Nieman Foundation at Harvard
How a titan of 20th-century journalism transformed the AP — and the news
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Dec. 7, 2020, 12:33 p.m.
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   December 7, 2020

Among the most admirable traits of investigative reporters is their collective response to an attack on one of their own.

When, in 1976, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles was killed in a car bombing, more than 40 journalists from 23 newspapers across the country worked together to finish the story that led to his murder: an investigation into the Chicago Outfit of the Mafia. (It’s essentially the origin story of Investigative Reporters & Editors. They called it The Arizona Project.

When the Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered — also by a car bomb — in 2017, an international group of journalists launched their own effort to try to complete her work. Organizing themselves under the aegis Forbidden Stories, they called it The Daphne Project.

On Sunday, the latest and largest of these postmortem collaborations debuted: The Cartel Project.

Since 2000, 119 journalists have been killed in Mexico, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, making the country the most dangerous place in the world for members of the press. This year, 60 journalists from 25 international media outlets came together to pursue the stories of their murdered colleagues.

An unprecedented collaboration, The Cartel Project was coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a global network of investigative journalists whose mission is to continue the work of reporters who are threatened, censored or killed. Working together across 18 different countries over the course of 10 months, the journalists behind “The Cartel Project” investigated the global networks of Mexican drug cartels and their political connections around the world.

The consortium of journalists took up the work of Regina Martínez, a journalist for the magazine Proceso whose 2012 murder was seen as a new low for impunity in crimes against the press. Eight years after her death, they followed Martinez’s leads about the links between politicians and drug traffickers in the state of Veracruz. They discovered that in the months before her untimely death, Martinez had been preparing to publish an explosive report about thousands of individuals who had mysteriously disappeared. They interviewed sources who had never spoken on-the-record before, revealing how local authorities sabotaged the investigation into her death and put a scapegoat behind bars without any tangible proof.

The best known of these transnational investigative collaborations tend to focus on specific caches of documents of global interest, like the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, or the FinCEN Files. While the more geographically focused Cartel Project don’t quite match their scale — more than 380 journalists worked on the Paradise Papers! — it’s still quite massive: 60 journalists and 25 news organizations, across 18 countries. Among the partners: The Washington Post, The Guardian, Die Zeit, El País, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the South China Morning Post, and Regina Martínez’s former employer, Proceso. (You can read all their published stories here; there are several more parts to be released.)

Here’s the top of the Post’s version, written by Dana Priest, Paloma de Dinechin, Nina Lakhani, and Veronica Espinosa:

XALAPA, Mexico — Regina Martínez’s death was brutal. Someone broke in through the metal door from her beloved garden patio, the tiny patch of tranquility that kept her from moving from her modest cinder-block home to a safer location.

The intruder probably surprised her in the bathroom, from behind, investigators believe. At barely 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, she scratched and struggled to fight off her attacker, leaving skin under her fingernails. The assailant broke her jaw with brass knuckles, then wrapped a rag around her neck, squeezing the life out of the region’s best hope for accountability and justice.

In articles for the national investigative weekly Proceso, Martínez, who was killed at age 48, told her readers that two successive governors in her home state of Veracruz looted the treasury and allowed cartels to operate freely with the help of local and state police. She sought to prove the traffickers and their accomplices had executed hundreds of people: Teenage dealers and entire families. Farmers and politicians. Even young women who attended their sex parties.

Martínez was one of the very few reporters who dared to refuse bribes or to ignore cartel threats aimed at censoring the news. Her articles had an outsize impact.

“What the local press did not want to publish was published through Regina Martínez,” said Jorge Carrasco, Proceso’s editor in chief.

At least 27 journalists have been killed in the state of Veracruz since 2003. Eight others have disappeared. International press groups consider Veracruz to be the most dangerous place in the world to report the news.

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