By Katherine Corcoran

July 23, 2017

Mexico City

 

In Mexico, investigative reporting traditionally has meant trouble for the journalist, not the person up to no good.

Radio host Carmen Aristegui was fired after revealing that President Enrique Pena Nieto’s personal home was built and held by a favored public works contractor who earned millions under his administrations.

Aristegui was sued, spied on and her offices broken into.

Pena Nieto was exonerated.

Reporter Victor Hugo Arteaga said he was threatened by a public official trying to block the online newspaper, Animal Politico, from publishing a story on fake companies siphoning public money in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz. The official mentioned Arteaga’s two young children.

The Sinaloa newspaper Noroeste, probing an ex-governor’s ties to an ammonia plant approved for construction in protected wetlands, had its delivery trucks confiscated by the federal government the week the investigation was published.

“They want to harass us, they want to break our will to continue,” said Aristegui, who had the top-rated morning talk show and a national following of listeners before being yanked off the air in March 2015. “But we know very well this is a battle of resistance.”

And things are starting to change. Armed with new transparency laws and better investigative training, Mexican journalists are unearthing corruption and malfeasance so well documented, it’s difficult for authorities and the public to ignore.

Once resigned to official statements and leaks from politicians trying to hurt their opponents, today’s investigative reporters create independent projects and painstakingly track down documents that many still don’t realize have become part of the public record.

“The tools have changed substantially,” said Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, who won a Pulitzer Prize documenting massive bribes paid by Walmart Mexico to build at will and corner the discount store market. “Now you have a webpage where you can look where a federal prisoner is housed, or know the owner of a license plate in a highway accident, or see corporation contracts, or use a national database of businesses … before it was all a black hole.”

Such was the case with the “empresas fantasmas,” or ghost companies, set up by the administration of Veracruz ex-Gov. Javier Duarte to funnel public money to private pockets.

With Arteaga’s help from Veracruz, Mexico City investigative reporter Arturo Angel sifted through articles of incorporation and bids, checking addresses and finding that contractors receiving funds to help victims of natural disasters and the poor were completely fake.

All the documents substantiating the graft were public.

Arteaga abruptly took his byline off the story, something Veracruz officials tried to cast as his discrediting the report. But he now says publicly that he did so after being threatened and fearing for his family. Angel too was approached by another journalist, who said he collaborated with the state, asking Angel what it would take to shelve the story.

“Literally he told me … they know I’m investigating some companies and ‘they wanted to see the possibility, under the terms you give us, that you don’t publish the story, or at least don’t publish it until after the election,’” Angel recalled. “‘Whatever you propose, we’re open.’ ”

When Angel politely declined, the emissary offered to help him with anything the next time he goes to Veracruz, including if he wanted to go on vacation: “We have a lot of nice hotels.”

The series ran as scheduled before the gubernatorial election, and Duarte’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party lost badly. The stories resulted in charges against Duarte, who fled the country, was caught in Guatemala and then extradited back to Mexico.

The federal treasury’s swift opening of its own investigation from the day the first story was published was unprecedented _ surprising even the journalists who dug up the story.

“For the first time, we had certainty that something was going to happen,” said Daniel Moreno, general director of Animal Politico.

Normally, the government reaction is like that in the case Aristegui’s report on the “Casa Blanca,” or White House, where officials worked hard to discredit her and a team of reporters. They were accused of getting a leak from one of Pena Nieto’s foes. But the story started when one reporter on the team saw a society magazine spread on the first lady’s chic new home, designed by a famous architect, and decided to investigate its origins. They found it was built and owned by Ingeneria Inmobiliaria de Centro, a subsidiary of Grupo Higa, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in public projects, including a high-speed train that was abruptly canceled days before the “Casa Blanca” investigation was published.

The reporters posted all their supporting documents online and shared the information with international press just before publishing. With the veracity of the investigation openly apparent, the story went international instantly.

Pena Nieto subsequently appointed a friend as head of the public function that investigates corruption and was cleared of any conflict of interest. Still, the president who tried to make his name on reforms that would modernize Mexico instead became known for the Casa Blanca.

“It became the emblem of his term,” Aristegui said. “The symbol of corruption, lack of accountability and opaqueness.”

As proven in Aristegui’s case, the environment for doing such work remains hostile. The New York Times recently reported that Aristegui, other journalists and human rights advocates had their cell phones infiltrated with Pegasus, an Israeli software sold only to governments to spy on criminals and terrorists. The Mexican government denied using the software on its critics.

But Mexico remains the most dangerous non-combat country in world for journalists, with death tolls worse even than Iraq or Syria outside the battle field. At least six journalists have been killed just in the first half of 2017.

Clearly some investigative journalists pay with their lives.

Miroslava Breach was gunned down in March 2017 after revealing political candidates with ties to drug traffickers in the northern city of Chihuahua. One of her colleagues, Proceso correspondent Patricia Mayorga, is now in exile in the United States.

“The violence has to do with authorities colluding with organized crime,” Moreno said. “Without a doubt it has provoked a drop in investigations about that collusion … But I would never say it has put an end to investigative reporting.”

Mexico is a country where the press traditionally was aligned with one political party or interest and accustomed to being paid for good coverage. Many traditional media outlets still survive on publicity ads placed by the government, which uses such funds to manipulate coverage.

“How can you take on an issue against the government when your medium continues to live off the government?” Xanic said.

But journalists are finding innovative ways to do investigative reporting. Aristegui maintains her own news site and returned to radio via Internet in January after nearly two years in exile from the airwaves.

One journalist on her team, Daniel Lizarraga, is now with Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, a non-profit that has conducted dozens of investigations, including into bribery and graft on the part of governments and multinational corporations.

Lizarraga, along with Xanic and investigative reporters Marcela Turati and Ignacio Rodriguez Reyna, recently started Quinto Elemento Lab, a project funded by the Open Society Foundations to give journalists money, guidance and space for investigative reporting.

Their first call for investigations brought 119 proposals from 207 journalists in 23 states. Xanic said the quality overall was quite good, and it was difficult for the jury to pick the final ones.

She, Moreno and others cite many publications around Mexico, outside the big cities, doing aggressive work, like Sinaloa’s Noroeste, where the trucks were returned and the investigation of the ammonia plant resulted in the investors backing out of the project.  But the permits remain.

They also agree that Mexico has a long way to go.

“We can’t say we have freedom of expression when we have journalists being killed, self-censuring and being persecuted,” Aristegui said, “even though we are now seeing some communication outlets that give us space to breathe.”

 

From left to right: Marcela Turati, Ignacio Rodriguez Reyna, Daniel Lizarraga and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab of Quinto Elemento Lab.

photo: Facebook

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NO JUSTICE IN VERACRUZ

Despite risks, retaliation, investigative reporting grows in Mexico

From left to right: Marcela Turati, Ignacio Rodriguez Reyna, Daniel Lizarraga and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab of Quinto Elemento Lab.

photo: Facebook