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Jesus Blancornelas; journalist exposed Tijuana drug cartel

MEXICO CITY -- Jesus Blancornelas, the pioneering border journalist who braved assassination attempts and death threats to expose the inner workings of Tijuana's murderous drug cartels, died Thursday of natural causes. He was 70.

Suffering for months from the effects of stomach cancer, Blancornelas died in a hospital in Tijuana, where he earned fame as "the spiritual godfather of modern Mexican journalism."

In 1997, after daring to first publish the photograph of drug lord Ramon Arellano Felix, Blancornelas was wounded in an assassination attempt by cartel gunmen .

"He never sold out, and he always stayed relevant," said Francisco Bazan Penaloza, president of a Tijuana lawyers association. "With his work, he raised high the name of Mexico in the world."

Blancornelas kept writing about the drug cartels for decades, even as the mafias intensified their war on journalists who dared to report on their activities.

"Today there are cities where journalists work as if walking through a minefield," Blancornelas said in a speech in May accepting his second National Journalism Prize, Mexico's highest journalism honor.

Born in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, Blancornelas began his career as a sportswriter in the mid 1950s. He moved to Tijuana in 1960.

His stories on the corruption of border officials forced him out of three different newspapers before he co-founded the weekly ABC in 1977. His exposes riled Baja state officials so much that they sent police to take over ABC's office in 1979 on the pretext of intervening in a labor dispute.

Blancornelas fled to San Diego and unsuccessfully applied for political asylum in the United States. In San Diego, he co-founded Zeta with colleague Hector Felix Miranda in 1980. They distributed the magazine across the border and eventually returned to Tijuana.

In 1985, a Zeta cover story on a warehouse filled with marijuana and guarded by local police broke the story of the arrival of the Arellano Felix brothers, who would become the leaders of the Tijuana drug cartel.

Blancornelas would say later he did not realize the significance of the story until plainclothes police officers bought all 20,000 copies of the magazine off the streets in a clumsy effort to stifle the news. Zeta republished the issue, with the headline "Censored!" blaring on the cover.

Zeta exposed the collusion of local officials with the increasingly powerful cartel and showed how local police protected the drug mafias.

Zeta co-founder Miranda was murdered while on his way to work in 1988. Two security guards at Tijuana's Caliente race track were later convicted of the killings and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In the late 1990s, cartel hits of police and prosecutors in the city became so common that Zeta would occasionally publish lists of the dead with titles such as "the Organogram of Death."

Undeterred by the killing of more journalists, Blancornelas and Zeta continued to write stories, including one that detailed links between the Tijuana cartel and the Mexican mafia.

Finally, in November 1997, Blancornelas himself became a victim, when gunmen opened fire on his car on a busy Tijuana street. Blancornelas was shot four times. His bodyguard, Luis Valero, was killed.

"Thanks to God, my faithful friend Luis Valero, and the marvels of medical science, I am alive," Blancornelas wrote in a column penned from his hospital bed.

Rather than allow the attack to silence him, Blancornelas began a history of the Tijuana cartel that ran in weekly installments.

In the years that followed, Blancornelas traveled in Tijuana with a security detail worthy of a head of state. Having become a symbol of journalistic tenacity and courage, he received numerous international awards, including Columbia University's Maria Moors Cabot Prize, and awards from the Inter-American Press Association and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In April, weakened by illness, Blancornelas retired from the magazine he founded.

He is survived by his wife, Genoveva Villalon de Blanco, and three sons.

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