By Pablo De Sainz
In Tijuana, the name of Jesús Blancornelas has become an icon in journalism and, above all, in narcoculture. If you ask almost anybody, any person (rich, middle class, a police officer, a taxi driver) who is Jesús Blancornelas, he or she will tell you: “Oh, Mr. Blancornelas writes about the narcos. He writes about the truth. His newspaper is the best paper in Tijuana. He writes for the people…”
Ever since he was almost killed by gunmen related to the Arellano Félix cartel, Blancornelas has reached the status of a legend in Tijuana.
But he doesn’t see himself as an icon.
“I’m just like other journalists working. I see the events and I write about them. That’s all.”
Even though he might not acknowledge it, Blancornelas has revolutionized modern Mexican journalism. Every Friday, if you walk around Downtown Tijuana, you’ll notice many people, men and women, young and old, with a copy of Zeta, the weekly newspaper Blancornelas is co-founder and co-director, under their arms.
His chronicles are accessible, fun to read, and, without a doubt, reliable. People trust him. Two popular advertising slogans for Zeta are “Zeta es la neta” (Zeta is the truth) and “La verdad se sabe los viernes” (The truth is known on Fridays).
Zeta was founded in April of 1980. Since then, the weekly newspaper has become the authority in narcojournalism and articles where corruption, murders and government-related obscure cases are exposed.
I had never met Blancornelas in person before. I was aware of his status in Tijuana, and I had been a Zeta reader for many years. Blancornelas’ and Zeta’s impact in Tijuana’s society and politics made me decide to write my journalism senior thesis in a topic both the newspaper and its co-director are experts: Narcojournalism, or investigative reporting that focuses on drug trafficking and drug traffickers.
The central questions I had were: Why would journalists risk their own lives by writing about the narcos? Why take the risk? Is it really worth it?
Blancornelas couldn’t have given me a better answer.
“If I were in Washington I would write about the sniper killer or, a few years ago, about Monica Lewinski; but we live in a border city that is neighbor to a state, that’s the richest one in the United States, and that’s the one that consumes drugs. I don’t do anything else than to write about what’s going on. Drug trafficking is the news and we are the journalists.”
Maybe it is this sense of professionalism that has given Blancornelas his place in Mexican journalism. He’s written several books that have become best sellers. His most recent book is El Cartel. Los Arellano Félix: la mafia más poderosa en la historia de América Latina. He’s also received many awards and recognitions.
But this professionalism almost got him killed in 1997, when he was shot, presumably, by gunmen of the Arellano Felix Cartel.
Blancornelas life changed dramatically after this tragic event where another Zeta reporter died.
“I don’t go out much. I divide my time between home and here (Zeta’s offices). This has given me a lot of time to write. I don’t go out and report anymore. Now I conduct phone interviews, and people come here like you, and we chat. E-mail has been of great help to me,” he says. “I’m protected 24 hours a day by 15 men of the Mexican army. I only travel to other cities when I have to. When I went to New York, I was protected by officers of the New York Police Department.”
He says his family has given him moral support after the shooting.
“I wouldn’t have made it without my family’s support. Specially my wife has given me all of her support.”
And although he’s lost some of his freedom, Blancornelas is optimistic about his life. He says he’s got no resentments, no hatred for those who tried to kill him in 1997. He is still a journalist who looks for the truth.
“I’ve thought about all this since they tried to kill me: they (the narcos) are the news and I’m the reporter. It’s nothing personal. I have nothing against them. If they have problems is with the law, and if they’re Catholic, with God. I have no time for rancor nor hatred.
“I was about to die by the shots of these persons. A colleague died. I’m Catholic; God didn’t want me to die. After that, I’m convinced that the narcos will not kill me. I’m not afraid. I’m going to die when God wants me to die.”
(De Sainz is studying for his Masters at San Diego State Universtiy, with his thesis on Narco Journalism along the border.)