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Editor’s Pick: 2021’s Best Investigative Stories from Latin America

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The year 2021 was a whirlwind for journalists in Latin America. From developing stories on corruption schemes in the second year of the coronavirus pandemic to revealing how the region’s elite benefit from tax havens, there have been a number of notable investigations into money and wealth. But with other reports on public health or digging into illegal activities fueling immense loss of biodiversity in the Amazon, the investigative topics covered were varied in style and impressive in their findings.

But there have been repercussions. According to Reporters Without Borders, we are witnessing a “toxic” backlash against the media in Latin America, which includes vilification of the media, violent attacks on the press, and aggressive lawsuits by politicians and officials in countries such as Peru, Argentina, Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. However, reporters keep doggedly investigating and using storytelling as a way of holding those in power to account.

Here we highlight eight of the best investigative stories published in Spanish from the region this year. We have selected those that prioritize collaboration, use innovative investigative methods and tools, and those that reach new audiences. — Andrea Arzaba, GIJN Spanish Editor.

Vacunagate Scandal (Peru)

Vacunagate Scandal

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In Peru, as the coronavirus ripped through the country and led to some of the highest death rates in the region, two newsrooms — Salud con Lupa and Ojo Público, both GIJN members — used separate investigations to uncover information revealing that COVID-19 vaccines had become a new currency for corruption. The “Vacunagate” investigations (in English: Vaccinegate) alleged that influential people among the academic, business, and political elite of Peru — including, most notably, then-President Martín Vizcarra — were given secret vaccinations while clinical trials of Chinese vaccines were still underway in the country, and months before any approved vaccines were available to the public. Vizcarra claimed he had received the vaccine as part of a trial, but the university hosting the vaccine trial said he asked to be vaccinated.

The reporting team at Salud con Lupa built a comprehensive database featuring around 470 individuals, and published an interactive platform that revealed the relationships between secret beneficiaries. Ojo Público sought to find out whether secret, excess doses were also offered or sent to other countries in Latin America. As a result of these investigations, health and foreign ministers resigned. Vizcarra, who was impeached and stood down in 2020, was subsequently banned from holding public office for 10 years due to the scandal.

How COVID-19 Deaths Were Hidden (Nicaragua)

CONNECTAS investigation of COVID-19 Deaths in Nicaragua

CONNECTAS investigated COVID-19 deaths in Nicaragua and compared them to other countries in Central America. Image: Screenshot

Officials in Nicaragua had misleadingly claimed low COVID-19 case results were proof the country had successfully contained the pandemic, and even used these claims to favorably compare the Central American nation to countries like Sweden. But a team of Nicaraguan reporters used different investigative methods — such as triangulation of data and the testimony from dozens of doctors and citizens — to reveal that people who were officially classified as having succumbed to “atypical pneumonia,” diabetes, and other diseases actually died with a positive diagnosis for COVID-19.

The project — developed by Divergentes, a Nicaraguan investigative site, and CONNECTAS, a GIJN member organization based in Colombia — is available on their website in various formats, with interesting data visualizations, a text report, and a podcast.

Nature in Flames: 20 Years of Fires in Protected Areas (Venezuela)

Prodavinci investigation of Venezuelas wildfires

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The use of satellite data in this project by the Venezuelan digital outlet Prodavinci was impressive. Reporters analyzed two decades of data on hotspots to understand the when, where, and why of forest fires in national parks, natural monuments, and other protected areas of Venezuela. Among the main findings were that, last year, Venezuela was the country in the Amazon region with the highest density of fires — almost double that of Brazil. In addition, in the last 20 years, hotspots increased in 63 of the 80 protected areas of this South American country, with 2020 being the worst year for fires on record.

The investigation has already won several awards, including the Best Data Visualization Investigation by a Small/Medium Sized Media Company at the WAN-IFRA Digital Media LATAM Awards 2021. It was also was one of ten finalists at the Gabo Award from the Gabo Foundation — an institution created in 1995 by journalist and Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, and which is seen as the most important recognition for journalism in Spanish and Portuguese.

Servants of God? The Ordeal of 43 Women Who Faced Opus Dei (Argentina)

La Nacion investigation into Opus Dei abuse

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An investigation by Argentina’s respected daily newspaper La Nacion shed light on the alleged abuses that women from rural communities in South America faced while working for Opus Dei, one of the most conservative orders in the Catholic Church. According to the investigation, the mistreatment included work without remuneration and the fact that members were encouraged to wear celices — metal rings with spikes that dig into the flesh — as a form of self-flagellation. The women told reporters they were tricked into recruiting others to join the group when they were teenagers. In return, they were given the hope of continuing their education in Buenos Aires or Asunción, something that their families could not afford. Reporters used archival photographs, video interviews with the women involved, and audiovisual tools to bring this story to life.

Roots of Environmental Crime in the Colombian Amazon (Colombia)

InSight Crime investigation of Colombian Environmental Crime

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In this deep-dive, multi-chapter investigation, InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute mapped out environmental crime in the Amazon Basin in Colombia — a region “being ravaged at an accelerating rate by organized criminal groups and ‘legal’ enterprises alike.” Illicit mining, logging, wildlife trafficking, land grabbing, and coca cultivation are leading to deforestation and biodiversity loss, the report revealed, while elsewhere the team explored the links between the legal and illegal sectors. The investigation also described how members of local communities are often approached by criminal networks, generating conflict and insecurity.

The investigation, which used text, maps, and infographics to explore what is happening at the heart of the Colombian Amazon, is available in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Pretrial Detention: Imprisoning the Poor and Innocent (Mexico)

Mexico Prison story header image

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This investigation shows that México’s prison population is growing faster than at any time in the past 15 years. However, most of the arrests are of poor people accused of minors thefts or drug dealing, and who end up in preventive detention awaiting a sentence. This surge in incarceration can be traced back to a 2019 anti-crime law passed by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. But it hasn’t worked — 95% of offenses still go unpunished — and the number of detainees is growing so fast that just one lawyer is sometimes assigned up to 300 cases.

For this piece, Animal Político and Intersecta sent out almost 400 freedom of information requests, which helped prove that at least 130,000 people are in jail without trial, and without any accusations proven against them. The project’s heavy use of data visualization, accompanied by testimonies and even voice notes from people inside the jails, allows readers to understand the full picture.

‘Dirty Game’: Football, Fraud, and Human Trafficking in Latin America

CONNECTAS investigation into fraud in Latin American 'futbol'

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In this ambitious audiovisual investigation organized by El País de Cali (Colombia), La Nación (Paraguay), Opinion (Bolivia), and CONNECTAS (a nonprofit which supports transnational journalism), a team of reporters found 217 cases of athletes, who, far from realizing their dreams as professional footballers, ended up as victims of a scam.

Journalists identified fake scouting agents who follow a set pattern to achieve their purpose: deceiving low-income families by claiming they will take their children to play soccer professionally in another country. These fake agents usually ask poor families for a small sum of money to “initiate procedures” and then demand anywhere from $600 to $10,000 USD to “make them famous.” The investigation found families mortgaging their homes, selling their belongings, and making other sacrifices to access loans in order to not “miss the opportunity.”

Pandora Papers in Latin America

Convoca role in Pandora Papers Latin America investigation

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The sprawling Pandora Papers project, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), featured a notable number of Latin American politicians past and present in its exposé of shady financial dealings. The presidents of Chile, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic were named along with scores of Latin American businesspeople, billionaires, and celebrities, all of whom allegedly used tax havens to shield a substantial portion of their assets from public scrutiny.

ICIJ’s Pandora Papers investigation involved roughly 600 reporters from around the world investigating a massive leak of tax files. Of note in the Latin American region were outlets working on the story in Chile (like CIPER and LaBot), Argentina (where La Nación, El DiarioAR, and Infobae worked on the story), and Peru (where partners Convoca and IDL-Reporteros collaborated).

Additional Resources

Insider Access to Chinese Vaccines: A Case Study in Pandemic Corruption from Peru

Lessons from the Pandora Papers: How to Investigate Financial Crime Stories

Editor’s Pick: 2020’s Best Investigative Stories from Latin America

How to Follow the Money: Tips for Cross-border Investigations

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