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Illustration: Dante Aguilera for GIJN



After Pablo and El Chapo: How Investigative Outlets Are Covering Organized Crime in Latin America

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Organized crime gangs besieged the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil in January as masked men armed with submachine guns and grenades attacked a hospital, local businesses, and broke into a news studio to take journalists hostage during a live broadcast. The siege was unprecedented, and marked how this South American nation once known as a peaceful tourist destination had been dragged into the battle against drug-trafficking cartels and gangs.

The situation in Ecuador is part of a wider crisis of violence in Latin America. Colombia’s 2016 peace process has seen splinter groups take control of the territory once ruled over by the FARC, prison gangs like El Tren de Aragua are now huge multinational crime syndicates, Haiti’s government recently collapsed to gangs that run rampant in Port-au-Prince, and areas that used to be practically inaccessible, like the Amazon rainforest and the Darién Gap that links Colombia to Panama, are now havens for human trafficking, drug-running, and illegal logging and mining.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2023 Global Study on Homicide, the region of Latin America and the Caribbean “not only consistently has the highest homicide rate of any subregion, but also had the highest proportion of homicides involving organized crime worldwide.”

The study points to three main reasons behind this: record-breaking drug production and trafficking, the proliferation and fragmentation of heavily armed groups, and weak gun control and law enforcement. A different study, from the International Crisis Group, stated that around one-third of all murders worldwide take place in Latin America.

But as organized crime in the region metastasizes, investigative journalism is rising to the challenge. From newsrooms using innovative ways to cover the ever-changing threat posed by organized crime to collaboratively scraping data released by hacktivists, and from creating video games to explore corruption to investigating how the drugs trade impacts the youngest members of these societies, the journalists covering this beat are proving themselves both creative and nimble.

GIJN spoke to reporters from outlets based in Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico, as well as from two region-wide projects, to hear how they carried out their recent work, where they are innovating on this beat, and how they are changing the narrative about organized crime from a focus on kingpins to investigations into the impact of organized crime on ordinary people.

NarcoFiles: Uncovering ‘Criminal Empires’ 

In a Bogotá coffee shop, investigative journalist Lorenzo Morales wrote a few words on a napkin, and passed it to Nathan Jaccard, Latin America editor for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The message was referring to a never before seen leak of emails from Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office.

The hacktivist group that held the emails — Guacamaya Leaks — were accepting media applications to access more than five terabytes of data.

“Guacamaya took advantage of a vulnerability in the Attorney General’s office,” Jaccard explained, referring to a security patch that officials didn’t download even though Microsoft warned them to do so. “Although several Colombian media outlets had access to the leaks independently, we sought to build a collaborative effort because we didn’t want to repeat the mistake of the media in Mexico that competed against each other when sorting through a similar trove of leaks.”

Image: Screenshot of an illustration by James O’Brien for OCCRP

That approach transformed a leak that might have just had significance within Colombia, into what OCCRP has called “the largest investigative project on organized crime to originate in Latin America.”

Forty-four media outlets collaborated in the NarcoFiles leaks to publish more than 70 stories. Among the revelations, the group uncovered new cocaine routes into the US and Europe, how hackers infiltrate European port cities’ systems to enable drug smuggling, alliances between Latin American and European syndicates, and how Dubai became a haven for drug lords.

The team also reached out to US and European media outlets like the Miami Herald and ZDF, and included them in scraping millions of emails to unravel a worldwide criminal web that even smuggles illegal shark fins into Hong Kong.

Jaccard pointed out that, during the NarcoFiles investigation, he noticed an interesting difference between European and Latin American journalists. The formers’ experience tends to be centered on financial crime, while the latter have more experience dealing with organized crime reporting. For better or worse, the pervasive presence of organized crime in Latin America has meant journalists are well-versed in covering it, he said.

OCCRP’s Aleph platform, which powers data analysis, collection, and documentation searches, and cross-references them with other databases, was essential in making sense of the emails.

“A tool of this sort works like the Google web browser, in the sense that it allows more structured searches through keywords, dates, and email addresses,” Jaccard explained. “That makes it much easier to navigate through the data, and really understand what kind of a project could come out of the emails, because at first we didn’t know if it would be centered on corruption, organized crime, environmental crimes, or shady business practices.”

Games, Data, and Digital Innovation at Colombia’s Cuestión Pública

A key ally in the NarcoFiles project was the investigative journalism platform Cuestión Pública, founded in 2018 by Claudia Báez, Diana Salinas, and David Tarazona.

When large media organizations in Colombia started to cut budgets or shutter their investigative teams to save money, the founders of Cuestión Pública sensed an opportunity, particularly in the online space.

Today the outlet bets on combining rigorous, deep-dive data with investigative methods, while designing stories to appeal to a wide audience, especially in younger generations. Despite fairly limited resources, Cuestión Pública produces stories about organized crime and its connections to Colombian politics, by designing cutting-edge gamification platforms and AI-powered tools.

Through an interactive platform called “We Know What You Did Last Legislature,” the team tackled congressional corruption, while the alleged ties between regional political candidates and organized crime were interrogated through an online game called “Disenchantment” (“Desencanto” in Spanish), a parody of Disney’s “Encanto” movie.

“‘Desencanto’ is our strongest bet on uncovering how organized crime influences local politics,” said Báez, of the game designed to reveal the dark side of Colombia’s 2023 local elections.

“We used Microsoft Power BI to power this gamification platform. Although this tool was originally built for business intelligence, visualization, and dashboards, we discovered it can be used to design games,” explained Edier Buitrago, Cuestión Pública’s data editor. This digital improvisation gave the public an engaging way to discover which candidates had been investigated for possible links to paramilitary groups and drug trafficking organizations, using official judicial information as a source.

Along a similar theme, the team also created the ODIN Project (Optimized Data Integration Network), a powerful innovation tool that earned Cuestión Pública an honorable mention in the 2023 Artificial Intelligence Journalism Challenge.

“ODIN uses AI to optimize Twitter/X thread writing, and give better context about the public figures that at any given time attract media attention and that we have investigated, and it’s fed by Cuestión Pública’s semi-structured databases, from ‘Game of Votes’ and ‘We Know What You Did Last Legislature’,” said Báez. Users can also use ODIN to ask questions about public figures featured in news headlines and find out if, amongst other background information, they have been accused of having links with organized crime.

Innovating allows them to reach younger audiences, said Báez. “We know that once people turn 35 it’s very difficult to change their political opinions, but young people are building their views on the political landscape, so if they have this information they can make informed decisions. That’s ultimately what we do: provide information so citizens make better political decisions.”

Honduras’s ContraCorriente: Close-Up Look at How Drug Lords Control Communities

A common thread in recent Latin American reporting on organized crime is the shift from a top-down focus on the kingpins and cartel hierarchies to reporting on the broader societal and cultural impacts where the drug trade takes hold.

From its inception, Honduras’s ContraCorriente decided to look at how organized crime alters the fabric of society, and how communities and environments are transformed by illegality.

“When we decided to launch ContraCorriente in 2017, we sought several news outlets’ opinions on creating an investigative journalism platform and they all answered it was impossible,” said cofounder Jennifer Ávila. “Our biggest challenge was transforming this dream into an enterprise. We found out the challenges we faced weren’t only in doing investigative journalism, but in building a startup,” she added.

Their breakthrough, in reputational terms, came with the Transnationals of Faith investigation, which won the Ortega y Gasset Journalism Prize in 2020. As part of the investigation — a pan-Latin American collaboration between several newsrooms — ContraCorriente revealed the spread of fundamentalist Christian organizations in Honduras.

In The Drug Lord’s Sacred Mountain, ContraCorriente’s Célia Pousset describes the impact of drugs and illegal mining on farmers coerced into cooperating, allegedly with the complicity of the local authorities, in the mountainous municipality of Choloma.

“Very little was being said in Honduran journalism about the impact organized crime has in communities,” Ávila noted. “The piece talks about all the harm caused by drug trafficking, impunity, and institutional corruption in the victim communities and protected areas.”

Through their web-based platform, TikTok videos, and social media accounts, ContraCorriente lets readers review the background of candidates to parliamentary elections and to understand the depth of organized crime’s influence on the state.

One of their sources is a collection of more than 500 legal documents detailing Hondurans facing legal proceedings in the United States on drug trafficking charges. Among the names? Even some as prominent as former president Juan Orlando Hernández, who was accused in a US court of running the country like a “narco-state.” If ContraCorriente did not make those documents freely available, the public would have to pay a fee to the US PACER platform to access them.

“I think the difficulties we as Latin Americans have lived through [as victims of organized crime] have made us more resilient, and this makes us believe we can overcome the challenges by telling these stories,” said Ávila. “This is the formula we follow and that’s why we’re so persistent.”

POPLab’s Hyper-Local Twist on Local Organized Crime Reporting in Mexico

A story on how murder and violence in Guanajuato impact children and adolescents. Image: Screenshot of an illustration by Pinche Einnar for POPLab

Years ago, Guanajuato, the capital city of a state in Central Mexico with the same name, rarely featured in media coverage about organized crime. Even as the homicide rate started to spiral upwards, national coverage was focused on other regions, especially the US-Mexico border cities, leaving journalists in Guanajuato struggling to make sense of the violence in their area.

Founded by veteran journalist Arnoldo Cuéllar, who had previously worked for Correo de Guanajuato and El Nacional de Guanajuato, POPLab came about as a result of mainstream newsrooms’ lack of interest in supporting investigative journalism centered on the state.

After an initial foray into local elections reporting, the team decided to focus on long-term investigations and to look for new angles for the main issues Guanajuato faced, principally the dramatic spread of violence linked to organized crime. Top of the agenda was considering how the victims of organized crime are featured — and digging into stories other outlets had missed.

Since Guanajuato’s descent into the grip of organized crime coincided with the rise of local Chief Prosecutor Carlos Zamarripa, for one of their early projects the team decided to carry out a deep dive on Zamarripa’s time in office.

Between 2009 and 2020, the first decade he was in power, murders in Guanajuato rose from just under 500 to 4,490 per year. In 2019, huge protests swept across the state, with 10,000 people demanding Zamarripa act to investigate the murders of university students and put an end to the cycle of violence that had engulfed the region.

Zamarripa — one of Mexico’s longest-serving chief prosecutors — has been asked by the federal government to step down, because of the significant rise in homicides taking place on his watch, and the low number of convictions during his mandate, but local officials responsible for effecting a change failed to act.

POPLab wrote the most detailed profile of Zamarripa to date: “We decided to focus on narrating his rise to power, the evolution of organized crime in Guanajuato, and his relation with US Ambassadors,” said Cuéllar. After its story came out, outlets nationwide also started to pay attention to Zamarripa.

A later project, It’s Not Collateral Damage, It’s Our Future at Risk, is an example of POPLab’s victim-centered journalism. The piece delves into the way organized crime affects young people, from being recruited into a career of violence to struggling to live free of it. “We found individual experiences of how this phenomenon is developing and paired it with existing data,” explained Cuéllar. Amongst the data used by POPLab were figures on the number of minors arrested, homicides of minors, and where crimes took place.

Creating New Narratives about Organized Crime

Investigative journalist and In.Visibles co-founder, Ronna Rísquez, Image: Screenshot / In.Visibles

One of Latin America’s largest criminal organizations came from the prisons of Venezuela. Thanks to pervasive corruption, lack of prisoner oversight, and the infiltration of illicit tech and communication tools in prisons, El Tren de Aragua went from being a feared prison gang to a multinational crime syndicate operating across the continent, from Chile and Argentina to Central America.

Venezuelan investigative reporter Ronna Rísquez has spent years documenting the group’s growing influence. She wrote the definitive account of El Tren de Aragua’s history and current operations, and co-authored award-winning investigations like OLP: The Mask of Official Terror in Venezuela, which was a finalist for GIJN’s Global Shining Light Award in 2019.

But back in 2023 she realized she wanted to change her approach. Rísquez created In.Visibles, an online investigative journalism platform to provide new narratives about organized crime, together with Argentinian investigative journalist Josefina Salomón, and graphic reporter and documentary filmmaker Sergio Ortiz.

“When we talk about new narratives we mean trying to tackle organized crime without orbiting around the big narcos, like Pablo Escobar and Chapo Guzmán,” said Rísquez.

The project is still in a “soft launch” phase, with the first investigations set to be published later this year. The team plans to place the stories of the people once considered on the sidelines of organized crime reporting on center stage. For example, narratives about the drug “mules” who enable operations, but become involved in the trade because of economic hardships and coercion. “Are they really committing a crime or are they victims of human trafficking?” asks Rísquez. These unseen victims are the people and the stories which gave the platform its title: In.Visibles.

“Although it might seem easier to attract the audience’s attention with hard organized crime reporting, writing about victims is a choice… a social commitment and part of approaching journalism as a public service,” Rísquez said.

Santiago VillaSantiago Villa is an award-winning journalist who has written for Latin American news outlets for more than a decade. He is currently based in Colombia, and writes an opinion column for El Espectador. He has previously worked as a foreign correspondent in South Africa, China, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

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