How a Reporting Network at the U.S.-Mexico Border is Helping Reduce Corruption

By: Jennifer Dorroh | 11/01/2022

In 2009, a fire at a nursery school in Hermosillo, Mexico, claimed the lives of 49 children and injured more than 40 others. In response, the Mexican government dedicated millions of dollars to helping the victims and their families. But that money seemed to disappear before it reached them. 

That is, until investigative reporter Alan Aviña asked the right questions. His investigation revealed that a state official had hired family members to assist her in stealing about $500,000 from the government’s response to the fire. The impact: Mexico’s Institute of Social Services (IMSS) barred the corrupt official from holding public office for the next 12 years. 

To bring that corruption to light, Aviña used skills he had learned as a participant in the Mexico Border Investigative Reporting Hub (the Border Hub). ICFJ runs the five-year program in partnership with the Border Center for Journalists and Bloggers with support from USAID. 

The program fills a void across the border region, said Jorge Luis Sierra, founder of the Border Center and a former ICFJ Knight Fellow. “Journalists at the border are isolated, far away from training centers, lacking resources, and working in an extremely hostile environment. Nine border journalists have been killed over the last five years,” he said. “The Border Center was created to cover the gap, attract resources to support journalists and media organizations, organize training events, and provide mentorship and financial support.”

“While there are a lot of capacity-building opportunities in Mexico City, those trainings and resources rarely reach the northern border, but they do through the Border Hub,” said ICFJ Senior Program Director Patricio Provitina, who leads the program. “It is also developing and supporting a network of investigative journalists at the U.S.-Mexico border who are committed to reporting on this embattled but critical area.” 

More than 200 journalists have gained investigative reporting and data-driven journalism skills and improved their digital and physical security through the program. ICFJ’s and the Border Center’s tailored training, personalized mentorship and story grants have reached both young and experienced journalists from the border region. To date, they have published more than 70 stories exposing corruption, transparency, and accountability at the local, state and national level. Through a partnership with SembraMedia, 15 independent sites also received $225,000 in grants and mentorship to improve their sustainability. 

As a sports journalist, Adriana Armendariz encountered crumbling infrastructure for sports,  despite huge public investments, but wasn’t sure how to dig deeper. “The Border Hub, through their training and mentors, knew how we could address that issue, and they guided me to look at this area of opportunity,” she said. “With guidance from our mentors, we were able to pursue requests for information, interviews with current managers and athletes” to break stories about wasteful public spending on sports. 

She values the connections she made in the program, and stays in touch with other reporters she met during her training. “The Border Hub is a family where you can ask for advice, some support,” she said. 

 


The Border Center has also facilitated cross-border investigations among U.S. and Mexican journalists on issues of common interest, such as corruption, immigration and trade. A cross-border investigation revealed how millions of Mexican taxpayer dollars were laundered via a small south Texas bank and used to purchase real estate, cars, airplanes and other assets at the border. In the U.S., Jason Buch reported on the story  for the Texas Observer, while journalists Jorge Espejel and Gerardo Pineda have documented the corruption networks of former political figures in Mexico.

Among the program’s impacts across the border region: 

  • After Ana Victoria Félix and her colleagues at Monterrey’s El Norte newspaper revealed corruption in President Andres Manuel López Obrador’s youth scholarship program, the municipal government suspended the operations of two companies identified in the story.  The reporting team made more than 40 public information requests, conducted more than 140 interviews and even went undercover as potential beneficiaries to investigate. They reported that a former municipal employee and an aspiring politician pocketed government payments designed to support workforce training for young people. This prompted a federal investigation, criminal lawsuit and responses from the highest levels of government — including the president. The scale and impact of the investigation would not have been possible without help from the Border Hub’s mentorship, training and support, Félix said in a video interview with ICFJ.  
  • The El Norte team also exposed a multi-state network of shell companies siphoning funds from public contracts. As a result, Mexico’s national tax authorities opened investigations on how the state governments of Nuevo León, Tamaulipas and Coahuila utilize public funds.
  • In response to independent reporter Gabriela Medina’s reporting that Hermosillo police officers had been handing out traffic fines to citizens who had not violated the law, the city’s police chief digitized the process and began requiring officers to submit evidence of violations. He also pledged to create a way for citizens to report complaints about officers.


Strengthening Independent Voices

To help investigative outlets stay in business, the program has also supported independent news sites at the border working to become more sustainable. The program partnered with SembraMedia to help independent news outlets identify and create new revenue streams. Some news outlets overhauled their websites, content strategies and financial management. Fifteen independent sites received $225,000 in grants, along with coaching and mentorship. 

Verificado.com.mx increased its content viewership more than 1,000 percent in a year. The media group has established itself as a fact-checking leader in Mexico and is earning new revenue from its consulting and fact-checking school services. The content agency has several new clients, and received $10,000 from the Google News Initiative’s Latin America business accelerator program. 

Other sites created new revenue streams by launching content agencies to provide clients with communications strategy services including website design, content branding and social media strategies.

Through the program, Mexican news outlets have also received expert advice on how to assess their target audiences, website traffic and the reach of their content, then develop a plan to go after new sources of revenue.

Weekly publication Semanario Vanguardia revamped its workflow so that it could engage daily with audiences online while also pursuing in-depth and investigative stories in the public interest. It relaunched as a multiplatform news organization, and its engaging investigative reports have helped the outlet expand its audience. Its photojournalism report documenting Haitian migration at the U.S. border also received an award from The Interamerican Press Association.


 

During its next phase, the program hopes to continue to grow the Border Hub community of journalists and expand the professional development services it offers them. It will also introduce the project to potential international donors and pilot small projects that "may contribute toward the development of a business model for the Border Center," Provitina said. 

The program continues to make an impact. Alan Aviña, who conducted the investigation into corruption following the daycare center fire, died of COVID-19 in 2020, before he even knew the impact of his work. But his wife, Sonoran radio producer Karen Silva, was determined to complete his investigation. She enrolled in Border Center workshops, and began filing information requests. She tirelessly reviewed documents and conducted interviews but one source, Mexico’s social service director, eluded her at first. Finally, faced with Silva’s reporting, the director, Zoé Robledo, confirmed that the investigation was valid and admitted that the irregularities had occurred. 

“What the Border Center offers is something fundamental, which is to accompany you throughout the process,” she said. “You have a mentor who is guiding you,” who can help a reporter  look at the story from a different angle and delve even deeper.

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