J. Jesús Blancornelas, Mexico

World Press Freedom Hero (Honoured in 2000)

In a region where bribe-taking among journalists is commonplace and where the press has traditionally yielded to the influence of government or other powerful positions, Zeta has quickly become famous for its independent, hard-hitting stories on official corruption and drug trafficking. J. Jesús Blancornelas is the editor of the weekly news magazine in Tijuana, Baja California, on the Mexico-United States border.

Blancornelas was born in the city of San Luis Potosí on Nov. 14, 1936. He joined the sports section of the newspaper El Sol de San Luis in 1956 and then worked, successively, as a reporter, city editor and news editor for the Tijuana-based daily El Mexicano. He then joined the Mexicali daily La Voz de la Frontera as a sub-editor and rose to editor in chief.

Before co-founding Zeta with his longtime colleague, Héctor “El Gato” Félix Miranda, Blancornelas launched the Tijuana newspaper ABC in 1977. After refusing a demand by the state governor to fire Félix Miranda, whose columns, signed Felix the Cat, were highly critical of local politicians, the state government sent in a SWAT team to forcibly seize control of the paper under the pretext of a labor dispute. Blancornelas was accused of fraud and had to flee to the United States, where he stayed for two years. He revived Zeta from San Diego, Calif., in 1980 and returned to Mexico in 1982 after the government withdrew all charges against him.

Zeta has paid a high price for its independent reporting. Through the years, it has been a frequent target of harassment, from confiscation of its issues to outright threats to advertisers. In 1987 the paper’s plant was sprayed with machine-gun fire. In 1988 Miranda was murdered. Blancornelas was severely injured in 1997 during an attack that killed his bodyguard, Luis Valero. On the morning of Nov. 27, gunmen opened fire with automatic weapons at Blancornelas’ car while he was driving to his office in Tijuana. One gunman, identified as David Barrón Corona, alias C.H., was killed in the cross fire. Blancornelas was hit four times. He underwent successful surgery two days later to remove a bullet fragment lodged near his spine. In the week prior to the attack, Blancornelas had published an article in Zeta claiming that C.H., a reputed member of the Tijuana drug cartel, was the gunman who killed two Mexican soldiers on Nov. 14. A few weeks before the attack on Blancornelas, the government withdrew bodyguards who had been assigned by Governor Hector Terán to protect the journalist.

In response to the growing number of violent attacks on journalists in Mexico, Blancornelas, together with other leading journalists, formed a press freedom organization, the Sociedad de Periodistas (Society of Journalists), in late 1997. The group was active in demanding security for newspaper columnist and International PEN President Homero Aridjis, who received death threats after speaking out about the lack of press freedom in Mexico. The group has pressured the Mexican government to carry out full investigations into the attack on Blancornelas and other journalists.

Blancornelas was the recipient of the UNESCO/ Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award in 1999. His role in providing a forum for opposition viewpoints and directing a critical spotlight on corrupt local governments has helped open the way for political change in the state of Baja California. His refusal to bow to pressure from those in power has inspired a new generation of journalists to work for a free and independent press in Mexico.

J. Jesús Blancornelas, died from a chronic illness on 23 November 2006.