Jesus Blancornelas, the pioneering border journalist who braved assassination attempts and death threats to expose the inner workings of Tijuana’s murderous drug cartels, died Thursday of natural causes. He was 70.
Suffering for months from the effects of stomach cancer, Blancornelas died in a hospital in Tijuana, the city where his Zeta magazine, founded in 1980, had earned him fame as “the spiritual godfather of modern Mexican journalism.”
In 1997, after daring to first publish the photograph of drug lord Ramon Arellano Felix, Blancornelas escaped an assassination attempt by cartel gunmen that left four bullets in his body. His bodyguard was killed.
“He never sold out, and he always stayed relevant,” said Francisco Bazan Penaloza, president of a Tijuana lawyers association.
“With his work, he raised high the name of Mexico in the world.”
Blancornelas wrote about the drug cartels for decades, even as the mafias intensified their war on muckraking journalists who dared to report on their activities.
“Today there are cities where journalists work as if walking through a minefield,” Blancornelas said in a speech last May accepting his second National Journalism Prize, Mexico’s highest journalism honor. “Other companions work every day watchful of tragedy.... We should show our solidarity with them. They are going through hard times.”
Born in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, Blancornelas began his career as a sportswriter in the mid-1950s. He moved to Tijuana in 1960.
His stories on the corruption of border officials forced him out of three newspapers before he co-founded the weekly ABC in 1977. His exposes riled Baja state officials so much that they sent police to take over ABC’s office in 1979 on the pretext of intervening in a labor dispute.
Blancornelas fled to San Diego and unsuccessfully applied for political asylum in the United States. In San Diego, he co-founded Zeta with colleague Hector Felix Miranda in 1980. They distributed the magazine across the border and eventually returned to Tijuana.
In 1985, a Zeta cover story on a warehouse filled with marijuana and guarded by local police broke the story of the arrival of the Arellano Felix brothers, who would become the leaders of the Tijuana drug cartel.
Blancornelas would say later he did not realize the significance of the story until plainclothes police officers bought all 20,000 copies of the magazine off the streets in a clumsy effort to stifle the news. Zeta republished the issue, with the headline “Censored!” blaring on the cover.
Zeta exposed the collusion of local officials with the increasingly powerful cartel and showed how local police protected the drug mafias.
Zeta co-founder Miranda was murdered while on his way to work in 1988. Two security guards at Tijuana’s Caliente racetrack were later convicted of the killings and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Since Miranda’s killing, Zeta has published a full-page ad in every edition asking the guards’ employer, racetrack owner Jorge Hank Rhon, why Miranda was killed. Hank Rhon, a frequent target in Miranda’s columns and now the city’s mayor, has denied any involvement in the murder.
On Thursday, Hank Rhon told Tijuana reporters he would not mourn Blancornelas’ death. The city would hold no official ceremony to mark his passing, he said.
In 1994, Zeta’s investigation of the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana arrived at a conclusion almost as controversial as the magazine’s exposes of the cartels: Despite a swirl of conspiracy rumors surrounding the case, Zeta found that the assassin, troubled factory worker Mario Aburto, had acted alone.
In the late 1990s, cartel hits of police and prosecutors in the city became so common that Zeta would occasionally publish lists of the dead with titles such as “the Organogram of Death.”
Undeterred by the killing of more journalists, Blancornelas and Zeta continued to publish stories, including one that detailed links between the Tijuana cartel and the Mexican Mafia, a California prison-based gang.
In November 1997, Blancornelas himself became a victim, when gunmen opened fire on his car on a busy Tijuana street. His bodyguard Luis Valero was killed.
“Thanks to God, my faithful friend Luis Valero, and the marvels of medical science, I am alive,” Blancornelas wrote in a column from his hospital bed. Rather than allow the attack to silence him, Blancornelas began a history of the Tijuana cartel that ran in installments.
“Everyone, even the narcotics traffickers, was waiting to see what I would do,” Blancornelas told The Times in a 2002 interview. “If I retired, I was afraid the narcotics traffickers would feel free to do the same thing to my colleagues.”
In the years that followed, Blancornelas traveled in Tijuana with a security detail worthy of a head of state. Having become a symbol of journalistic tenacity and courage, he received numerous international awards, including Columbia University’s Maria Moors Cabot Prize and awards from the Inter American Press Assn. and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The attacks against Zeta’s staff continued. Co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco was killed in 2004 while driving in a car with his two young children.
In April, weakened by illness, Blancornelas retired from the magazine he had founded.
He is survived by his wife, Genoveva Villalon de Blanco, and three sons.