ZETA’s offices are easy to miss. Since Jesús Blancornelas founded the Mexican magazine with Francisco Ortiz Franco and political columnist Hector Felix Miranda,
in 1980, ZETA journalists have worked out of a house in a residential neighborhood. The Tijuana publication runs hard-hitting investigative reports exposing political corruption and drug trafficking. The risks ZETA takes have led organizations such as the Knight Center for Journalism to dub them “suicide journalists.” Despite the assassination of Miranda in 1988, Franco in 2004, and a nearly fatal attack on Blancornelas in 1997, the paper continues to investigate and publish. Today Blancornelas’ son César runs the paper with Adela Navarro, a ZETA reporter since 1990.
Navarro has won several awards for her fierce editorial style including the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism. In 2012, she was named by Foreign Policy magazine to the FP Top 100 Global Thinkers. Newsweek named her as one of the 150 "Women Who Shake the World."
Navarro spoke to Global Journalist about the risk, reward and perseverance involved in ZETA’s work.
GJ: How do you feel when people refer to what you do as “suicide journalism?”
Not suicide journalism, we are just a group of journalists who do what we like to do. Journalism is my passion. I love my job. I love to seek information, to make public that information. I think most of my coworkers feel the same way. We publish what others won’t. We investigate what others won’t. We have to because it is happening; it is happening in our country, in our state, in our city. We have to do it.
GJ:Is it difficult to ask your reporters to do dangerous things?
Not in ZETA because when you came to ask for a job here, you know there is this risk. You know you will end up covering this kind of thing, the criminals, the drug trade, the assassination[s]. When you come to ZETA, you have to be a specific profile to ask for a job.
GJ: But if the cartels are so powerful why do they even bother targeting bloggers and journalists in the first place? Are they just afraid?
I don’t think afraid is the word. I think obviously they are concerned about what we are publishing in Mexico. For someone to know their faces and their names and where they live is to threaten them. Once we publish the report they have to hide. They don’t have the optimal life. They have to hide and they have to move places; they have to run because we publish their photo and we say to the people this is a bad guy. If you see him call the police. (laughs) Sometimes [people] call us and say ‘You know what I am sitting right next to that guy.’ But I am not a police; I am just a journalist.
GJ: How have you been threatened?
Yes, the first time someone from the main part of the government of the United States alerted me. He called me and he said the DEA were conducting an investigation and they hear[d over the phone] one man order another man to assassinate me and my co-workers, two of them. The second time someone from the government here told me in the same way. He said they heard there is a group that wants to kill me and my reporters. The last time we receive a phone call from one member of the community in Tijuana. He said he listened to talk with some people in the same room who were drug dealers and they said one to another they would have to kill us and finish with the newspaper.
GJ: How have death threats affected your life?
Very much and not in a good way. You lose your privacy. I have bodyguards. The first time, we received a threat from the Arellano Felix Cartel, and then the U.S. said I could cross the border and be protected. But I stayed in Mexico of course, and I called the military and a general at that time. He was the one who put the seven bodyguards to each one of us. We had seven bodyguards, 24/7. It was a most terrible time.
GJ: Did that make your investigations as a journalist difficult?
Sometimes a person comes to ZETA and she sees the bodyguards and she says I am never going to interview [at] your newspaper. I say we find another place or speak on the phone or on email. We open and close email accounts every week, to seek for information or to receive information.
So now I have two bodyguards, but I don’t take my bodyguards to interviews.
In our investigations [we] know first who is the one killing these people in Tijuana or who is the one selling this drug or [who] traffics drugs from Mexico to the United States. We investigate and we have found people in the corporation or the attorney[‘s offices] who trust in us but doesn’t trust their bosses or their institution and give us photographs and give us documents, official documents to support our investigation and we publish that.
GJ: Do you have family at risk?
Well, I try to keep my family away from my work, from my job. I see them two times a week. I always call them by phone or by Facetime, or a similar way, but I try to keep them away from my work. Nobody knows if I have kids or a mother or a sister or a brother. I never talk about my family in public.
GJ: Why does ZETA continue to publish with such great risks?
Because it was something that occurred in our city or state. We are not able to look at the other side. The government does that – look to the other side, […] but we as journalists cannot do that so we change. We cover politics and the government and we cover the drug trade because that’s what happens in our town and that is what affects our people.