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Vol.24, No. 02 Sept. 11, 1998

Columbia's Cabot Prizes Honor Four Journalists Who Cover Latin America

Four journalists from Mexico, Peru and the United States have been selected by Columbia University to receive the 1998 Maria Moors Cabot Prizes for courageous, comprehensive and compassionate reporting on Latin America.

In their 60th year, the awards are presented to those who have reported on the southern hemisphere with a longtime commitment to inter-American understanding and freedom of the press.

They will be presented Thurs., Oct. 22, on the Columbia campus to:

J. Jesús Blancornelas, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the weekly newspaper ZETA of Tijuana, Mexico;

Edmundo Cruz Vílchez, investigative reporter for La República, Lima, Peru;

Andres Oppenheimer, foreign correspondent and columnist, The Miami Herald, Miami, Florida;

William Lawrence (Larry) Rohter, Jr., Caribbean and Central American correspondent of The New York Times.

Founded in 1938 (and first awarded in 1939) by the late Godfrey Lowell Cabot of Boston as a memorial to his wife, the Maria Moors Cabot Prizes are administered by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. They will be presented by Columbia President George Rupp and Journalism Dean Tom Goldstein in formal ceremonies at 8:15 P.M. Oct. 22 in the Rotunda of Low Memorial Library. Each winner will receive a Cabot gold medal and a $1,500 honorarium. With this year's awards, 218 prizes and 49 special citations will have been conferred on journalists from more than 30 countries.

The prizes, the oldest international awards in journalism, are awarded by the Trustees of Columbia on the recommendation of the dean of the Journalism School. An advisory committee of journalists and educators concerned with hemisphere affairs assists the dean. Nominations are also sought from news organizations and individuals throughout Latin and North America. Director of the advisory committee is Frank N. Manitzas, who has reported from Latin America since 1960 as correspondent for the Associated Press, McGraw Hill News Service, CBS, NBC and ABC. Manitzas, the former Latin American Bureau Chief for ABC News, is himself a Cabot Prize medalist.

Information on the 1998 winners follows:

J. Jesús Blancornelas, 61, editor-in-chief and co-founder of ZETA, has consistently pushed during four decades as a journalist to uncover wrongdoing by corrupt government officials, drug traffickers and plotters of political homicide. His courage and willingness to face personal risk almost cost him his life last year, when he was gunned down by triggermen of a leading drug cartel who were angered by revelations in his articles.

Born in San Luis Potosí, Blancornelas began his career in 1956 as a sports reporter at El Sol de San Luis and then joined El Mexicano in Tijuana, where he became editor of the Central de Baja California edition. In 1964, he went to work for La Voz de la Frontera of Mexicali and four years later was named editor in chief. There his reporting on corruption began to draw fire. He was ousted from his post at La Voz de la Frontera in 1974 and from his subsequent jobs as editor of El Imparcial of Hermosillo, Sonora, in 1975 and editor of Noticias of Tijuana in 1976.

Blancornelas decided he had to create his own publication and helped found as chief editor, ABC of Tijuana, the first daily in Baja, California, to share ownership with its workers. He published a book, BIEBRICH, Crónica de una infamia, an expose of a young protégé of then president Luis Echeverría.

Within the year, police assault troops entered the ABC offices and threw the editor out. Blancornelas fled to exile in the United States where he remained for the next two years.

In 1980, he co-founded ZETA, which initially was printed in the United States and distributed in Mexico. When the government withdrew its charges against him in 1982, Blancornelas moved ZETA to Tijuana, but threats continued. The paper's machines and automobiles were seized by the government, bullets ripped through the front of ZETA offices in 1987 and, in 1988, his partner and co-founder, Héctor Félix Miranda, was assassinated.

Blancornelas was brutally ambushed on Nov. 27, 1997, by a half-dozen gunmen, who sprayed his car with bullets, killing his driver and critically injuring the editor. The bullets traversed his liver and lungs, and a fragment lodged in his spinal column near his heart. The attack nearly killed him, but it did not break his spirit: within three months, he again began writing his weekly column in ZETA, often about the grip that drug traffickers have on Tijuana.

Blancornelas has received many honors, including the International Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Freedom to Write Award by the PEN Club of Los Angeles and the Media Freedom Award by the San Diego Press Club.

He is writing his fourth book on Mexico's politics, Caso Colosio (The Colosio Case) about the promising political career of Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta, who was killed in 1994. Last year, his third book, Una vez nada más (Once, Not More), also about politics and corruption, was published.

Edmundo Cruz Vílchez, 60, investigative reporter at the daily La República in Lima, Peru, has covered military and intelligence issues for more than a decade. His stories have discovered and documented corruption in arms purchases, military assassinations of suspected civilian leftists and executions of intelligence officers within the ranks. He has also covered Peru's border conflicts.

Graduated in 1960 from the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Lima with a degree in journalism, Cruz was named editor of the Marxist weekly UNIDAD in Lima and also taught journalism at the Escuela Superior Jaime Bausate y Meza and at the University San Martín de Porres.

Cruz's career in investigative reporting began at the daily La Razón, where he became co-editor in 1986, and the weekly Sí, where he was an investigative reporter from 1989 to 1994. From 1995 he worked at the prestigious daily El Mundo and at El Sol, moving to La República in 1996.

In his major investigative reports, Cruz uncovered the abortive coup d'etat in 1990 against then President Alan García; revealed in 1992 the embezzlement of money for arms purchases by naval officers in the Peruvian embassy in Washington; disclosed in 1993 the sale of military secrets of Peru to Ecuador by alleged American spy Frederick Hamilton; pieced together in 1993 the identity of the secret intelligence unit that executed nine young persons in retaliation for a terrorist act they had not committed; revealed in 1996 a plan to assassinate the well-known television commentator and constant government critic César Hildebrandt, and documented with photographs in 1997 the army's tunneling under the Japanese embassy in Lima, which had been captured by terrorists.

Cruz has won the National Journalism Award in Human Rights, given by the National Coordinator of Human Rights in Peru, and the Gold Pencil award by the Press Club of Lima.

Andres Oppenheimer has covered Latin America for more than 20 years and is widely known throughout the Americas for his books on Cuba and Mexico. His bi-weekly column - cutting-edge analysis of the hemisphere's contemporary affairs - appears in The Miami Herald and in the Spanish publication El Nuevo Herald , which is syndicated to 30 newspapers in Latin America.

Born in Buenos Aires, Oppenheimer studied law at the University of Buenos Aires and left Argentina after the military coup in 1976. He received a fellowship from the World Press Institute and in 1978 earned a master's degree at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. That same year he wrote an op-ed article for The New York Times criticizing the human rights abuses of the ruling military junta in Argentina. That, he says, blocked his entry to Argentina for several years.

Oppenheimer began his reporting career in the United States as a translator for the Associated Press in New York, on the overnight shift. He then went to work for The Miami Herald and served as its bureau chief in Mexico City, a business writer in Miami and finally a foreign correspondent and columnist.

Oppenheimer was a member of The Miami Herald team that shared the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for its reports on the Iran-Contra scandal. He also has won Inter American Press Association (IAPA) awards for investigative reporting and columns in 1989 and 1994, Spain's Ortega y Gasset Award in 1993, as well as the print reporting prize from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in 1997.

He is the author of two books: Castro's Final Hour: An Eyewitness Account of the Disintegration of Castro's Cuba, in 1993, and Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico, in 1996.

William Lawrence Rohter, Jr., 48, has been Caribbean and Central American correspondent for The New York Times since 1994 and will become bureau chief early next year in Rio de Janeiro. He has covered Latin America for the past 25 years, serving as Mexico City bureau chief for the Times, Brazil correspondent and Latin America bureau chief for Newsweek, and correspondent for a Brazilian communications company.

Topics of his recent reporting have included the exhumation of mass graves in Guatemala, the continuing problems of United States bases in Panama, the impact of deporting Salvadoran gang members home from American jails, investigations of the Cuban exile community in Miami and the abortive efforts by exile leaders to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro.

Rohter (pronounced ROY-ter) began at the Times as a metropolitan reporter in 1984. Three years later, the paper named him bureau chief in Mexico City. He became a cultural correspondent in the Los Angeles bureau in 1990 before beginning his present post on July 1, 1994.

Before joining the Times, Rohter worked in the New York bureau of Rede Globo, the Brazilian communications conglomerate, from 1971 to 1974, contributing to news and entertainment programs. He moved to The Washington Post in 1974 as cultural reporter and arts critic. In 1977, he went to work for Newsweek in Brazil as correspondent and then bureau chief, later transferring halfway around the world to China to become its Peking bureau chief and Asian regional editor.

Rohter was born in Oak Park, Ill., and is a 1971 graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He studied politics and modern Chinese history at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and East Asian Institute.