The History of Zeta
In 1980, Jesús Blancornelas and Héctor Félix Miranda founded the Mexican newsweekly Zeta. They intended it to stand as an independent voice, different from the rest of the nation’s largely government-controlled media. At the time, reporting the truth about the country’s leaders was unprecedented — and risky. To secure the fledgling Tijuana paper’s survival, Blancornelas and Miranda located its printing operations across the border in California. The paper’s uncompromising stand against corruption (which included poking fun at those who practiced it) would bring it 30,000 readers—and anger from the country’s leadership.
Félix-Miranda became one of Zeta‘s most popular columnists, writing humorously about the foibles of Mexico’s politicians and social elite, using tips from readers happy to see these once-untouchable figures brought down to earth. It was assumed there would be some pushback, but what happened was horrific and unexpected: On April 20, 1988, Miranda was shot dead by thugs who worked for Jorge Hank, a member of one of Mexico’s most powerful families. Hank was never investigated and would later be elected mayor of Tijuana.
Gradually, the government’s hold over the media loosened, but Zeta was developing a far more deadly enemy. By the early 1990s, drug trafficking along Mexico’s border with the United States was becoming a major industry. Cartels generated huge sums of money and used it to fund lavish lifestyles, recruit a revolving network of dealers and pay off police and government officials. The drug gangs’ violent rule enveloped the entire border region and Zeta began to investigate narco-trafficking.
Taking a stand against the traffickers had its price. In 1997, Blancornelas was ambushed by 10 gunmen working for a cartel that had moved from Sinaloa to Tijuana to traffic shipments of cocaine into the United States. Blancornelas survived only because, in a moment of poetic justice, shrapnel from one of the gunmen’s bullets ricocheted and struck the gang’s lead assassin in the eye, killing him.
That same year, reporter Sergio Haro (featured in the film) left Zeta to found another independent newspaper, Siete Días, with Benjamín Flores. Flores was an ambitious reporter, and the paper took an aggressive stance against local drug lords. Flores was murdered just days after his 29th birthday; his killer was apprehended but set free by Mexico’s judiciary. Haro retaliated through the press, and a couple of days later Haro’s own life was threatened. Guards were appointed to protect him, while at Zeta, Blancornelas employed more than 20 bodyguards himself.
Blancornelas decided that Zeta‘s most explosive reporting should no longer carry bylines, but reporter Francisco Ortiz insisted on keeping his in a report — complete with names and photos — on organized crime figures who had received fake IDs from the attorney general’s office. Ortiz was gunned down in 2004, moments after he buckled his two children into the backseat of his car. Going forward, articles with sensitive information would carry a collective byline reading simply, “Investigation by Zeta.”
On November 23, 2006, Blancornelas passed away not from a bullet, but from stomach cancer, and Adela Navarro took over the editorial reins. In 2012, Zeta marked its 32nd year of publishing. To this day, beginning every Thursday evening, the 92-page weekly is printed just outside of San Diego and trucked to Tijuana.
Zeta staff’s brave stance — and that of like-minded journalists throughout Mexico — has cost dozens of lives. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that more than 50 journalists were murdered or disappeared during Felipe Calderón’s tenure as president from December 2006 to late 2012.
As of the writing of this background information, seven journalists have been killed in Mexico in 2012. Three of the incidents occurred in Veracruz on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.
Caption: An inscription in the Zeta editorial conference room. It reads, “Better to lose a story, than to lose your credibility.”
Credit: Patricia Benabe/Quiet Pictures
» Committee to Protect Journalists. “Calderón Fails, and the Mexican Press Is Dying.”
» Freedom House. “Three journalists killed on World Press Freedom Day.”
» International Press Institute. “Freelance journalist murdered in Mexico.”