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In treacherous Tijuana, editor Adela Navarro Bello’s risks are life-or-death

By Anne-Marie O’Connor,

Tijuana, Mexico — “When will this end?” Adela Navarro Bello, editor of the Tijuana newsweekly Zeta, asked with a look of ire.

In Nuevo Laredo, the beheaded body of a blogger, Maria Elizabeth Macias Castro, 39, had been dumped near a computer keyboard with a note signed by a major drug cartel mocking the pseudonym — “Girl From Laredo” — that she had hoped would protect her.

“In Mexico the crimes against journalists are never solved,” Navarro said. “The special prosecutor’s office for crimes against journalists keeps saying, ‘It wasn’t because of their work as journalists.’ It’s terrible. What is the message? That in Mexico you can assassinate a journalist and not go to jail?”

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists, and Tijuana, the sunny, friendly Pacific Coast border city that has been marred by drug cartel violence, has been a punishing home for Zeta.

Two of its journalists have been slain. Zeta’s founder, the pioneering Mexican muckraker Jesus Blancornelas, survived a 1997 assassination attempt by the Arellano Felix drug cartel, and he ran the paper with around-the-clock bodyguards before his death from cancer in 2006.

Now Navarro is an heir to this perilous legacy. On Thursday in New York, the International Women’s Media Foundation will give Navarro its Courage in Journalism award because “she has refused to remain silent, despite repeated warnings that she is being targeted by drug cartels.”

“She is a genuinely independent journalist, in very difficult circumstances — I respect her a lot,” said Julio Scherer, founder of Proceso, the influential weekly in Mexico City.

On a recent day, Navarro sat in Zeta’s conference room under a sort of shrine to her late mentor, with a blown-up photograph of the bespectacled, gentlemanly Blancornelas and his manual typewriter. Wearing black pants, high heels and a stylish white blouse with black embroidery, she thumbed her BlackBerry as she spoke with a straight-to-the-point cool that contrasts with the manner of her courtly, white-haired predecessor.

But she shares her old boss’s sense of outrage, and his impatience, in her criticism of the government’s handling of the drug war.

“Of course they should confront the narcotics traffickers,” she said. “But you can’t just just go for the head. You can’t cut off the head of the cartel, but as long as there is financial backing, five more will take their place. They have to go after the financial structure.”

“They say [Joaquin] Chapo Guzman is worth a billion dollars,” Navarro said of the drug lord whose organization is said to control the Tijuana corridor into the United States. “Where is that money? Where are their investments?

“This is what is lacking in the strategy of [Mexican President Felipe] Calderon,” she said. “Confiscate the houses. Confiscate the bank accounts.”

It is telling that Navarro is willing to talk about Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, yet when asked specific questions about her family, she stiffens.

“I don’t speak of my children,” she said. “I don’t speak of my private life. I don’t want to expose my private life. . . . Unfortunately, the cartel that dominates Baja California doesn’t threaten. They act. You have a disadvantage. They know where you live, where you work, where you go.”

In this onetime Hollywood Prohibition-era haunt, now a city of 1.5 million on one of the world’s most coveted drug routes, the risks are real. In addition to the attack on Blancornelas, another Zeta editor was slain in 2004.

And in 1988, Hector Felix Miranda, a jovial investigative reporter affectionately nicknamed “Felix the Cat,” was driving to work when gunmen cut him off and fatally shot him. Authorities jailed the chief bodyguard of Jorge Hank Rhon, a businessman who went on to become mayor. Every week since then, a full-page ad has asked Hank Rhon — who has denied any involvement — why his bodyguard killed the journalist.

Navarro has always loved news. When she was a child, her father, a rug merchant, read newspaper stories aloud to her before she learned to read. She got a job at Zeta in 1990, straight out of college, knowing well what she was getting into.

In 1994, Navarro became the first woman on the five-person editing team. Three years later, she was taking English instruction in the weekly’s archives when a weak voice crackled across the radio, asking for help. It was Blancornelas. He had been shot. His bodyguard lay dead beside him.

“There is not one person in jail for this,” Navarro said, 14 years later. “The climate of impunity weighs heavily on the news media.”

At least 40 journalists have been killed or have disappeared since Calderon took office in December 2006 and launched an offensive against Mexican cartels, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“President Calderon will go down in history,” not just for the thousands dead in the drug war, “but because this will be the [presidency] in which the most journalists were assassinated,” Navarro said.

Zeta offices are on a quiet side street in an impregnable yellow building protected by armed security guards. It is a short commute from Playas de Tijuana, a seaside suburb with sweeping views of the Pacific, where Navarro shares a home with her husband, a hotel company executive, who works in Mexico City from Monday through Thursday.

“I have a normal life,” Navarro said. “I cook, I go to the market.”

Her mother calls her a few times a week to bless her. Her parents “tell me to be careful,” she said. “My parents are very respectful. They know this is what impassions me. I keep them at the margins of my professional life.”

But often, her professional life intrudes.

Last year, a U.S. official told her that a monitored phone conversation revealed a cartel proposal to kill top Zeta editors. The military sent seven bodyguards to guard each top editor for three months.

“It was an invasion of personal and professional privacy,” she said.“We stopped having a social life,” she said.

Faced with such odds — and far less support from local authorities — other Mexican journalists have been cowed into silence. Navarro says she gets e-mails from fellow journalists asking her to open an office of her magazine in their cities, “because they are witnesses to violence that is not reported in the local news.”

“Every time a journalist self-censors, the whole society loses,” she said.

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