Image: Weekly Zeta magazine on sale
Alejandro Cossio  /  AP
The weekly Zeta magazine has set a standard for aggressive coverage of Mexican drug traffickers and complicit government officials.
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updated 4/4/2011 5:52:16 PM ET 2011-04-04T21:52:16

The first time Adela Navarro saw her longtime mentor cry was when a top editor at their muckraking newspaper was murdered leaving a health clinic with his two young children.

"How many more deaths do I need to understand that we can't do this?" asked Jesus Blancornelas, who narrowly escaped an attempt on his own life after the weekly he co-founded made its mark with aggressive coverage of Mexican drug traffickers and complicit government officials.

Navarro, who was hired while still a college student, pleaded with him not to shut down the paper.

"We cannot allow the bad guys to win," she remembers telling him.

Seven years later, Zeta is thriving on a weekly dish of who's who in the underworld of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, serving up exhaustive — and lurid — stories on the narco world that are rarely found in other Mexican news media. Navarro, 42, and Blancornelas' youngest son, Rene Blanco, 39, became co-editors shortly before Blancornelas died in 2006 at age 70 from cancer.

As the midyear Inter American Press Association meeting begins this week across the border in San Diego, Mexico's news organizations are increasingly threatened by drug cartels engaged in a battle against each other and the authorities. The conflict has claimed more than 34,600 lives, including those of at least 22 journalists, since the government launched an offensive against the cartels in late 2006.

Some newspapers in areas stricken by drug violence have been cowed into near silence. Some limit coverage to official government statements and news conferences. Shootouts in broad daylight go unreported.

Others still cover the story aggressively, though few, if any, with the the intensity or depth of Zeta, which published its first cover story on drug trafficking five years after it was founded in 1980.

The Tijuana tabloid relentlessly chronicled the rise and decline of the Arellano Felix family, one of Mexico's oldest drug cartels. Its bread-and-butter coverage, often supported by sealed court documents, details how drug traffickers allegedly infiltrate the government.

Story: Report: 230,000 displaced by Mexico's drug war

A story in 2007 linked a state attorney general to Mexico's Sinaloa cartel. More recently, the newspaper has reported the emergence of Juan Sillas, aka "Ruedas," or "Wheels," who authorities say has emerged as one of the border city's more brutal hit men.

In the past month alone, Zeta reported that a Sinaloa cartel operative was recruiting hit men in San Diego, that authorities freed alleged cop killers and that traffickers in small towns east of Tijuana paid off police to allow street-level drug dealing.

Zeta's editors say they are honoring Blancornelas and their colleagues who have been gunned down: co-founder Hector Felix in 1988, Blancornelas' driver, Luis Valero, in 1997, and editor Francisco Ortiz in 2004.

"It's not easy to take this route and commit to doing these investigations, but it's what we do," Navarro said, speaking in a newspaper conference room that features a portrait of Blancornelas above the manual typewriter he used as a cub reporter in the 1950s.

Zeta detractors say the paper is too cozy with the army amid allegations that military officials have tortured suspects or that some soldiers work for the mafia. Zeta bestowed its "Person of the Year" awards in 2008 and 2009 on army generals.

Image: Novmber 1997 photo of, Jesus Blancornelas, one of the founders of Mexican weekly magazine Zeta, being tended to after gunmen tried to kill him
AP
In this Nov. 27, 1997, photo, Jesus Blancornelas, one of the founders of Mexican weekly magazine Zeta, is aided after gunmen tried to kill him in Tijuana, Mexico. Zeta magazine has set a standard for aggressive coverage of Mexican drug traffickers and complicit government officials.

The army deserves credit in Tijuana, but Zeta's lack of critical coverage is surprising, said Vicente Calderon, editor of TijuanaPress.com, an online news service.

"They do very good work, but they rest on their laurels to a large extent," Calderon said. "Because of their reputation, they get access that others don't have."

Zeta's editors say there are no sacred cows. They note that Gen. Sergio Aponte and his successor as the region's army commander, Gen. Alfonso Duarte, presided over a return to relative calm in Tijuana after violence reached frightening heights in 2008. In their view, the army earned its kudos.

"If Duarte is doing a good job, we're going to say so," Navarro said. "If Duarte is not doing a good job, we're also going to say so. We are loyal to no one except our readers."

The newspaper takes safety precautions, including performing background checks on new sources and having an editorial board vet stories before reporting begins.

When Ortiz was killed after reporting that drug traffickers obtained fake ID cards from the state attorney general's office, Blancornelas insisted that his byline alone appear on investigative stories, even if material came from others. He figured that of all the staff, he was the one who was safe: The government had given him a round-the-clock security force of more than a dozen soldiers after an assassin's bullet lodged in his spine in the 1997 attack that killed his driver.

Following his retirement and to this day, the newspaper labels its drug-trafficking stories "Zeta Investigations," with no byline.

But the threats still come. Navarro says that in January 2010 she received a warning from a U.S. official who intercepted a phone call indicating that the Arellano Felix cartel planned to kill top editors. The Mexican army confirmed the threat and assigned seven soldiers each to the top three editors for more than two months, until after the suspects were arrested.

Zeta's sources are often government whistle-blowers. Tips come from readers — and reporters at other newspapers that don't cover drug trafficking with Zeta's zeal.

"There are honest people in every government agency, and we try to find them," Rosario Mosso, a top editor, said, adding with a chuckle, "It gets more difficult all the time."

The memory of Zeta's fallen journalists looms large on its pages. Reprints of Blancornelas' works are a staple.

Every week, a full page with Felix's name and photo asks Jorge Hank, a businessman and former mayor of Tijuana, why Hank's former chief bodyguard killed the journalist. The bodyguard, Antonio Vera, is in prison for the killing. Hank has denied any connection to the crime.

Zeta's offices occupy a converted two-story house in a quiet, residential neighborhood of Tijuana, but the tabloid is printed in the San Diego area to avoid the fate of another muckraking newspaper that Blancornelas founded. ABC was stormed by union workers and forced to close down in 1979. Zeta blamed the governor for orchestrating the assault.

With a print circulation of about 30,000, Zeta is an anomaly as newspapers shift to the Internet. Every Friday at 4 a.m., bundles of the thick tabloid are hauled over the border to Mexico and hawked by hundreds of street vendors. Zeta doesn't post its stories on the Web until three days later and the site isn't updated during the week.

"The idea is to use the Internet to draw readers to the print edition, not replace it," said Mosso, 42, who joined Zeta straight from college.

The newspaper, which is owned by Blancornelas' wife, Genoveva Villalon de Blanco, relies largely on street sales, said son Rene Blanco, who started working there when he was 16. It doesn't disclose financial results, but Blanco says it posts a modest profit.

More than half of Zeta's Tijuana-based reporters cover sports, entertainment and the arts, but front-page stories are about drugs and corruption across political parties. Reporters' pay is decent by Mexican standards, but not spectacular: typically $210 to $250 a week, Navarro said.

For some readers, the newspaper's highly detailed accounts of constantly shifting alliances among drug traffickers and their bewildering array of nicknames is simply too much information on a disturbing subject. But Zeta is widely praised in Tijuana and throughout Mexico for its fearlessness.

"There are not a lot of examples of this kind of aggressive, investigative reporting in violent places at a time when violence has reached unprecedented levels," said Carlos Lauria, senior program director for the Americas at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

___

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Photos: Narco culture permeates Mexico, leaks across border

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  1. Tijuana, June 2009: Mexico's drug culture is defined by guns and money, to be sure, but it includes sex, movies, music and even a heavy dose of religion. It also extends across the border into the U.S.

    Since 2008, photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has been documenting that culture. Presented here are snapshots of that coverage, starting with what makes it all happen: cash. This stash was confiscated and the alleged courier, seen at center, was detained by Mexican soldiers.

    "Since the beginning of President Felipe Calderon's drug war in 2006, Mexican officials have held press conferences to show detained suspects," Schwarz notes. "At the same time the violence persists" -- with nearly 35,000 people killed through 2010. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

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    Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Three young men died in this shootout in the parking lot of a shopping mall. In the first half of that year, more than 1,000 drug war deaths were counted in Juarez alone. The city of 1.3 million has been the center of a drug turf war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Residents of a neighborhood survey the site where a body was found, presumably another victim of drug turf clashes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mexico City, July 2009: Mexico's drug and gang culture has a strong religious streak. Thousands of devotees seen here attend a mass for Santa Muerte -- Saint Death -- a mythical figure condemned by the Catholic Church but embraced by many poor and criminal elements. This gathering is outside a shrine in Tepito, a gritty neighborhood famous for its street markets brimming with pirated and stolen merchandise.

    "Its violent and dangerous streets serve as a sort of mecca for Santa Muerte followers," Schwarz says. "Tepito is also home to the most popular Santa Muerte shrine, which sits outside a modest home. On the first day of every month, the shrine fills with followers who come bearing statuettes of the saint. Some pilgrims make their way from the subway on their knees; many smoke weed or cigars with their saints." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus inhale glue out of plastic bags to get high as they gather outside San Hipolito church during the annual pilgrimage honoring the saint.

    Judas Thaddaeus is the Catholic Church's patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes, but in Mexico he is also known as "the saint of both cops and robbers (and prostitutes), as well as one of the biggest spiritual figures for young people in Mexico City," Schwarz says. "He has become the generic patron saint of disreputable activities. His biggest – and most important shrine – is at Hipolito, one of the best preserved colonial churches." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mexico City, October 2009: This shrine in the Colonia Doctores neighborhood pays homage to both Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde, reputedly a bandit killed by officials in 1909.

    Jesus Malverde is revered by many as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Several dozen such shrines exist in this neighborhood and in Tepito, where the cults thrive. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Tijuana, June 2009: A shrine to Santa Muerte sits above a home in the notorious Colonia Libertad neighborhood. The shrine is walled in by the old border fence separating Tijuana from San Diego. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Tijuana, March 2009: A man peeks through a fence toward the U.S., studying Border Patrol movements before crossing. New fences are constantly being built to deter illegal immigrants and drug traffickers.

    In 2010, President Barack Obama ordered some 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border and also signed a $600 million bill to fund 1,500 new Border Patrol agents, customs inspectors and law enforcement officials. But the U.S. has also had to pull the plug on a troubled $1 billion "virtual fence" project meant to better guard stretches of the border. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tijuana, June 2009: Federal police pat down a stripper during the raid of a large dance club. Several nightclubs in the notorious downtown red-light district were raided that night. Other parts of the strip continued as normal, with foreigners approaching young prostitutes as families with small children walked by with little notice and mariachis played on. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    Ciudad Juarez, December 2008: A woman's body lies on the autopsy table where it was discovered that she was raped and then murdered in what was made to look like a suicide.

    "Violence against women has also surged in correlation to the daily multiple uninvestigated and unpunished homicides," Schwarz says. "The coroner's office is open 24/7 and employs more than 100 doctors, technicians and investigative specialists, who cover Ciudad Juarez and northern Chihuahua state." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Tijuana, June 2009: The drug culture is often portrayed by Mexican cinema. Here director Antonio Herrera films a scene for "Vida Mafiosa" -- Mafia Life -- a low budget film glorifying the culture. "This is the only thing selling at the moment for me," Herrera said at the time as he worked to complete his seventh narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tijuana, November 2010: A scene from "El Baleado" -- The Shooting Victim -- shows young men being executed shortly after smuggling drugs in from a beach. The film was produced by Baja Films Productions, a family-owned company that almost went out of business until family member Oscar Lopez, a San Diego resident, convinced his father to make a narco film. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tijuana, April 2010: Los Angeles gangsters hang out at the production of a narco film. One of the gang members (not pictured) was an extra in the film. "That was a good excuse for them to come down to TJ and party where the drugs and women are cheap," Schwarz says. "It's common for gangsters/narcos to want to appear in these films." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Mexico City, October 2009: Devotees of Saint Judas Thaddaeus gather outside San Hipolito church. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Tijuana, June 2009: Young Mexicans in the Colonia Libertad neighborhood smoke pot and hang out at a spot overlooking the border with the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Burbank, Calif., April 2010: Alfredo Rios, better known by his stage name "El Komander", walks down a street just outside the studio of his agent and music producer. From Sinaloa, El Komander is one of the hottest singers/composers of "Narcocorrido" songs, which glorify the drug culture.

    "He regularly performs at private parties for Sinaloa's cartel members as well as composes songs for/about them, at times even commissioned by the drug lords," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Tijuana, April 2010: Narcocorrido performer "The Scorpion" (whose real name is Amador Granados) shows off his belt while on the set of a Baja Films Productions movie that translated into English means: Seagulls Don't Fly Alone. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Culiacan, March 2009: A man and his two sons visit Culiacan's main Jesus Malverde shrine, located across from a McDonald's and near the state legislature.

    "The narco culture is becoming more and more mainstream and the shrine draws people of all walks of life," Schwarz says. "Many visitors leave Polaroid photos with pithy notes giving thanks to Malverde."

    "The image of his mustachioed face, bedecked with a neckerchief, a gold chain with a pistol charm around his neck, and a large belt-buckle with a pistol around his waist can now be found all over the U.S.," Schwarz adds. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. El Monte, Calif., April 2010: The Bukanas De Culiacan band gets ready to perform during the launch event of "Movimiento Alterado," a new form of Narcocorrido gaining popularity. "Narco music clubs are mushrooming all over L.A., and up and down the West Coast," Schwarz says.
    "It's a social movement of people who came from nothing and dream of a chance out," said Joel Vazquez, the band's manager. "It's a lot like hip hop or gangsta rap, except it's Mexican culture, not black." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pico Rivera, Calif., April 2010: Partyers use the bathroom at El Rodeo Night Club, one of the many big Narcocorrido clubs in the Los Angeles area. "The cross-over music scene and culture is generating hybrid fashion trends and lifestyle ties between the Sinaloa mainstream, in Mexico and the Mexican-American mainstream culture in L.A.," Schwarz says. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Police protect a crime scene where two bodies were found in the desert near the border with the U.S. Much of Mexico's drug violence is due to turf wars for control of the border routes. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Culiacan, July 2009: The Jardines del Humaya Cemetery hosts many grave sites dedicated to drug traffickers. Some are two- and three-stories tall; many have bulletproof glass, Italian marble and spiral iron staircases.

    "Inside the mausoleums are pictures of the deceased, often men in their 20s and 30s, and signs of Santa Muerte and Jesus Malverde," says Schwarz. "And, as in many of the cemeteries found in the drug-war inflicted Mexico, rows of freshly dug graves await their new tenants." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Apatzingan, April 2010: This home hadn't been touched in the two years after it was shot at and burned down by soldiers in a deadly attack on members of the La Familia drug cartel. Many of its leaders were born in this town, and in December 2010 one of its founders was killed by soldiers there. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. The religion

    Culiacan, July 2009: A young man makes his way to the shrine of Jesus Malverde. Culiacan is the capital of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, long a hot bed of drug cultivation. For decades traffickers have worshipped at the shrine, helping to spread Malverde's fame. "Followers call Malverde the Robin Hood of Mexico," Schwarz says. "Critics say he has become a symbol of crime. Drug traffickers claim him as their own." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Tultitlan, November 2009: Santa Muerte devotees attend a service in the courtyard of a church with a 65-foot-tall statue of the mythical figure. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Angeles National Forest, Calif., August 2009: Santa Muerte worshipers gather in a creek just outside Los Angeles. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: This bridge to El Paso, Texas, is one of the legal border crossings into the U.S. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tijuana, March 2009: Mexico's military shows off the results of a raid on a party: assault weapons and the arrests of 58 people. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Culiacan, July 2009: A new inmate kisses his wife goodbye as their daughter cries.

    The Culiacan prison is notorious for violence and riots. "Security forces most often stay outside just along the perimeter of the prison and do not go in to the living quarters themselves," Schwarz says. "Weed, other drugs and cell phones along with statues of saints are common inside this typical Mexican jail." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Tijuana, March 2009: A drug addict sits in a tent where he lives along the border canal with the U.S. "The border canal has become a regular spot for junkies to use heroin," Schwarz says. "While the Mexican police do nothing, the U.S Border Patrol are just out of jurisdiction." (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mexico City, October 2009: Jose Garcia Pichardo prays and smokes a cigar at the Santa Muerte altar in his bedroom. Pichardo said he once was a drug dealer and that two years earlier the Santa saved him from the police. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Ciudad Juarez, August 2009: Women spread flour to soak up blood where a young man was murdered. Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the border city that year, and another 3,000 in 2010.

    "As a photojournalist I have covered conflicts and wars since 1996, but Mexico’s present situation haunts me like no other," Schwarz says. "While death statistics have been documented ad nauseum, far less has been said about the broader social reality created by the drug trade. As I continue to cover this story that seems to have no end in sight, I plan to focus not only on the harsh existence in border towns, but on the culture created for millions of Mexicans and Americans inevitably involved in or affected by the drug trade and a desire for “narco luxury.” (Shaul Schwarz/ Reportage By Gett / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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