Mexican Reporters Take On Cartels Despite Risks

For decades, journalists at the Tijuana newspaper Zeta have doggedly covered government corruption and narco-trafficking. That's made them the target of violence and threats. Bernardo Ruiz tells their stories in his new documentary, Reportero. He talks with guest host Celeste Headlee.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

2012 was the deadliest year on record for journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders, and Mexico once again made the top ranks as one of the deadliest countries in the world.

After years of all-out drug warfare in that country, we may consider it a given that Mexico is an extremely dangerous place to exercise the right to free press. But for the past 32 years, one publication has doggedly exercised that right. The Tijuana-based weekly newspaper, Semanario Zeta, is a pioneering force in the Mexican media landscape. They've aggressively covered government corruption and narco-trafficking, and they've had their casualties.

Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz chronicles the stories of these journalists in his new documentary, "Reportero." It premieres tonight on PBS's "POV" series, and Bernardo joins us now. Welcome.

BERNARDO RUIZ: Thank you so much for having me here.

HEADLEE: You know, just off the cuff, we can imagine that there's a lot of challenges that this newspaper faces in order to get these stories and get them out, but your film tackles first perhaps the biggest logistical challenge that editors can't and won't physically publish the paper in Mexico, or print it. Here's a clip of a manager at the print company in California that Zeta uses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REPORTERO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They print every week. Every Thursday night, we do their paper. I really don't have a good idea why they'd be printing here, as opposed to Mexico. But I would think it would be least expensive down there, but it might just be the possibility that it may be a little bit more secure up here. I am really not sure.

HEADLEE: So answer that question for us, Bernardo. Why do they have the paper printed in this country?

RUIZ: There's a great moment in the film where Adela Navarro Bello, who's the co-director of Zeta, where she says, as journalists, we're distrustful by nature. And even though times have changed in Mexico, we continue to print across the border in the United States because of Mexican history. And in the early days of Zeta - Zeta was founded in 1980 - the government controlled paper sales to newspapers. And so if they liked what you printed, you'd get a favorable rate on your newspaper. If they didn't like what you printed, all of a sudden, the rates would go up.

To avoid that situation, Jesus Blancornelas, who founded the paper, opted to print in the United States, just south of San Diego. And to this day, they continue to print in California and truck the issues back into Mexico every Friday at dawn for distribution throughout Northern Mexico.

HEADLEE: Well, take us back three decades or so, when Zeta opened its doors. It seemed to me - from your documentary, at least - that the reporters were a little bit cocky. They were a little disdainful of some of the other media outlets that did not report on corruption. So what was the real impetus behind the birth of this paper?

RUIZ: I think that's a fair assessment. When the paper was founded, it was founded by Jesus Blancornelas, who I mentioned before, and Hector Felix Miranda, who was a brash columnist. And Blancornelas had come out of five different newspapers. He'd been fired from different newspapers for taking on a pretty aggressive editorial line for provoking authorities and politicians.

They wanted to create a new type of paper, and, in fact, the name of the paper sort of embodies that new vision that they had. The last paper Blancornelas had worked at before he was fired was called ABC. And so when they were getting around together and saying, you know, what are we going to name this new paper? They said let's go from one end of the alphabet all the way to the other end. And so that's where Zeta was born. Obviously, no relation to the cartel. And they were...

HEADLEE: And people who don't speak Spanish may not realize that Zeta is spelled with a Z at the beginning, which is what you're talking about.

RUIZ: That's correct. Exactly.

HEADLEE: The paper has been around long enough now that the main story it covers has actually changed. It went from rampant government corruption to, now, narco-trafficking and the drug cartels that are kind of terrorizing parts of Mexico. What was Zeta's role in covering this shift in Mexico's landscape?

RUIZ: That's exactly right. One of the things that we try to do in the film is to chronicle that shift from Zeta's early history, when it was investigating political corruption and scandals, bribery scandals.

As things began to shift in the region in the '90s, when you have the rise of organized crime groups, principally the Arellano Felix organization, Zeta really was a pioneer in cracking the organized crime stories. It wasn't that other papers weren't doing it, but Blancornelas in particular led a team of reporters who were piecing together stories that nobody was really digging into. Blancornelas and team were really chronicling this story in real time.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take - actually listen to Blancornelas in just a moment. But first, let me say, if you are just joining us now, we're talking to filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz about his new documentary, "Reportero." It airs on the PBS program "POV" tonight. So here's some archival footage of Zeta's founder, Jesus Blancornelas. He's talking about the nature of fear and the role it plays in journalism.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REPORTERO")

JESUS BLANCORNELAS: (Through translator) When you're holding onto a delicate story, you're fearful, but the fear vanishes once the story is published, because before it's published, I'm the only one who knows about it, and someone who could be compromised by my story may try to do something to me. But once the story is out, everyone knows. I'm no longer scared.

HEADLEE: And then, in the documentary, you talk about Blancornelas getting ambushed and barely escaping with his life at one point. What price have Zeta's staffers actually paid, personally, for their work?

RUIZ: Zeta's story is, unfortunately, a bloody one. They've lost three staffers to organized crime hits. There have been multiple threats. The offices have been machine-gunned, and the stories of the attacks are connected to and really mirror their very aggressive reporting.

Kind of first casualty of the paper was Hector Felix Miranda, one its founders. In 1988, he was gunned down on a Tijuana street. One of the men who was charged in the murder was the bodyguard of a local oligarch, Jorge Hank Rhon, who would later become the mayor of Tijuana. As you mentioned, Blancornelas himself was attacked just a few blocks from the editorial offices of the paper. He was set upon by 10 gunmen. The lead hit man in particular - a piece of shrapnel from one of his bullets ricocheted off the vehicle that Blancornelas was in, struck the eye of the lead hit man and he died instantly, sending his other hit men away. It was a freak accident that actually saved Blancornelas' life.

But rather than stop running stories about organized crime or the Arellano Felix brothers in particular, Blancornelas kind of doubled down and, for the next nine years, until his death in 2006, he and staff continued to report very aggressively.

HEADLEE: Yeah. Despite what happened, in fact, they really became a target for the drug cartels, who obviously didn't like what they were publishing. One of the main people in the film, Sergio Haro, gets a leaked DVD that incriminates some very high ranking officials in the government, and then there's this scene. I mean, if it weren't real and terribly frightening, you'd think it was out of a Liam Neeson thriller. But there's this scene where he's driving to the Zeta office with the DVD. He feels like he's holding a grenade in his hand and he's weighing the pros and cons. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REPORTERO")

SERGIO HARO: (Through translator) What goes through your head? I can't deny I was scared. There were chills going down my spine. So what do you do? You do nothing? You pretend like you never got it? You wait and hope someone else publishes it? But then, what do I say to the person that gave me the disk? That I chickened out because it incriminates high-ranking officials and involves a dangerous cartel? No. Then I found out that the disk was given to other media outlets, but no one published it.

HEADLEE: No one except Zeta. So does that say more about Zeta, or does that say more about the rest of the media outlets in Mexico?

RUIZ: That's such a good question, and I think it gets to the heart of what the film is really about. Zeta's unique. They're certainly not alone in the media landscape, but they are one of the few publications that's continued to run these types of very difficult stories.

But it also says a lot about the journalist that you're hearing from in that clip, Sergio Haro. He's really the heart and soul of my film and someone who has been plying his trade for nearly three decades. He's been laboring invisibly in this little, neglected stretch of the California-Mexico border, never really gotten his due, and yet is so committed to the job that, week after week, he continues to break these stories - and not just these stories, but the kind of human stories, the stories about people who have suffered as a result of this really horrific drug war that has taken so many lives.

That moment that you're talking about where Sergio chooses to make public an interrogation video that implicates many high-ranking people in the state of Baja, that moment is really emblematic of the type of journalism that Sergio practices.

HEADLEE: Did you, yourself, never feel any danger while you were working on this documentary? It took you a very long time, going back and forth across the border.

RUIZ: The project did take some time. We were lucky in that we were never threatened while we were filming Adela Navarro Bello, who is the co-director of the paper. She did receive threats. She received threats afterwards. And, yeah, at the end of the day, the people who were in the line of fire are the reporters - in particular, reporters like Sergio. While the paper will run a collective byline saying, Investigation Zeta, if you are writing about the city of Mexicali, say, and it's a small enough place where everybody knows that, you know, you are, as a journalist, responsible for that story. So it's kind of a thin veneer of protection, inadequate in a lot of ways.

HEADLEE: You know, Bernardo, let me take us back to something I mentioned at the very beginning of this conversation, which is this latest report from Reporters Without Borders that says 2012 was the deadliest year on record for journalists. And there have been other surveys that say there's more journalists now incarcerated than perhaps ever before. Why do you think this is? I mean, obviously, you've looked most specifically at Mexico, but that's a dangerous place. Are things becoming more dangerous for journalists?

RUIZ: That's such an important question, and one that obviously has a multifaceted answer. I don't think there is any easy answer to that. But in the case of Mexico and in the case of the border, I can tell you what the journalists were telling me. And what they would say is: When you're investigating that unholy nexus between organized crime and political corruption, that seems to be the deadliest beat.

It's one thing to be a crime reporter and cover the bodies in the streets and, you know, a Weegee-style photographer and cover, you know, the aftermath of some big shooting, but it's another thing to do a deeper investigation and look at the links between organized crime, politics and big business. And, in the case of Zeta, in the case, for instance, of another murdered editor, Francisco Ortiz Franco, when he chose to make public the faces of cartel operatives who are used to operating with impunity and anonymity - when he made their names and faces public, he was gunned down in front of his two children. So the journalists of Zeta pay a very heavy price. It's not just the crime reporting. It's that bigger picture reporting, which they often say, too, is missing in the international press.

HEADLEE: Bernardo Ruiz is the filmmaker behind the documentary "Reportero." It premiers tonight on the PBS series "POV." You can also watch it online for the next month. And Bernardo joined us from our bureau in New York.

Thank you so much.

RUIZ: Thank you.

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