It’s been a big year for investigative reporters in Latin America, from unveiling high-level corruption to collaborating across countries. They’ve chased down leads on colleagues murdered at the border between Colombia and Ecuador, and covered the biggest migratory crisis in years. The reporters have demonstrated, once again, the importance of coming together to hold those in power to account — often doing it under very difficult conditions. Erika Lozano, editor of GIJN en Español, has gathered some of the best investigative stories published in Spanish during 2018.
Court and Corruption – IDL-Reporters, Peru
The IDL-Reporters team in July published a series of leaked audio recordings that exposed systemic corruption, with high-ranking authorities of Peru’s National Council of the Magistrature trading favors, including professional positions.
“The audio recordings included in the journalistic investigation of IDL-Reporters reveal a series of alleged irregularities and acts of corruption in conversations held between current congressmen, ministers and supreme judges – like that of Judge César Hinostroza, now restricted from leaving the country, who is heard negotiating the sentence of a rape case of a 10-year-old girl.” (Knight Center)
Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti received the recordings from an anonymous source, and the IDL Reporters offices were raided after publication. The head of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office for Internal Oversight issued an order for the journalists to reveal the source, which they refused to do. The situation triggered protests in Peru and some officials were dismissed as a result. Peruvian journalist Romina Mella filed a complaint with the Inter American Commission of Human Rights in October, to bring attention to the harassment journalists are facing in Peru and the impact of these actions on press freedom. IDL-Reporters received second place in this year’s Latin American Award for Investigative Journalism for the story.
Deaths of Hurricane Maria — Center for Investigative Journalism, Puerto Rico
More than 30 journalists from the Associated Press, Quartz and the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism participated in the project, gathering a massive amount of information on the true extent of damage and human loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Hurricane Maria is the biggest natural disaster in the history of Puerto Rico, and while the government reported identified only 65 deaths, at least 3,000 are independently estimated to have perished.
The Center’s investigation identified 487 victims — the largest record compiled of Maria-related deaths at the time. The journalists created a database with victims’ names, age, location, and time of death. They also identified whether the cause of death was from direct impact of the hurricane, or a result of the aftermath, including lack of electricity, medical care, transportation, etc.
The reporters crossed the island under challenging conditions, often without electricity and with limited transport. They also faced a serious lack of transparency from the US and Puerto Rican governments. The investigation won first place in this year’s Latin American Award for Investigative Journalism.
Venezuela on the Run – El Tiempo, Efecto Cocuyo — Colombia, Venezuela
This investigation tells the story of one of the biggest, ongoing migratory crises in Latin America, exposing the conditions of people living in — and fleeing — Venezuela. When the project was published, more than 1.5 million people had escaped the country’s humanitarian crisis over a two-year period. A team of journalists from Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile worked together, traveling some 5,000 kilometers with the immigrants. The project was coordinated by the Data Unit from El Tiempo in Colombia and Efecto Cocuyo in Venezuela, and supported by the Press and Society Institute (IPYS). It won the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Award 2018 in the “Coverage” category.
The Water Lords — Ojo Público, Verdad Abierta, Rutas del Conflicto — Peru, Colombia
A team of journalists traveled to the Ica region of southern Peru to investigate how a group of large agro-exporters had turned subsoil water into a private asset, exploiting it to such an extent that the water supply for an entire town was at risk.
The team revealed that Peru’s government gave extraordinary permissions to big companies to operate hundreds of wells with no official oversight. The project — supported by IPYS — was part of a transnational series that also investigated water crises in Colombia.
Cost Overrun — Convoca, Peru
This team from Convoca analyzed more than 8,000 documents and databases from different countries, including Peru, Argentina, Panama, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Mozambique. The resulting story exposed cost overruns and irregularities in spending by Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht between 2001 and 2016.
Odebrecht has now admitted to paying close to $800 million in bribes to obtain public works contracts in Peru. The investigation is part of the “Exposing Lava Jato” series, in which journalists from Latin America and Africa collaborated to tell the story about one of the biggest corruption cases in recent history.
In addition to the stories, the journalists created a web app that allowed users to trace Odebrecht projects and their budgets over the past 15 years, see which governments approved the contracts, and identify signs of bribe payments and irregularities in each region. the project was awarded the Inter American Press Association Award for Journalistic Excellence and the TRACE Prize for Investigative Reporting 2018. It also received a nomination for the Data Journalism Awards 2018 for innovation.
The Corruption Notebooks — La Nacion, Argentina
Argentinian journalist Diego Cabot received notebooks detailing information about bribes paid to Argentinian officials by large corporations over a period of 10 years. The meticulous notes that became the basis of Cabot’s reporting were collected by a driver who worked for officials during the administration of past president Nestor Kirchner.
The notebooks detailed addresses, figures, dates, names and movements of officials and businessmen. The individuals allegedly met regularly to deliver and receive purses with millions of dollars in bribes for public construction and energy contracts.
The story shared a second place prize in this year’s Latin American Awards for Investigative Journalism.
Deadly Border — Forbidden Stories — Ecuador, Colombia
During this six-month investigation, a group of 19 reporters from Ecuador and Colombia followed the trail of Javier Ortega, Paúl Rivas and Efraín Segarra — three journalists from El Comercio who were kidnapped and murdered by former FARC guerrillas on the border in March 2018. The investigation revealed that Ecuador’s government planned a failed rescue operation that was never publicly revealed. Seven months later, the governments of Ecuador and Colombia have yet to provide facts or clear answers. This project was coordinated by the Free Press Foundation (FLIP), Fundamedios, League Against Silence, Open Truth, Journalists Without Chains, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Forbidden Stories.
The website adondevanlosdesaparecidos.org (Where do the missing people go?) is a recent investigative project from a group of journalists who wanted to understand the logic behind the disappearance of an extraordinary 37,000 people now missing in Mexico. What happens after someone is “disappeared”? Where are these people? Are they recruited by the criminals so they work for them? Are they suffering from sexual exploitation? Are they waiting in clandestine mass graves across the country? These are questions that this team of journalists asked themselves.
The first story on this website is an investigation called “The Country of Two Thousand Graves,” launched November 12 in different Mexican media with support from Quinto Elemento Lab, an investigative journalism laboratory. The team worked on an interactive map which identified every clandestine grave recognized by the Mexican government between 2006 and 2016, and worked on a database with information provided by local prosecutors. (You can find an English version on The Intercept.)
The investigation revealed more than twice the number of clandestine graves than authorities recognized, one every two days, in one out of seven municipalities around the country. In all: 1,1978 clandestine graves. (Disclosure: GIJN en Español editor Erika Lozano was part of the team which worked on this investigation.)
Filthy Wood — Connectas, Ojo Público, Mongabay — Colombia, Peru
This transnational investigation — which involved journalists from Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador — exposed Amazonian timber trafficking and the mechanisms used to erase traces of the product’s origin on the international market.
The team found that the wood was registered with official documents that were almost never verified. They also found that indigenous communities in the Amazon were threatened by criminal groups benefiting from timber trafficking, a trade that may be worth $50 billion annually, according to the United Nations.
Interested in more on Latin American investigative journalism? Check out GIJN en Español.
Erika Lozano is editor of GIJN en Español and an independent journalist based in Mexico City. As editor of @gijnEs, she oversees GIJN’s Spanish-language social media and helps represent GIJN in the Spanish-speaking world.