Albion Monitor /Commentary

Mexico's War on Journalists

by Jay Brodell

Among the dead are newspeople with the nerve to report on corruption, murder and drug lords
(AR) DENVER -- A war rages to our south, and no bystander is innocent. The bodies are stacking up in Juarez, Tijuana and other strongholds of the drug trade.

Among the dead and the wounded are Mexican newspeople who have the nerve to use their new freedoms to report on corruption, murder and drug lords.

The latest to fall is Jesus Blancornelas, a co-founder of the investigative weekly Zeta in Tijuana. He was gunned down in that city on Thanksgiving. His bodyguard died. Doctors still are trying to pull all the metal from around Blancornelas' spine. He's lucky. The other co-founder of Zeta, Hector Felix Miranda, was murdered in 1988.

Last year three Mexican newsmen died in what were probably assaults by the hired hit men of the drug lords. Somewhere around 20 newspeople were threatened or injured.

Last year saw 39 deaths in Juarez alone
I last saw Blancornelas Nov. 15 in Ciudad Juarez when Mexican newspeople gathered to hone their investigative skills and figure out how to stay alive. Blancornelas, 61, was putting a lot of faith in the protection afforded by people outside Mexico -- in their knowing the truth. American correspondents in Mexico promised to keep the flame alive and write about assaults on the press.

About the time I was talking with Blancornelas, a gunman dressed in black walked into a restaurant a half a block away and pumped three bullets into the neck and head of a man believed to have been somehow involved in the drug trade. Such is life along the border. The restaurant victim was the 39th person to die by execution in Juarez alone in 1997.

While police investigated the execution death nearby, the widow of a murdered Mexican columnist was telling me how the government botched the search for her husband's killers.

The dead columnist was Victor Manuel Oropeza, a surgeon who wrote a hard-hitting column for Diario de Juarez. He was knifed multiple times in his own office in 1991. The widow, Patricia Martínez de Oropeza, waved a letter from the Organization of American States (OAS) in my face as she spoke. She said the attachments to the letter showed Mexican government duplicity in the investigation of her husband's death. The attachments were Mexican government responses to questions by the OAS. Mrs. de Oropeza characterized the responses as half-truths and inadequate.

She said she feels the same pain now as she did the night she found her husband's body because police and government officials have not taken steps to find the killers. She will be graduated in May as a lawyer. She began the academic program in Mexico after a year of frustration over her husband's death, she said. Once a lawyer, she will continue to press for an investigation. "The only way to stop me is to send me to the grave," she said.

There is little doubt that drugs are the common denominator in the death of nearly every newsman
The crisis in Mexico stems from a number of causes. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (which is anything but revolutionary in this era) is losing ground after governing the country as a plutocracy for 65 years.

Newspeople who would have stayed mum 10 years ago are writing more probing stories. The official corruption is a reporter's dream.

Meanwhile, the drug trade centers around smuggling tons of marijuana and coke into the nearby United States. The power struggles spill out into the streets and across the border.

Theoretically, everyone in the United States who uses illegal drugs is responsible for Blancornelas' shooting. There is little doubt that the local drug gang plotted the shooting. There is little doubt that drugs are the common denominator in the death of nearly every newsman. The drug money has corrupted the police, the politicians and even the common laborers.

Some in the United States think that the dead and wounded Mexican reporters are really bad eggs who are getting a dose of their own medicine. I tended toward this view until I sat and talked with these reporters and editors, who take their lives into their own hands every edition. Some traveled 20 hours on a second-class Mexican bus to attend our session on investigative techniques. One, at least, was a marked man, we now know.

Not all Mexican journalists are heroes. As in every country, many go along to get along. But the minority, the courageous reporters and their editors and publishers who push to report truth, are the thin line between civilization and chaos in Mexico.

Their story needs to be told. And understood.

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Albion Monitor January 12, 1998 (

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