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April 11, 2022, 10:28 a.m.
Audience & Social
Reporting & Production

“‘The truth’ was not true”: Two journalists are using unsealed documents and social media to reconstruct gray areas of Mexican history

Journalists Dardo Neubauer and Laura Sánchez Ley are declassifying historical Mexican records and revisiting the stories they tell on social media.

On May 15, 1992, Rosalino Sánchez Félix, better known as Chalino Sánchez, was performing his first sold-out show in Culiacan, Sinaloa. What had been a special night for Chalino, who was singing in his hometown, took a turn when someone in the crowd passed him a note. He read it, his demeanor changed, and he continued singing.

The next morning, he was found dead. He was 31.

Chalino was a Mexican-American icon best known for his narcocorridos, ballads that recount the lives and stories of drug traffickers, and is widely considered the first narcocorrido superstar. The video of him reading that note and performing “Alma Enamorada” has over 93 million views on YouTube alone.

Nearly 30 years later, Chalino’s murder remains unsolved. His life and death have inspired all kinds of theories and conspiracies, and an eight-episode bilingual podcast by Futuro Media and Sonoro Media (run, don’t walk, to listen to it).

Still, among both journalists and regular people, the question remains: Why do we still not know who killed Chalino Sánchez?

That’s how journalists Dardo Neubauer and Laura Sánchez Ley, the founders of Archivero, decided to request the records related to Chalino’s case.

Sánchez and Neubauer launched Archivero (which means “archivist”) last month. They request public records to have them declassified and reveal information that the government kept secret. Their goal is to add context and follow up on current stories in the news and unsolved cases, and to find threads for future stories.

Archivero’s work is currently free to access. Sánchez and Neubauer are a team of two and neither of them works on Archivero full-time. They’re funding the project themselves, though they offer paid research and consulting services. They also offer workshops and trainings on Mexico’s transparency laws and the United States’ Freedom of Information Act.

Archivero first launched on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram. Sánchez and Neubauer built a following in part by asking users which documents they should request. They plan to create content with the documents and digitize the original files for the website so that anyone can use and analyze them without having to file a records request. Every Tuesday evening, they host a Twitter Space to discuss a public records case related to politics.

Chalino’s files have been the most requested by Archivero’s followers so far, Sánchez said.

When they requested the public records related to Chalino’s murder from the transparency unit of the attorney general’s office in the state of Sinaloa, the response was that the request could not be completed.

It was revealed, however, that authorities are apparently still investigating the case 30 years later. Releasing the file would reveal “the investigative strategy” and methods being used to find Chalino’s killer, the AG’s office claimed. The agency then sent Archivero’s request to a transparency committee to keep the records classified for another five years.

Archivero broke this down for its followers in a Twitter thread, with Instagram slides, and through a 43-second TikTok, making it easy for Chalino fans and regular people to understand what came out of the records request.

Other stories covered include how a drug trafficker who killed a Catholic cardinal from Guadalajara disappeared and how two American spies were convicted for leaking information to the KGB through the Soviet Union’s embassy in Mexico in 1977.

“We are talking about cases that not only marked Mexican political history, but that connect with Latin American countries and the United States,” she said.

Neubauer, who’s a communications professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and Sánchez, a freelance investigative journalist and writer, decided to launch Archivero after they started investigating the cases of three politicians who all died in separate plane crashes between 2008 and 2011.

At the time of the crashes, then-president Felipe Calderón told the public that “bad weather” had caused the crashes, Sánchez said. Related records were classified for five-year periods twice, which meant that they finally became available in 2021. After several hurdles — including paying for thousands of pages of documents, being told the records were “lost” even though they had already been paid for, and not being allowed to leave the AG’s office with the records that had been paid for until another department head signed off on — Sánchez and Neubauer started combing through the documents.

“We found out the truth wasn’t being told and that bad weather wasn’t the only line of investigation that Felipe Calderón’s government was looking into,” Sánchez said. “This file portrayed their real fears. He had [Basque terrorist group] ETA investigated, he had the Los Zetas Cartel investigated, he had the Sinaloa Cartel investigated. This pushed us to say: We have to find an innovative way to share these documents.”

Journalism in Mexico face several challenges simultaneously, Sánchez and Neubauer explained. Not only do journalists face physical threats, but trust in news is low and news outlets are struggling financially. (Many rely on government advertising and just 18% of the population pays for news.) Last year, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador tried to abolish Mexico’s National Institute to Information (INAI), the independent government agency that’s responsible for handling freedom of information requests.

Industry challenges may keep young people away from the profession. Neubauer’s journalism students often ask him about the killings of journalists. It’s hard to encourage them to get into the industry at such a turbulent time.

“With the difficulty of accessing documents, not many news outlets are dedicated to [document-based reporting]. I believe that we can contribute our grain of salt to Mexico’s media landscape,” Neubauer said.

Neubauer and Sánchez both hope that making Archivero’s work accessible and relatable from the start will show young people that, whether they’re journalists or not, they have a right to access public records.

“We’ve been interested in providing citizens with access to this type of documentation, because in Mexico many historical truths have been constructed,” Sánchez said. “And [as you get these files] you realize the deficiency of the investigations, all that was hidden, and how ‘the truth’ was not true.”

Dardo Neubauer, left, and Laura Sánchez Ley. Photo by Laura Sánchez Ley.

POSTED     April 11, 2022, 10:28 a.m.
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