Persona de Interés gives reporters a go-to resource on cartels and corruption

by Julie Schwietert Collazo
Oct 30, 2018 in Miscellaneous

When Brooke Binkowski, a freelance journalist who covers border issues, started working on a long-term reporting project about Mexico’s disappeared people, especially its women and girls, it wasn’t long before she ran into a predictable but frustrating problem: sourcing.

“I have almost no luck talking to government officials for comment on stories,” she said, sharing one instance in which a government spokesperson finished an interview and, with her tape still running said, “[That was] mostly lies.”

Things weren’t much better when Binkowski turned to government databases. “A couple of months ago, the federal government announced with great fanfare the creation of a national database of missing persons,” she said, but the data she found--when she could find any at all (the sites frequently didn’t even work)--were incomplete and inconsistent, rendering them virtually worthless.

Binkowski’s experiences aren’t isolated. Despite many Latin American countries’ efforts to move toward more transparent reporting of data and making statistics and information more accessible to the public, the work of governments in this arena has largely been unsuccessful. Independent journalists and international media and technology organizations are aware of these shortcomings and have been stepping in to fill in some of the gaps.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project is one of those groups. OCCRP, which launched in Eastern Europe in 2006, took its successes from that region to support the development of Persona de Interés, a Spanish-language database that lists more than 300 individuals associated with organized crime, drug trafficking, corruption and other illicit activities in Mexico and Central America.

The site, intended for journalists, authorities and citizens, is directed by Ronny Rojas, an investigative and data journalist from Costa Rica. Rojas, who has trained in digital journalism in the U.S. and Germany, formerly worked at the daily newspaper La Nación in Costa Rica.  

We spoke with Rojas to learn more about the project.

IJNet: Was Persona de Interés your idea?

Rojas: No. The idea came from OCCRP. The organization wanted to replicate in Central America the project it had already established in Eastern Europe, which was called “People of Interest.” That original idea was to develop a list of criminals, politicians and businesspeople related to crime in Eastern Europe. That project included the profiles of some 50 people and it was published in 2012.

Afterwards, OCCRP decided to implement a similar initiative in [Latin America]. The objective of Persona de Interés is to serve as a tool for journalists, authorities and citizens by providing background information about these people, from judicial files and property deeds to information about their relationships with other people.

IJNet: Tell us about the void that’s filled by Persona de Interés. What resources were available to journalists to search for the same kinds of information before the site existed?

Rojas: This information will be of great use to support the work of journalists and investigators in the region, who would otherwise have a very difficult time accessing this information through other means, either because they lack the funds to do so or the technological resources. The site makes it possible to access public documents, police and intelligence reports, judicial documents, and the like, things that cost money and whose acquisition can pose danger to a journalist, especially in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. This tool is a huge opportunity for journalists to carry out and document investigations without having to travel to those countries or put themselves in danger.  

The site also gives users access to numerous confidential documents that are of public interest, documents that were obtained through intense investigative work through journalistic channels. The idea is to create a grand platform where useful information can be shared among journalists from various countries, something that’s not very common in this region. This is very important, not the least reason being that if we can build a reliable network of collaborators, we can expand the possibility of producing more cross-border collaborations.

IJNet: Who are the people helping to build the site?

Rojas: For reasons of security, we prefer not to reveal identities, but everyone involved is a seasoned journalist with a well-respected trajectory in their respective country.

IJNet: What were the challenges of building the site?

Rojas: The coordination of a team whose members are in different countries is, without a doubt, the biggest challenge of a project like this. But so too is the security of the journalists, who put themselves at risk when they go out to investigate and look for documents about these criminal figures.

Another challenge was figuring out how to store all of the information that’s been collected in a database which is simple and user-friendly, in which contextual information was accessible and all of the documents could be downloaded for their use. To achieve this, we collaborated with a renowned data visualization specialist who designed the site and a programmer with extensive experience. We prefer, however, not to say who they are, again, for reasons of safety.  

IJNet: Who is funding the project?

Rojas: The first phase of the project was funded by the State Department. We’re currently seeking new donors to expand the platform to other countries in the Americas.

IJNet: Is there a danger to those who are working on this project?

Rojas: Yes, imminent risk exists, especially in Mexico, because the project is putting many people affiliated with organized crime [in a more visible position], and when a journalist starts to ask questions about certain people or to solicit specific information, it immediately sounds the alarms and puts them at risk. OCCRP has implemented security measures to diminish this risk, mainly in the form of communications. So far, we have not had situations of direct threats or risk to the involved journalists.  

IJNet: Tell us about the process of adding a “person of interest” to the site.

Rojas: To include a person of interest, they must be prominent in the criminal world. We evaluate the viability of their profile: whether sufficient documents and materials exist to be able to produce something solid and of actual value to users. Once we make the decision to add someone, we begin working on the investigation and collection of information and documents from public institutions, police sources and other databases. We process and scan the documents. Each journalist helps develop a biography and constructs the relationships of that person and then adds him or her to the site.  

IJNet: What are the sources of information being used to develop the profiles?

Rojas: Public institutions (property registries, business registries, judicial archives, notaries, etc); police sources; corporate databases; bank records; academic reports about organized crime; legal documents.

IJNet: Do you have any examples of the ways in which journalists are using Persona de Interés?

Rojas: Bit by bit, outlets are beginning to publish pieces that have been written using documents from the site. [In this article from the Guatemalan newspaper, El Periodico, journalists recount testimony of “Don Valde,” a cocaine trafficker; the testimony was accessed through Persona de Interés.]

[In Tiempo, a Honduran newspaper, journalists used information from Persona de Interés to develop background information for a profile of Marllory Chacón, a businesswoman who helped drug traffickers launder money.]

IJNet: What kind of feedback have you received about the site so far?

Rojas: So far, we’ve received good feedback. Journalists and authorities are seeing the platform as a useful tool for their investigations. A number of journalists from different countries want to join the initiative and collaborate to add profiles. This is one of the reasons why we’re seeking additional funding to expand the project.

If there are journalists who want to contribute profiles or submit new documents, they can contact us on Twitter (@personasOCCRP) or via email (ronny [AT] occrp [DOT] org).