Team behind Netflix series ‘Tijuana’ aims to create global awareness of dangers faced by independent journalists in Mexico

Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists with at least ten professionals killed this year alone. For many journalists in the country, especially those outside of Mexico City, physical and psychological dangers are a constant for the job.

“Tijuana,” a recent television series from Netflix and Univision, plunges into that reality to show an international audience what it means to practice independent journalism in Mexico.

“It’s very, very beastly. This is the reality for journalists in Mexico,” Hammudi Al-Rahmoun Font, the Spanish director of the series, told the Knight Center. “And it’s a fact that although Mexico obviously knows, I don’t know if it’s well known in the rest of the world.”

A still from the Netflix series Tijuana - Netflix

A still from the Netflix series Tijuana - Netflix

The program, which takes place in the U.S.-Mexico border city of the same name, tells the story of a group of journalists as they investigate the death of a local politician. In the process, they face a series of attacks, such as armed gunmen shooting the outside of the publication and the abduction of one of the investigative journalists.

Although the production depicts various facets of journalism in the country, such as government censorship of the press, the main focus is on extreme violence facing reporters.

The directors and producers hoped the series would prompt more awareness outside of Mexico about violence against journalists and the attempted repression of independent journalism. To do so, Font said he knew the crew needed to base the fictitious series on reality. So they turned to Zeta, a weekly publication based in Tijuana. They said the organization inspired the series and is a symbol of independent journalism in Mexico.

The publication is known for its independent reporting on crime, drug trafficking and government corruption. And due to their work, several Zeta journalists have been targeted.

One of the original founders and columnist Héctor Félix Miranda was killed in 1988. One of Félix Miranda’s targets in his satirical columns was a local racetrack owner, who is also the son of a Mexico City politician. Two of the racetrack owner's guards were later convicted for Félix Miranda's murder, though the business owner denied any involvement.

In 2004, another Zeta founder, Francisco Ortiz Franco, was shot in a drive-by shooting. Zeta linked Ortiz Franco’s murder to his coverage of the Tijuana cartel. The magazine reported in 2011 that the cartel’s leader had ordered the murder.

The third Zeta founder, Jesús Blancornelas, also faced an assassination attempt. In 1997, gunmen shot his car multiple times, but Blancornelas survived the attack with an abdomen injury. His bodyguard Luis Valero Elizalde died in the shooting.

Current editor-in-chief Adela Navarro Bello welcomed the Tijuana crew to come to the magazine to learn more about the history of Zeta and what it means to be a journalist in the state. In the hopes that Mexicans and foreigners would understand more about this work and the risks it takes, Navarro Bello allowed the crew to tag along with her reporters.

“[Independent journalists] have done journalistic work to reveal corruption, particularly the government corruption in this country,” Navarro Bello told the Knight Center. “In this context, it seems to me that this series is very important for Mexican society.”

She added that she hopes people who watch the series will support independent journalists.

A still of reporter Gabriela, one of the main characters from the Netflix series Tijuana (Netflix)

A still of reporter Gabriela, one of the main characters from the Netflix series Tijuana (Netflix)

The directors also brought Mexican journalist Alejandro Almazán on board. From basic journalism information to ethics, Almazán advised the directors on how to portray the journalists in the story. Lalo, one of the main reporters in the series, is even partly based on him.

For Almazán, the series was more than just a television show.

One of his best friends, Javier Valdez Cárdenas was murdered in 2017 for his reporting. Valdez Cárdenas, a well-known reporter and author who covered drug trafficking and organized crime in Sinaloa, was a founder of newspaper Ríodoce and a correspondent for La Jornada. Two years have passed with complete impunity since his assassination in Culiacán.

“When they killed Javier, who I have always considered as my brother ... I thought that I need to look at journalism,” Almazán said. “I have to talk about journalism. I have to talk about how they are killing [them].”

This series allowed him to do so.

“I said that I am able to take advantage of this platform to explain what I think Mexican journalism is,” he said.

More than anything, he said he hopes that the series will highlight the risks and maltreatment of journalists in Mexico so that if and when another journalist is murdered, Mexican society – and foreigners – will show their support and help denounce the crime.

The head writer for the series Max Zunino echoed this, saying he hoped the series exposed the risks that Mexican journalists take to shine a light on corruption and to make society better informed.

“It seems to me that [the journalism] is very brave, and I hope that they don’t have to be brave in the future,” Zunino told the Knight Center. “I hope that the reality in Mexico changes.”

He added that he was thankful to work on a series that flips the traditional story of organized crime and drug trafficking on its head. Too often, he said, series about these topics end up glorifying mafias.

“There are many other angles that can talk of the same themes – much more complex and in this case much more interesting to tackle this problem without necessarily having to exalt criminals,” he said.

If Netflix contracts the crew for a second season, they hope to show different angles of journalism in Mexico, such as chayoteros, or journalists who take money bribes from the government or from organized crime groups who then decide what the news organizations can publish.

The series is available now on Netflix.