Drug cartels have murdered her editors and repeatedly threatened to kill Adela Navarro Bello, but she refuses to stop writing about Mexico’s raging violence.
As general director of Zeta newsmagazine in Tijuana, Navarro Bello, 43, – one of the IWMF’s 2011 Courage in Journalism Award winners — is facing daunting challenges overseeing the publication’s struggle to cover escalating violence in the crime-ridden border city.
Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman appears to be “targeting” Tijuana after the extradition of cartel boss Benjamin Arellano Félix to the U.S., Navarro Bello said. “Nobody was fighting for this territory before because the cartel got protection from the government and police. Now it looks like Guzman is arriving and that will start a new war in our city,” she said.
At the same time, Navarro Bello is calling for the Mexican government to reopen the case of Zeta editor Hector “El Gato” Félix Miranda, who was killed in 1988 by the bodyguards of ex-Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon. Navarro Bello was outraged when Hank Rhon was arrested and released because of lack of evidence on illegal weapons allegations.
“Hank is not absolved,” Zeta headlined after he was released. After this incident, the paper reported the makes and models of 88 weapons seized, including many of the serial numbers. “Our website collapsed from the traffic,” Navarro said. “The judge let Hank go because there was no search warrant.”
“Our newspapers sold out, and we were getting 100 hits a second on the website,” said Navarro Bello. ”We devoted 18 pages to an investigation of the ex-mayor. Everything is there. He is a suspect in everything from money laundering, drug cartels and murders. In 23 years as mayor nobody has investigated him,” she said.
While the cartels have silenced many Mexican journalists, Navarro Bello refuses to stop covering the drug wars despite repeated death threats. “I don’t understand self-censorship in Mexico. I don’t understand why reporters are afraid. If you’re not reporting on what is happening, you are an accomplice to these people,” said Navarro Bello. “We have the right to freedom of speech in a democratic country like Mexico.”
The Arellano-Félix cartel threatened to kill Navarro in January 2010, and seven soldiers were assigned to guard her around the clock. Police arrested 10 people the following February, as they were plotting to plant grenades to blow up the Zeta offices. In retaliation for covering the drug war, Zeta co-founder Hector Félix Miranda was murdered in 1988, and co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco was killed in 2004.
“We kept wondering, ‘How many lives must be lost?’ Francisco was putting his two children in the back seat of the car before he was gunned down. The kids got out of the car and started crying and running. It was one of the saddest moments in the history of Zeta,” said Navarro Bello. “There was talk of closing the paper, but we wanted to do our work.”
After learning that she received this year’s Courage in Journalism Award, Navarro Bello said she felt that “Zeta isn’t alone. We have allies. This is an important message to the people of Mexico.”
“Despite the dangers, Navarro Bello has continued to show fierce commitment to reporting the facts and advancing the cause of press freedom in a hostile climate of violence, intimidation and self-censorship,” said Carlos Lauría, senior Americas program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“I’ve been poisoned with the truth. I can’t stop, “Navarro Bello said. “We aren’t afraid to write about the drug cartels and run the names of people who are hurting our society. We tell the police who they are. That’s the kind of journalism we do. We go everywhere and cover everything. We won’t remain silent.”
Adela Navarro Bello is the third Courage in Journalism Award winner from Mexico, following Maribel Gutierrez Moreno (1997) and Lydia Cacho (2007). Two female journalists from Mexico won the IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award: Elena Poniatowska (2006) and Alma Guilllermoprieto (2010).
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 2011