The construction of the General Felipe Ángeles Airport, in Santa Lucía, Mexico. Credit: Andrea Murcia/Cuartoscuro
Tracing the Story

The Mexican Army diverted 156 million dollars to shell companies

Published August 24, 2020 in El País. (Spanish)

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Zorayda Gallegos Valle on how to stay on track when reporting a big story.

Zorayda Gallegos Valle

“They should formulate a hypothesis from the beginning and come back to it when it seems like they are losing focus of the story.”


What were the major findings of your story?

The stories reveal that the Mexican Army resorted to a corruption scheme to divert $156 million through 250 shell companies contracted for the construction of various military and public works.

What impact did your story have?

The issue had a huge media impact and President López Obrador was questioned about it at a press conference, where he asked the Secretary of Defense to provide a report on these contracts.

Was your story based on another publication’s work?

Yes, it’s based on the investigative report, “Public Works: The Dark Business of the Army,” published on Dec. 9, 2019.

Did you receive any funding to do this story?

No.

How did the story start and how did your team decide on the first steps to take in working on this story?

This report arose from another investigation that had been published months before. In that story, I found clues that led me to come across contracts that the Army did not want to reveal because it had signed them with companies that simulate their operations.

Therefore, one of the strategies was to request this information from the tax authority, which collects all tax revenue in Mexico.

How long did it take to report, write and edit this story?

12 months.

What challenges did your team face while working with sources?

One of the challenges was security during on-the-ground reporting since some of the companies were located in dangerous areas. In some of the offices, the managers of these companies responded with verbal attacks.

I established a monitoring system where I communicated every 30 minutes with another colleague who, in the event of any threat that I reported to him, would alert journalists’ protection organizations.

What resources and tools did your team find useful? How did you organize your data and documents?

This investigation was started to find out what was behind these military projects, but we ran into reserved contracts and had difficulty accessing the documents relating to the tender process.

During the year that the investigative work lasted, a dozen requests for information were made and a lawsuit was launched before the Institute of Transparency in Mexico for the Army to hand over the information it refused to provide.

Notarial acts of a hundred companies, contracts and audits were also reviewed.

What other challenges or barriers did your team face while working on the story or series, and how did you overcome these challenges?

Although there were press releases that pointed out the work of the Army as a builder, the opaque contracting model used was unknown. It was also unknown whether the military could act as contractors. Therefore, the first challenge was to understand under what model these contracts operated. The reporting work made it possible to identify that the projects were executed by direct award contract, a legal process where the contract is awarded without a competition and in this case with zero transparency.

What advice would you give journalists working on similar investigations?

The main advice is not to discard any data and if the authority denies information that should be public, fight to get it, even in court. They should formulate a hypothesis from the beginning and come back to it when it seems like they are losing focus of the story.

If they are not experts in public procurement, they should learn about regulations and get an expert opinion. Before publishing, they should carefully reread the text and support each data with documents and testimonials.

Did your team face any pushback during or after the publication of this story? If so, how did you address this?

The only pushback I faced was the opacity of the authorities.

Did working on this story change your perspective as a journalist?

I realized that it is preferable to do this kind of research as a team.