Building a transnational investigation: A Q&A with Violeta Santiago

Back in early November, Report for the World host newsroom Quinto Elemento Lab published alongside the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP,) and other 40 newsrooms,  The NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, a project that explored how drug trafficking networks have expanded across the planet, bringing their corruptive influence with them.

Corps member Violeta Santiago was at the forefront of this story, reporting on how the Mexican cartels are evolving their structures and developing ever sophisticated methods to stay ahead of the authorities; and how some criminal groups have used the “brand” of well known Mexican cartels to conduct their illicit activities in other countries.

We spoke with Santiago about her approach to reporting in such an expansive project and some of the challenges she encountered along the way. Her responses have been translated into English and edited for length and clarity:

Report for the World: Tell us about the origin of this project. How was the decision made to focus on the topics you covered?

Violeta Santiago: OCCRP selected Quinto Elemento and two other media outlets in Mexico to join the project. We began by reviewing the “Guacamaya” documents (a leak by the hacktivist group of the same name of documents from the Colombian Prosecutor’s Office) and identifying potential stories.

During the pre-reporting phase, the idea of ​​tracking the presence of Mexican criminal groups in other countries emerged. While I collaborated with colleagues at El Universal on the main story, I continued investigating the topic of Los Zetas. Simultaneously, a colleague from another organization brought up news of a raid on the premises of an investment advisory company in Mexico City and its possible links to a Colombian drug trafficker. We looked into it and found evidence of a larger and more complex story.

We enlisted the help of a colleague from Aristegui Noticias and had very close support from the OCCRP team, which not only provided editorial help but also offered security support, contacts in other countries, and data verification. This is how both projects emerged within the framework of Narco Files. Basically, pre-reporting and journalistic intuition, followed by a lot of verification work to bring the stories forward.

RFW: One of the most common questions when you see projects coming out of massive document leaks is “Where do you even start reporting?” What was your strategy to approach this project?

Santiago: We knew there were millions of documents. At first, I was afraid of not finding a strong enough lead for a story in Mexico, as the leak was coming from Colombia. My Quinto Elemento colleagues recommended doing keyword searches (within the documents.) Taking that filtered search as my starting point, I was able to locate information with a stronger connection to Mexico or specific individuals. So the second challenge was choosing which stories to pursue, as the leak was only a starting point. We had many meetings with Latin American colleagues, which also helped us identify common interests or themes. I think the key when facing a project of this magnitude (and I had never been in a project this big before) is systematization when conducting pre-reporting and dedicating enough time to these initial searches.

RFW: What were the biggest obstacles you faced during the reporting phase of this project?

Santiago: For the story about the financial company and drug trafficking in four countries, the challenge was proving those connections. I learned a lot about judicial journalism, given that in Mexico you can review certain types of trials and obtain valuable public information. I also had to work with sources to find or verify information that would otherwise be difficult to obtain.

Security was another big challenge. For example, during fieldwork, we went to the building where the raid took place, to see the lawyers, etc. We had to be very careful and, also for that reason, be extremely rigorous. For the story about Los Zetas, I think the challenge was also understanding the context of Colombia, something that was unfamiliar to me. Identifying their regions, their dynamics, or concepts. In both reports, I consider that at the beginning, I had a great ignorance of certain topics that, if I couldn’t overcome, it would have been impossible to move forward with the reporting and writing.

RFW: The NarcoFiles is a collaboration between dozens of media, with multiple pieces that needed to connect perfectly. ¿What lessons about coordination, source and information management and even the reporting process itself can you share with those interested in joining similar projects?

Santiago: Quinto Elemento Lab is a big supporter of collaborative journalism. Having that spirit at my organization helped me a lot. Learning to share data was key to identifying that we had a common story between various media outlets and that it would be more powerful to work on it together than separately. We even wrote a text collaboratively, for example, and it worked!

This happened because we had a common goal that was above any ego we could have as journalists. We saw that we all worked equally to achieve something, and that each person had different skills, so there was mutual respect. So what I can recommend is, as much as possible, to collaborate with teams that have the same enthusiasm and journalistic values; recognize each person’s strengths and distribute topics or tasks according to these skills; define a text structure as a team and write excerpts according to what each person reported more, but with the possibility of being read by everyone and making suggestions. And above all, be patient and respectful of others. Learn a lot from the experiences of others.