mexico City's respected El Universal, sometimes called "the New York Times of Mexico." She and her fellow Universal reporter, Manuel Cordero, have lived through and reported on all of Tijuana's recent convulsions, winning Mexico's national journalism prize in 1994 for their coverage of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

Reporting in Tijuana, she'll tell you, is not like reporting in San Diego. The border fence separates two drastically different journalistic worlds. It's not just the pay gap; it's the knowledge that in Tijuana, if you're reporting on the town's big stories, you are out there, naked, always balancing truth against survival.

But somehow, for more than two decades, Cortés has woven her way through the nerve-wracking worlds of narco-traffickers, corrupt police, politically dependent newspaper editors, and the need to earn money in a low-paying, underrespected trade. And gradually, through those years, she has come to be regarded unofficially as the journalist's journalist, the queen of El Big.

"For me, she is the best reporter in Tijuana," says human-rights activist Victor Clark Alfaro. "She has written many things on many occasions that make you think, 'This woman is going to be killed.' But she has not held back from writing the truth."

Today distinguished-looking men in dark suits make a point of coming up to her and shaking her hand with a slight nod of the head. Whoever they are, they recognize she is a player to be reckoned with. They also seem to regard her with genuine affection.

It's 10:30 on a sunny morning. Cortés has just come from her daily two-hour talk show — another gig to help pay the rent — on radio XEC.

She orders a coffee. Her mass of dark curly hair bounces as she speaks rapid-fire Spanish. We're surrounded by two tables filled with men in suits, one or two wearing dark glasses. But it's not just spies and cops and journalists who come here. Ordinary families also fill the place.

"It depends on the time of day," Cortés says. "Businessmen and politicians turn up around 8:00 in the morning. A lot of them come to have breakfast, read the newspaper, and fix -- and unfix -- the world." She laughs. "The judicial police, the ministerial police are also close by. That means you see a lot of lawyers here too.

"But for me El Big is headquarters. It's open 24 hours, and for certain people we need to meet, it is convenient to do the interviews here. Four in the morning, six in the morning. After working all night we sometimes come for breakfast. It's good because nobody worries if you stay a long time. When the political campaigns start, they meet here. Opposing parties come and tell us, 'This is our position. This is their position. Here's the problem with their position.' Policemen know to find us here. 'Look, so-and-so was killed. Something is burning. Why don't you go and check it out.' So we sit, and the news comes to us. People kid me that I am at Big Boy so much I must be working for the restaurant."

Cortés has always been in papers. "I was born in Tijuana. My dad was from Mexico City. He came very young to the border. He was a journalist and a locutor, an announcer, on radio. Alfredo Cortés Cruz.

"I started working with him, and that's how I got some experience. I mainly wrote society news. He was the one who checked my information, revised and edited it. He didn't want me to deal with other areas. Especially crime and police. He said they weren't for women. On the other hand, that's what I enjoyed the most.

"He died February 11, 1975. I started working at El Mexicano the next month, March 13. They invited me to take over the society pages, because they knew my dad had trained me. I was there for four years, and then I asked the director to transfer me to general reporting. I insisted and insisted until he did.

"I'm sad my dad didn't live to see me make it all the way."

And that's just what she has done -- and during some of Tijuana's most volatile years.

"Twenty-some years ago when I started in the business, I knew and felt the restrictions and controls. My main interest was to write stories that would be printed. I felt that in Baja California, all media was controlled by the government. When I worked with local papers, sometimes the [political] line they had didn't accord with what I was trying to write. Or sometimes they would just fire me because I didn't follow the line they set."

She left El Mexicano after working there for eight years. By the time she joined El Heraldo, things were changing. "I was sub-director [deputy editor] there. We were the first ones to handle the investigations of the killing of [Zeta columnist] Héctor 'Gato' Félix Miranda. This was 1988. We were the first to say openly that everything pointed to [racetrack owner] Jorge Hank Rhon. [Hank denied guilt and was never charged.] That was when nobody knew where the investigation was going, what direction it was taking. We even published it before Zeta. We interviewed Jorge Hank. A huge number of people bought the paper."

She says the paper's owner, then-governor of Baja California, Roberto de la Madrid, had initially given the green light for full coverage of the murder.

"But through his brother, Francisco de la Madrid, he asked us to leave, because Jorge Hank is the son of his very good friend [ex-minister of agriculture and appointed mayor of Mexico City, billionaire] Carlos Hank González. He said that we were affecting their friendship, and we should stop the investigation. So we had to leave.

"When we were at El Dia, we were handling very strong information about the administration of Governor Xicoténcatl Leyva. He tried everything to kick us out and he couldn't -- until he bought the newspaper. Then he kicked us out."

But she says the winds of change have been evident ever since President Salinas de Gortari's administration (1988 to 1994). "During that time I started feeling a freedom from the authorities towards these issues. In the old days, gobernación [department of the interior]'s agents would monitor all media. And when there was something they didn't like, they would either single out the reporter, talk to him, maybe threaten a little bit, or maybe even talk to the owner. 'Your line of articles don't necessarily go with our policies....' "

Plus, says Cortés, journalists were paid such a low salary that they depended on money from organizations they covered on their beat. The Chamber of Industry or the city or state government would use the journalists to place ads in their paper, earning the writers a commission. This gave the organizations control over what was written about them.

"But when Salinas came along... Maybe it was because his administration was technocrats, but there wasn't as much control as when [traditional] politicians had been in charge."

Cortés says she made the best move of her career in 1984 when she started writing for Mexico City-based El Universal as their Tijuana correspondent. "I've stayed with El Universal because they publish everything I write. It is one of the most influential papers in the country and also one of the oldest: 83 years old. It was founded in 1916. It covered the revolution in Mexico. The Mexican constitution itself was printed on its presses in 1917."

Cortés's biggest test -- and her paper's -- was the 1994 assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana. The murder was a watershed moment for many Mexican journalists. "In the Colosio situation, what we wrote mainly blamed the army and the president as the people responsible for the situation. The information we handled in our articles made the president and the army suspects in the assassination itself -- and all that information was published.

"When I sent the stories to El Universal, I had my doubts as to how it was going to be published and what was going to be published. I was pleasantly surprised that it was front page, and everything I sent was printed.

"And all the different media just started opening up, and society in general was more critical about everything. Those papers that weren't full and accurate in covering the issue lost circulation or disappeared."

That doesn't mean it's any safer being a journalist in Tijuana. Perhaps the opposite.

"We [journalists] are at a very high risk because there is [still] a lot of impunity in the state of Baja California. Because of the big crime wave that is happening down here, until the criminals are properly dealt with, it will continue.

"I have had some panic attacks, fears that people were following me. There was a moment when I started feeling real fear and hysteria, especially in the Colosio case. Maybe when I arrived home, somebody might be waiting outside for me. Then it got to a point where I said to myself, 'If it's going to happen, it will happen. Hopefully it won't, but whatever happens, happens.'

"I overcame the fear. And in other situations when I've had to cover crime stories, people have read it and said we are 'too daring,' that we're not thinking of the consequences. But fortunately till now, nothing has happened. It's the people expressing concern who make you become afraid because they're saying it so much. But it gets to a moment when you overcome it, and then you keep on going."

Still, she says, the present situation hasn't made things safer for journalists. "In the case of Héctor Félix, the people who ordered his killing felt that they were untouchable. Beyond the law.

"We're talking about two different governments: PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] and PAN [National Action Party]. In both governments there is impunity. You have to be careful, especially with certain stories when you handle information such as drug-trafficking or drug traffickers. We really think about that information and what we're going to say. There's a high risk to [covering] a lot of things that are happening right now. With the impunity [many criminals feel] we have to think seriously about what we say. There's not any sense of protection by the government. People feel that they can do almost anything they want. There have been some [criminals] who have been detained or arrested and then just mysteriously released without anybody knowing."

The one true backing she feels is from her bosses in Mexico City. "Our newspaper has protected and supported us in doing this investigative work. If we get hurt in any way, people know that El Universal will make a big deal of it. That gives us a form of protection.

"When the Colosio situation happened, the paper sent a whole team, photographers, even a sub-director [deputy editor] to be here with us, so we wouldn't be alone. There had been several complaints from the president's office and from the Ministry of the Interior to the paper's director. So he thought we may have trouble up here, covering the story. That's when I got a call from him saying, 'You're not alone. I'm sending the team to give you support. You're doing a good job. Keep on doing it.' We felt good about it. Because we felt we had support."

Is it dangerous to be open and honest on her radio show? "Well, I was talking about drug-trafficking here in the city recently, about the narco-juniors and the Arellano Félix family. Then somebody called in. He talked to the young producer of the program at a time when I wasn't there. He asked him to tell me that I should stop doing those kinds of programs. That there were other important subjects I could talk about in Tijuana and that I should think about it really well. For my good and for the good of the station. And he hung up.

"And this young [producer] was very worried and preoccupied by the situation. So I made a comment on the air, that there were people who were bothered by some of the information that we handle. But without being specific I said, 'This [drug] situation keeps on happening. You can't tapar el sol con un dedo -- block out the sun with your finger.' Other media were also writing about these cases. In El Universal, Reforma, El Financiero, the weekly Proceso, Zeta -- they couldn't shut everybody up. So after that, we never got another call. It was a threat, but I didn't feel it was something grave."

Los Angeles Times correspondent Sebastian Rotella starts his book, Twilight on the Line, in Big Boy. He calls Cortés "relentlessly cheerful, and cheerfully relentless...[one of] a band of fast and fearless warriors whose swagger and stark working conditions recall the 1930s Chicago style [of journalism] that has faded away north of the border."

"It's a curious atmosphere that we have lived with in Tijuana," Cortés says. "You get accustomed to it. You learn how to move around in it. Who to call, how to get the information, how to research everything. You move within the danger, but you don't consider it."

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