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Breaking Away: Mexico's press challenges the status quo

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Author Joel Simon
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Breaking Away: Mexico's press challenges the status quo, February 1998, available at: [accessed 11 December 2017]
Comments This report was included as a Special Report in CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1997".
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

By Joel Simon

In November 1996, as he was preparing to fly to New York to accept an International Press Freedom Award from the Committe to Protect Journalists, J. Jesús Blancornelas received an unlikely visitor at his Tijuana office. A former Tijuana police chief dropped by – not to offer congratulations, but to warn Blancornelas that if he accepted the award, he was signing his own death sentence.

Almost exactly one year later, the sentence was very nearly carried out. On November 27, Thanksgiving day across the border in San Diego but a normal workday in Mexico, bodyguard Luis Valero was driving Blancornelas to the offices of Zeta, the muckraking weekly newspaper he had co-founded in 1980. As Valero drove the red Ford Explorer down Chula Vista Street, a white Nissan cut him off. A pistol-wielding man jumped out and began firing. Valero tried to escape, turning right down San Francisco Street. But a green Pontiac pulled up alongside the Explorer, and four men with automatic rifles raked the car carrying Blancornelas with gunfire. Blancornelas took cover on the floor, while Valero threw the car in reverse, mounting the sidewalk and colliding with an iron fence. Hit by a fusillade of gunfire, Valero lay dying, slumped over on the passenger seat. Blancornelas, who had been struck by four bullets, grabbed the CB radio and called Zeta's offices. "We've been shot!" he yelled into the microphone. By the time reporters and photographers arrived at the scene, Blancornelas was being wheeled away on a stretcher, while one of the assassins, hit in the eye during the crossfire, lay dead, eerily propped up on his own gun.

After nearly two decades as co-editor of Zeta, Blancornelas has made his share of powerful enemies, any one of whom could have been responsible for the attack. Zeta has run stories about politicians on the take; explored the relationship between drug lords and the state police; and reported on the wave of killings carried out by the Arellano brothers, Tijuana's first family of drug smuggling. Blancornelas has also published stories implicating Jorge Hank Rhon, the scion of Mexico's leading political clan, in the murder of his partner and Zeta co-founder Héctor "Gato" Félix, who was gunned down in 1988. Over the years, Blancornelas himself has received numerous death threats. In 1987, Zeta's office was riddled with gunfire.

But the air of danger around Blancornelas did seem to heat up after he was honored along with five other journalists at CPJ's International Press Freedom Award dinner on November 26, 1996. In April, gunmen jumped from a car, shooting and killing Héctor Navarro, Zeta's former accountant, and Carlos Estrada, Blancornelas' former attorney. Because Blancornelas had been involved in a legal dispute with the two men, Tijuana's tabloid press insinuated that the editor was behind the killings. Soon after the murder of Navarro and Estrada, Blancornelas hired Luis Lauro Valero as his personal bodyguard. Baja California governor Héctor Terán Terán also assigned police protection to Blancornelas. On October 27, 1997, however, the bodyguards Governor Terán had assigned were removed. Zeta editors later alleged that the action was taken in response to the paper's aggressive reporting.

CPJ had chosen to honor Blancornelas not only in recognition of his achievements as editor of one of Mexico's most independent newspapers, but also to highlight the dramatic transformation of the Mexican press. Zeta was one of the first Mexican newspapers to challenge the decades-old system of bribes, kickbacks, and distribution of government advertising that had been used by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to keep the Mexican press in line. Zeta reporters were explicitly forbidden to accept gratuities from government officials, and the paper made a concerted effort to cover opposition parties fairly. Partially due to Zeta's coverage of the 1989 gubernatorial elections in Baja California, the National Action Party's (PAN) Ernesto Ruffo Appel won the race, ending the PRI's half-century long political monopoly. Today, the kind of journalism that once set Zeta apart is becoming more common in Mexico – bribes are no longer routine, and the press has become more aggressive, professional, and independent.

Ironically, as the quality of journalism has improved in Mexico, the risks to journalists have increased, as powerful figures, unaccustomed to public scrutiny, have lashed out violently. Despite Blancornelas' growing sense that he was a marked man in the months after the murders of Navarro and Estrada, Zeta continued to cover the dangerous stories. The paper reported extensively on the "Narcojuniors," the children of Tijuana's wealthiest families who had been drawn into the drug trade. Zeta reporters also explored the growing ties between the Tijuana cartel and the state judicial police. On November 21, Zeta broke the story of how the Arellanos' top assassin was behind the murder of a several police officers. Blancornelas co-authored a report on the gunman, a Mexican who had grown up across the border in San Diego and was known only by his nickname: C.H.

The day after the ambush of Blancornelas and Valero, it became clear that it was Blancornelas' November 21 story that nearly got him killed. A report issued after the autopsy on the gunman killed at the scene revealed that he was covered with elaborate tattoos, including 16 skulls, perhaps representing his victims, and a large "EME," indicating membership in a U.S.-based prison gang called the "Mexican Mafia." Through fingerprints, Mexican federal authorities were able to identify the dead man as David Barrón Corona, better known as C.H.Only three weeks before the attack on Blancornelas and Valero, editor Raymundo Riva Palacio had addressed a gathering of about 30 of Mexico's top journalists, invited by CPJ to discuss self-defense strategies. "Does someone have to die before we do anything?" asked Riva Palacio. The workshop, titled "¿Cómo se defiende la libertad de prensa?" (How is Press Freedom Defended?), was held on November 7 and 8 in Mexico City.

What Riva Palacio was alluding to was the fractiousness of the Mexican press, which has never had an independent organization to represent its interests. Ideological feuds, personal rivalries, and the insularity of the Mexico-based media have long divided the Mexican press. Many of the journalists at the CPJ-sponsored workshop, for example, had not met the top provincial journalists who were also in attendance. Most of the rivalries and personal differences were put aside, as the journalists found common ground in an issue they were all facing – the rising tide of violence against the press.

Why has the Mexican press been so divided? The PRI is partially to blame. The government has made a concerted effort to undermine and co-opt any press group that challenged the status quo. Yet as Riva Palacio has pointed out, the press has generally been an active participant in the system. "The collusion of the press is so complete that the government does not have to resort to direct censorship to suppress ideas and information," wrote Riva Palacio in an essay published in A Culture of Collusion, a book on the Mexican press edited by CPJ executive director William A. Orme, Jr. "The government can exercise control over what it wants published because the press has no desire to give up its share of the bargain; the press can not bear the idea of unbridled competition."

But the mechanisms of state control Riva Palacio described – ranging from free meals and prostitutes to a US$40,000 payment to kill a story – have in fact already begun to break down. The loosening of control began in 1990 under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. In an effort to sell the virtues of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Salinas employed a sophisticated media strategy, wooing the foreign press and top Mexican journalists with access and inside information. While bribes and threats did not disappear, they were partly supplanted by the introduction of modern "spin control."

The establishment of the Mexico City daily Reforma in late 1993 also challenged one of the government's primary strategies for controlling the media – the distribution of state advertising. Many newspapers in Mexico stay afloat with revenue they receive from government ads. And most papers publish gacetillas – paid government propaganda disguised as news stores. But Reforma, bankrolled by the wealthy Junco family that also owns the Monterrey daily El Norte, is one of a handful of Mexican newspapers that has erected a wall between the business side and the news side. Reporters are prohibited from soliciting advertising from the sources they cover, a common practice throughout the rest of the Mexican press corps.

The Mexican media learned an important lesson about the economic value of news in January 1994, when armed Mayan Indian rebels from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), led by a charismatic, pipe-smoking mestizo who called himself Subcommander Marcos, took over several towns in the southern state of Chiapas. The story had instant appeal, and the Mexican press covered it closely. The left-leaning daily La Jornada, which aggressively reported the revolt, found that its circulation doubled, reaching 120,000. The assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio at a Tijuana campaign rally in March 1994 further fueled the public's appetite for news. Mexicans turned to the press for information and analysis about the violent events that were transforming their country.

At the same time that the print media were being transformed by the growing demand for information, Mexican television was experiencing the birth of competition. In 1993, in accordance with its economic liberalization program, the Salinas government sold a state-owned television station to businessman Ricardo Salinas Pliego (no relation to the president). Few observers expected the new station – christened Televisión Azteca – to pose any real challenge to Mexico's media giant Televisa, whose owner, Emilio Azcárraga, once proudly described his station as "part of the government system." Televisa's nightly newscast – the sole source of news for the vast majority of Mexicans – featured mostly innocuous interviews with prominent politicos and re-heated press releases. While TV Azteca's nightly news program was still favorable to the PRI, it took more risks than Televisa. The station found that its ratings soared when it aired controversial stories, such as an interview with Subcommander Marcos. Within a few years, TV Azteca had siphoned off 40 percent of the prime-time audience. Televisa fought back by upgrading its coverage; Mexico's television war had begun.By the time Salinas handed over power to Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León in late 1994, the very ethos of Mexican journalism had changed. Journalists who might have once sought to make a career by cozying up to a powerful politician now built their reputations on exposés of the latest political scandal. Mexicans had access to a wide range of information – two major television networks, cable news programs, several lively and informative radio news shows, and dozens of print outlets spanning the ideological spectrum. A new generation of young reporters – better educated, more independent, and more highly paid – was moving into top editorial positions. Ironically, Salinas found himself the target of forces he had unwittingly unleashed, as an emboldened and sometimes reckless press published stories accusing the ex-president of everything from corruption to murder.

Mexico's press has continued to move toward independence under Zedillo, but for entirely different reasons. While Salinas sought to develop more sophisticated mechanisms for exercising control over the press, Zedillo, who had never held elective office before he became president, seemed to lack both the skills and inclination to manage the media. Even more significant was the near collapse of the Mexican economy in early 1995, which greatly limited the PRI's ability to bankroll journalists. In state capitals where journalists were often paid by the government agencies they covered, budget cuts have ended the practice. The emergence of political competition has also undermined the system, as rival political parties have purged journalists, most of them loyal to the PRI, from government payrolls. The death knell for the old system of media control came with the July 6 mid-term election, in which the PRI lost its majority control of the Congress and, thereby, the purse strings of the nation.

But along with the new opportunities for investigative journalism have arisen new risks. Powerful figures inside and outside the government have come under increased scrutiny; unable to control the press, some have reacted violently. On May 22, for example, the bullet-ridden body of journalist Jesús Abel Bueno León was found in his burnt-out car on a quiet road near Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero. Several months earlier, Bueno León, the editor of the weekly newspaper 7 días, had published a story on a government investigation of José Rubén Robles Catalán, the former secretary of the state of Guerrero, who had been accused of framing his ex-girlfriend on drug charges and ordering the murder of her attorney. On February 3, Robles Catalán had filed a lawsuit for defamation and calumny against Bueno León and six other local journalists who had covered the investigation. Soon after Bueno León's murder, his wife made public a signed document the journalist had written before his death. "I write these lines to give testimony now that I am no longer alive to the fact that through my journalism I provoked some fights with high government functionaries and even with my journalistic colleagues," Bueno León wrote. "I ask that the first line of investigation be the examination of José Rubén Robles Catalán and his group of corrupt police ... "

While journalists in Guerrero organized a series of protest marches to demand a government investigation into the murder, the Bueno León case generated little coverage in Mexico City, where journalists have long considered themselves isolated from the violence that afflicts their colleagues in the provinces. For a long time they have been right – of the 10 journalists murdered in Mexico between 1986 and 1996 only one was from Mexico City. But a series of attacks on Mexico City journalists made it clear that no one was immune to the growing violence.

On September 13, René Solorio, a crime reporter with TV Azteca, was kidnapped by a group of armed men who forced him into a car. A few days earlier Solorio had filmed a segment, aired on the nightly news, which showed criminals working in apparent complicity with the police. The men who abducted Solorio put a plastic bag over his face, fired gunshots near his head, and told him that they had already executed his family. After a seven-hour ordeal, the men released Solorio on the side of a highway. He later learned that his family had not been killed. Earlier that day, one of Solorio's colleagues at TV Azteca was abducted under similar circumstances.

Around the same time, two reporters from Reforma and another from the Mexico City daily El Universal were also attacked. All had been reporting on crime or police corruption. In July, Víctor Martínez Hernández, a police reporter with the Mexico City magazine Como, was murdered. Colleagues from the magazine say Hernández was beaten by several men as he was leaving the Mexico City office of the Federal Judicial Police. They suspect he was killed by police officers angered by his reporting on corruption.It was in the context of the radical transformation of the Mexican media, and against the backdrop of growing violence against journalists, that the CPJ workshop took place. The objective was both to analyze the risks facing the press and develop ways to make a dangerous job safer. On the morning's first panel on November 8, which focused on attacks and threats, Jesús Blancornelas spoke about the deteriorating situation in Tijuana as his bodyguard, Luis Valero, looked on.

Many of the journalists who attended the workshop had, like Blancornelas, traveled from the provinces. For many of the Mexico City journalists, the quality of the work being done by journalists outside the capital came as something of a surprise. Jesús Barraza, who had flown from the border city of San Luis Río Colorado, where he edits La Prensa, told how local drug traffickers angered by the paper's coverage had ordered the murder of editor and publisher Benjamín Flores González.. "When Benjamín Flores fell at our door ... the presses did not stop," said Barraza, describing the day in June when four gunmen had riddled the editor with bullets as he was arriving at the paper. "I assumed immediate control and saw how the reporters wet the keyboards with their tears ... and, at times, cried out, overwhelmed by the impotence, the pain, and the rage of seeing the image of our editor bleeding to death on the floor."

While lawlessness remains an overriding concern, journalists are also threatened by an explosion in defamation litigation. Sam Dillon, The New York Times' bureau chief in Mexico, spoke at the conference about the criminal charges that had been filed against him and Times reporter Craig Pyes in April. Alleging that they were defamed by a February 11 story titled "Shadow on the Border: Drug Ties Taint 2 Governors," Jorge Carrillo Olea of Morelos State and Manlio Fabio Beltrones of Sonora State filed criminal defamation charges. Under Mexico's libel law – written in 1917 – truth is not an admissible defense, public officials are granted a higher level of protection than private citizens, and conviction can mean a sentence of up to 11 months in prison.

In a June 7 letter sent to President Zedillo, CPJ argued that the 1917 Ley de Imprenta represents a serious impediment to the functioning of a free press in Mexico:

Because a functioning democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas, it is CPJ's position that journalists should never face criminal prosecution because of material they publish. In fact, an honest belief by the journalist that facts contained in a story were correct at the time of publication should be sufficient defense against all legal action. In instances where a plaintiff can demonstrate malice on the part of a journalist-in other words, that a journalist knew or should have known that the facts in a story were wrong at the time of publication-civil litigation should provide adequate redress for the aggrieved party.

CPJ firmly believes that journalists should have absolute liberty to report on government investigations, particularly those in which public officials are alleged to be involved in wrongdoing. An informed and robust public debate will inevitably expose government officials to caustic criticism. Moreover, in a democracy, elected officials should have less protection under civil libel statutes than do private citizens. Under the terms of the Ley de Imprenta, the reverse is true. Such statutes are the hallmark of an authoritarian society and, therefore, an anachronism in the context of an increasingly democratic Mexico.

The letter also argued that the "appropriate forum in which to settle any dispute regarding an article published in the United States is the U.S. court system. By international convention – and because foreign correspondents do not generally publish in the countries which they cover – foreign correspondents are generally not subject to libel laws of their host country. Holding foreign correspondents accountable to the Mexican defamation statute would therefore represent an extraterritorial application of national law, a practice Mexico has opposed when carried out by other nations." In July, a CPJ delegation traveled to Mexico to meet with officials in the Mexican government to reiterate concerns about the criminal libel proceedings.

In October, Mexico's Attorney General announced the state was dropping the charges against Dillon and Pyes because, under Mexican law, foreigners can not be prosecuted in Mexico for an action which is not illegal in the country in which it was carried out. Since libel is not a criminal offense under U.S. federal law, the case could not be prosecuted in Mexico. This was an important victory for all foreign correspondents in Mexico. But as Dillon pointed out at the workshop, Mexican journalists have no protection from punitive lawsuits brought under the 1917 law. According to Mexican press groups, dozens of journalists have been hit with libel suits in recent years. The most egregious abuse of the libel law was perpetrated by TV Azteca owner Ricardo Salinas Pliego, who has used lawsuits to squelch reporting linking him to a money-laundering scheme.

According to a story first reported in the Miami Herald, Salinas Pliego received nearly US$30 million from Raúl Salinas de Gortari, the brother of former president Salinas (Raúl Salinas is currently in jail, accused of money-laundering and murder). When Mexican reporters began to pick up on the story, they were splapped with lawsuits. "Even though Salinas Pliego has no chance of winning, his strategy of using lawsuits to suppress the story has functioned perfectly," said Luis Linares, a columnist for the Mexico City daily La Jornada and one of at least a dozen reporters being sued by the businessman. "Today, no one is writing about it."

After analyzing the threats, journalists at the workshop examined the existent press freedom organizations in Mexico, and heard from Peruvian journalists about the creation of Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS), a press freedom group based in Lima.

By the afternoon, a consensus had emerged among the conferees that more needed to be done to protect freedom of the press as Mexico enters a new era. Eight journalists were nominated to form a working group. They included Riva Palacio, Rossana Fuentes of Reforma; Juan Bautista of the Fraternidad de Reporteros, a Mexico City-based press group; Jorge Zepeda of Público in Guadalajara; Razhy González of Cantera in Oaxaca; Juan Angulo of El Sur in Acapulco; José Santaigo Healy of El Imparcial in Hermosillo; and Jesús Blancornelas of Zeta in Tijuana.Less than three weeks later, Blancornelas lay fighting for his life in a Tijuana hospital. While the Mexico City workshop had done nothing to protect Blancornelas from the attack, it was apparent in the aftermath how dramatically public awareness of the importance of press freedom had increased. Many of the top editors who were making decisions about how to cover the Blancornelas attack had met him weeks before. The fact that they felt a personal connection to him, and had been made aware of the dangers and difficulties of practicing journalism in Tijuana, contributed to the extensive coverage.

While the murders of three Mexican journalists earlier in 1997 had received little attention in Mexico, the attack on Blancornelas was covered on television and radio and was on the front page of virtually every newspaper in the country for several days. Heavy play in the Mexican media helped fuel international coverage. In the United States, the Blancornelas attack was covered on national TV news programs as well as in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and on National Public Radio.

That kind of exposure helped fuel a public outcry, showing why the most effective response to an attack on the press is journalism. Mexican authorities, feeling the heat from the news media and the public, were forced to take some concrete actions. The investigation into the attack on Blancornelas, for example, was referred to the federal prosecutor's office, which has greater resources, experience, and independence than state prosecutors, who normally handle such investigations. Federal authorities explained they were taking over the case because the crime was committed by a drug cartel, and trafficking is a federal offense. In a December 1 letter sent to Mexican president Zedillo following the Blancornelas attack, CPJ argued the federal authorities should handle all investigations involving freedom of the press:

Because of widespread reports of complicity between the State Judicial Police and drug traffickers – some of which have been published in Zeta – we support your government's decision to assign the investigation to the Federal Judicial Police. We hope that this will serve as a precedent. In CPJ's view an attack on any journalist which is carried out in reprisal for his or her work should be referred to federal authorities. Under the Mexican Constitution, the right to free expression is guaranteed by the state (Art 6: "el derecho a la información será garantizado por el estado"). Clearly, if a journalist is unable to carry out his or her function because of the threat of physical violence, the Mexican Constitution mandates federal involvement.

In addition, CPJ sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno requesting that the United States cooperate with Mexican officials investigating the crime. The December 4 letter noted:

Mexican investigators have identified the gunman killed at the scene of the crime as David Barrón Corona, a U.S. resident who grew up in San Diego. Barrón Corona, who was known by the alias C.H., was a reputed member of the 'Mexican Mafia, ' a U.S.-based prison gang that distributes heroin and cocaine in the United States. In the week prior to the attack, Blancornelas published an article in which he reported that C.H. was the alleged gunman in the killing of two Mexican soldiers on November 14. Because of the possibility that U.S. law enforcement agencies may have information that could be helpful in the Mexican investigation, we are writing to make you aware of the circumstances of this crime. Since there is evidence that that C.H recruited other gunmen from the San Diego area, it is possible that those responsible for the attack on Blancornelas are in the United States.

CPJ received assurances from U.S. officials of their cooperation.

Despite the decision to refer the investigation into the attack on Blancornelas to Mexican federal authorities, Mexican journalists have noted that those responsible for crimes against journalists have rarely been apprehended. For that reason, expectations in the Blancornelas case are limited. Instead, the press is looking inward, coming to terms with its growing power not only to investigate and denounce corruption and malfeasance but also to protect its own interests. Like all of Mexican society, the press is grappling, sometimes awkwardly, with its new freedom. There is little doubt that as journalists continue to tackle dangerous stories they will face reprisals. Nevertheless, the attack on Blancornelas may be remembered in a few years not only as terrible crime, but as the beginning of a new era of independent Mexican journalism.

CPJ wishes to acknowledge the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation for the generous support which made possible the Mexico City journalism workshop. Additional support was provided by the Freedom Forum.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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