Skip to main content

Adela Navarro is the director-general (editor-in-chief) of Zeta, a Tijuana-based newsweekly known as ‘the spiritual godfather of modern Mexican journalism.’Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Adela Navarro would rather talk about her work than her bodyguards, but she can't do the one without the other. As the director-general (editor-in-chief) of Zeta, a Tijuana-based newsweekly founded in 1980 by Jesús Blancornelas and known as "the spiritual godfather of modern Mexican journalism," Ms. Navarro shepherds a staff of 60 in pursuit of bombshell investigations about government corruption and the city's drug cartels. Often, the reporters wind up in the (literal) crosshairs of their subjects: At least seven Mexican journalists have been killed this year.

This week, Ms. Navarro, 49, spoke at a PEN Canada-sponsored event at Toronto's Ryerson University, about the deadly challenges of investigative reporting in Mexico under President Enrique Peña Nieto, and how Canada can use the North American Free Trade Agreement renegotiation to demand an end to corruption in her country. The Globe talked to her on Thursday morning.

This week's edition of Zeta comes out tomorrow. Any particular stories you're looking forward to?

First of all, the crime. In Baja, we're living in a very dangerous time. Up to Tuesday, there were more than 1,060 people executed in Tijuana this year. In September, 84 people were killed, executed in Tijuana, in 12 days. That's seven a day.

That's terrible. Is it the cartels, the police, the government?

We have three cartels in Baja, in Tijuana – Cartel Jalisco, Cartel Sinaloa, and Cartel Arellano Felix – and they are fighting each other for territory. And they have the collaboration of some of the police. Federal police work with one cartel, state police work with another cartel, local police work with the other cartel. There's a lot of corruption. Prosecutors are incapable of stopping this crime, incapable of solving this crime, stopping the violence and insecurity. We're talking about this issue tomorrow.

Much of the information we get about cartels comes from Hollywood. How do you feel about foreigners depicting an issue you live with every day?

The reality is very different. I've seen a couple of movies that barely can make sense of what's really happening in Mexico.

Two years ago, there was Sicario

It was too much fiction. You see Traffic? That was a good movie.

Because it was complex, nuanced?

Traffic was complex, but it was very much about the reality that was happening in Mexico at that time: the military, drug cartels, the courts in the United States, the courts in Mexico. It was very accurate.

Psychologically, what does it do to you, to live with the threats every day?

Well, I've been living with this the last 27 years [as a working journalist]. At the beginning of my career as a journalist, I was writing about politics. I was happy! I was a very happy person! Very frustrated, but I was happy!

Frustrated because you wanted to change things?

Exactly. And then when the drug [trade] took our cities, took our state, took our country, we had to work on those stories. The government was looking the other way. We, as journalists, we had to tell people what's really happening.

I understand you sometimes have bodyguards.


Is it nice to be visiting Toronto, where I presume you don't need a personal security detail?

I don't talk about the security that I have – for security reasons. In 12 years of my 27 years of journalism, I have had bodyguards. At this moment, I cannot tell you if I have or not.

Do you have children?

I don't talk about that.

I understand your husband, Gustavo de Hoyos, is a leading businessman who is advising the Mexican government in the NAFTA negotiations. NAFTA has brought the issue of corruption to the fore.

To the public agenda. What we would like to see is fighting corruption in the actual agenda of NAFTA.

What could the Canadian government possibly do?

The United States says that Mexico has to increase the minimum wage of workers. That is what they are doing. I think Canada can push for Mexico to fight corruption. Because we have a lot of corruption. A lot.

Right. You said last night that corruption costs Mexico about eight per cent of GDP. So, let's say Canada does try to negotiate that into NAFTA. What guarantee is there that the Mexican government will live up to its commitments?

Right now, there's an amendment that is under discussion about the general prosecutor and anti-corruption prosecutor, but we don't have results on that. Canada can say Mexico has to pass these laws.

You mean, before we'd agree to sign NAFTA?


Over the past year, there's been a lot of attention paid to so-called 'fake news.' But last night, you noted that, in Mexico, genuine fake news can have deadly consequences: If you get a fact wrong in your reporting on drug cartels, someone may be killed.

Exactly. We work a lot to confirm facts. In stories about the drug trade, or drug cartels, or big leaders of cartels, we have to have three different sources to confirm one fact.

That must be tough: Traditionally, the standard is two sources, and sometimes these days stories run based on just one source.

It's very difficult, yes. But we work as a team – one reporter calls one source, another reporter calls another one. There's not [just] one person doing these stories.

Does President Peña Nieto accuse the Mexican media of reporting 'fake news'?

He doesn't say it's fake news. He just ignores us.

Zeta sells on the newsstands for 15 pesos, about one Canadian dollar. Is it experiencing any of the problems that are hitting the rest of the news industry?

Of course. Now people read news on their phones, not buying the paper.

What is your circulation?


Oh! I thought it was 30,000.

It was 50,000.

When was that?


So, in six years it's dropped by 60 per cent?

Yeah. But it depends on the news. For example, when they caught El Chapo for the third time, we ran 45,000 copies.

Sure! People wanted to read that!

Exactly. It depends on the news.

I hope you'll indulge me, but I have one more question about movies: Have you seen The Untouchables?

Yes. It's a very good movie!

I ask because you've noted that Colombia crushed its cartels when the general prosecutor dismissed 11,000 police officers and formed a trustworthy squad of 30 people. That reminded me of –

Eliot Ness.

Exactly. Do you think that might be a model for Mexico?

Yes! Actually, at the time [of the movie], Mr. Blancornelas and I, and other journalists in Mexico, wrote about that: "We need an Eliot Ness in Mexico." We need someone to have a strong commitment to the society and to the government, and fight the corruption and fight the drug trade. We need that.

This interview has been condensed and edited.