Extract from the archives: the editor of Crusading Tijuana ambushed

From the San Diego Union-Tribune, Friday, November 28, 1997:

Serious injuries – bodyguard, one assailant killed

By Sandra Dibble and Gregory Gross

The embattled editor of a weekly Tijuana muckraking newspaper was seriously injured yesterday in a hail of bullets that left his bodyguard and one of his assailants dead.

The dead shooter has been identified as a former San Diego gang member who had ties to the Arellano Felix drug cartel, and may be linked to two major killings, including a bloody 1993 attack in Guadalajara that killed a Mexican Catholic cardinal.

J. Jesus Blancornelas

(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jesus Blancornelas, co-editor of Zeta, was listed in serious but stable condition late yesterday after undergoing surgery at Hospital del Prado in Tijuana. He was shot in the lung, abdomen, buttocks and hand.

Police have revealed no motive for the attack, the second in less than five months against a journalist along Mexico’s northern border. Tijuana has been wracked by drug-related violence in recent years, and Blancornelas has aggressively investigated the crimes, focusing on the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix cartel.

Blancornelas’ reporting style often placed him at the center of controversy as his newspaper clashed with politicians, drug traffickers and money launderers. It also earned him international recognition in journalistic circles.

“If something happens to me, no one will ever know who did it, because there are many who could have done it,” Blancornelas said in an unpublished interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune this year.

The shooting happened around 9:30 a.m. in the affluent neighborhood of Las Palmas, about half a mile from Zeta’s offices. Blancornelas and his bodyguard, Luis Lauro Valero, were driving in his red Ford Explorer when a dozen assailants sprayed the vehicle with dozens of bullets, said Miguel Ruvalcaba, the commander of the state judicial police in Tijuana.

Valero was found slumped at the wheel, dead. One of the assailants is also dead, having fallen to the sidewalk on San Francisco Street.

Initially identified as Javier Ortiz Calvo, he was later identified by federal authorities as David Barron Corona, alias CH, and described as “an important member of the criminal organization led by the Arellano Felix brothers”.

In the Nov. 21 issue of Zeta, Blancornelas named CH as one of the assailants who killed two Federal Judicial Police officers outside the Tijuana Federal Courthouse on Nov. 15.

According to the federal statement, Barron Corona was wanted by authorities on both sides of the border for a series of crimes, including the May 24, 1993 assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in Guadalajara.

The statement said Barron Corona was identified by fingerprints and facial features by Mexican authorities.

Late yesterday afternoon, the federal attorney general’s office said in a prepared statement that it was taking charge of the case.

Early yesterday, dozens of heavily armed police surrounded the hospital where Blancornelas was being treated. Police sirens sounded and vans full of officers combed through the Colonia 20 de Noviembre neighborhood, arresting a suspect. The police did not release his name.

Zeta staff members, including Blancornelas’ three sons, worked feverishly to prepare today’s edition of the newspaper.

In a prepared statement, the newspaper accused Baja California Governor Hector Teran Teran of failing to provide adequate protection to Blancornelas. “We directly accuse the state governor of abducting his bodyguard,” the statement said.

The state had appointed bodyguards to protect Blancornelas this year after a lawyer and accountant he was arguing with were killed.

Teran has assigned his attorney general, Jose Luis Anaya Bautista, to investigate. A statement from Anaya Bautista’s office said the bodyguards were assigned to Blancornelas against the editor’s wishes and were removed last month.

Teran condemned the attack and sent his education secretary, Virgilio Munoz, a close friend of Blancornelas, to inquire about the publisher’s condition. Throughout the day, senior city and state officials arrived at the hospital with worried expressions.

“These kinds of incidents change the life of communities,” said General Rigoberto Castillejos Adriano, commander of the 2nd military zone, who stopped at the start of the afternoon.

In a written statement from Tijuana City Hall, Mayor Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan said “we join journalists in their legitimate demand for justice.”

Among those who stopped was Salvador Cisneros, a prominent Catholic priest and Zeta columnist. He said Blancornelas had published “very serious accusations. He had placed himself very close to the stakes.

Police said the shooter who was killed in the assault was standing and waiting for Blancornelas’ car. The other assailants fired from a late-model white Nissan and a Pontiac Grand Prix, then abandoned the vehicles about a mile away and fled in a white van or truck.

Last year, Blancornelas received the prestigious International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. The award was “in recognition of more than two decades of dedicated perseverance in defense of press freedom in Mexico.”

Blancornelas is the second Mexican border journalist to be attacked this year.

Benjamin Flores Gonzalez, editor and columnist for the daily La Prensa in the small farming town of San Luis Rio Colorado in neighboring Sonora state, was machine-gunned outside his office on July 15 and then shot in the head.

Flores, 29, had squarely attacked the local drug trade in his column. His killers have not been found.

Yesterday’s attack on Blancornelas had striking parallels to a similar ambush nine years ago that killed Zeta co-founder and chief columnist Hector Felix Miranda.

Felix, nicknamed “El Gato” or “the Cat”, wrote a popular and hard-hitting column in which he regularly needles prominent Tijuanians and openly discusses issues largely ignored by the Tijuana press, most of which were closely aligned or largely suppressed by the government.

Like Blancornelas, Felix was leaving home to go to work when he was killed. On the morning of April 19, 1988, he was shot dead while still in his car.

Two men, security guards for the Agua Caliente Racecourse, were eventually sent to jail in connection with the murder, but the investigation stopped long before a motive for the killing or who might have been established ordered it.

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