Missouri Honor medalist ZETA pursues justice in Mexico

Thursday, October 28, 2010 | 8:50 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – Violence, corruption and three lives lost — and a Mexican newspaper is still persevering.

Adela Navarro, director general of ZETA Weekly Newspaper, spoke Thursday at MU about her publication’s reporting efforts on Mexican drug trafficking.

ZETA, which is headquartered in Tijuana, is one of eight Missouri Honor Medal winners who presented master classes Thursday about their work. Medalists were selected by MU School of Journalism faculty “on the basis of lifetime or superior achievement” in "distinguished service in journalism."

Navarro gave her presentation with the help of a translator but also answered many questions herself in English.

ZETA began operations in 1980. Navarro said the paper emerged into a hostile environment where the Mexican government constantly repressed journalism in an effort to hide its corruption. She said existing journalists were too intimidated to investigate.

“It’s very deep, the corruption,” Navarro said.

Only five years after its inception, the first violent, criminal actions were directed at the paper. Assailants fired on the building but no one was hurt. The crime was never solved, Navarro said.

In 1988, the first ZETA writer was killed. Navarro said that crime also went unsolved.

Since it began, ZETA has seen two more assassinations of its staffers and one failed attempt.

ZETA Director Jesús Blancornelas is the survivor of that failed murder. Navarro said the attack left his bodyguard dead, Blancornelas with four bullet wounds and his car with over 100 bullet holes.

Blancornelas went back to work at the paper after recovering, Navarro said.

“It’s our job, our passion and it’s our truest, deepest feelings that we have to do this,” she said.

Navarro said that in the past four years, 44 journalists in Mexico have been murdered. Out of those 44 killings, 95 percent have gone unsolved, she said.

Navarro said the killings were like a message — you can kill a journalist and be free. And when drug lords start targeting journalists, she said, they censor themselves or shut down.

Navarro said ZETA’s persistent motivation in the face of real danger is two-fold: the paper has a compromise with Mexican society to show who’s hurting them and pressure the government to take action, and after so many years of investigating they feel they can’t let organized crime get away unpunished.

“We appreciate our readers and we have their respect,” she said.

Navarro said American journalists don’t cover Mexican drug trafficking as completely as they should. She said they tend to focus on the Mexican traffickers when there are many on the North American side of the border who are just as active.

Navarro said California could cause a whole new problem for ZETA and others fighting drug traffickers. She said the state has typically blamed Mexico for its youths' drug problems.

But if marijuana becomes legal in California, Navarro joked that Mexico can start blaming California for the Mexican youths’ drug problems.

ZETA continues to investigate and expose drug crimes in Mexico. About 70 percent of its published content is reader-provided and staff cross-checked, Navarro said.

“We’re a team,” she said. “Not just one person writing about drugs.”

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