Petrofraude: 6 lessons from a major cross-border investigation

by Fabiola Torres López
Sep 6, 2019 in Investigative Journalism
Petrofraude homepage

Journalists often need to work collaboratively — and transnationally — to expose massive corruption schemes. 

In Latin America, a team of more than 15 reporters and editors from six countries joined forces in a project, called Petrofraude, to do just this — investigate corruption in Venezuela, one of the least transparent countries in the world. Their unprecedented exposé, published earlier this year, uncovered US$28 billion in corrupt trade deals involving Petrocaribe, a Venezuela-led oil alliance with Carribbean and Central American countries.

CONNECTAS, a cross-border investigative journalism organization in Latin America, directed the project, which the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) of Venezuela awarded a special mention in its 2019 national investigative journalism contest. As an ICFJ Knight Fellow, I coached the reporters on their multimedia and data efforts, including helping them clean up and analyze thousands of government records.

Here are some lessons learned from the investigation:

Follow the money, with allies

We know corruption is transnational. This means that journalists should work across borders, too, when covering the issue. For the Petrofraude investigation, CONNECTAS led a media alliance that included Venezuela’s El Pitazo, Nicaragua’s Confidencial, the Dominican Republic’s Diario Libre and El Salvador’s La Prensa Gráfica

Build databases to establish patterns

During the Petrofraude project, journalists gained access to hundreds of first-hand, previously unpublished documents, including meeting minutes, audit reports and agreements. These documents and sources served not only to write and sustain the investigation, but also to build databases the team used to expose patterns of corruption and networks of influence. Their findings included: the alleged purchase of support from the allied countries and beneficiaries of Petrocaribe in the Organization of American States (OAS), fictitious construction projects in Haiti, the food surcharges with which the debtor countries paid Venezuela, and the corrupted suppliers behind these businesses. One of the clearest examples of the exposed corruption can be found in the report "Petróleo Por Votos" (Oil for Votes). 

The visualization below demonstrated important evidence of this. 

Travel strategically

Of all the corruption cases Petrofraude revealed, the situation in Haiti is one of the most shocking. Following the 2010 earthquake that struck the country, Venezuela allocated more than US$2.1 billion to help rebuilding efforts. Instead of successful construction projects, however, CONNECTAS discovered a series of unfinished projects by analyzing government audits — and even some fictitious ones, too. 

They later traveled to Haiti, where they used drones to take video of the locations where there should have been new construction projects, but in fact there were none.

Plan and collaborate efficiently

Reporters coordinated virtually with CONNECTAS editors, developers and me to gather and analyze research from more than 14 countries. The reporters also held two project coordination meetings in Bogota, Colombia — one at the beginning of the investigation to brainstorm ideas for the project, and another towards the end to ensure all tasks would be completed on time.

Engage readers in different ways

We used a diversity of mediums to tell our story, in order to reach a wider audience. The Petrofraude team, for example, produced an interactive map of Venezuela and the other Caribbean and Central American countries that received oil through Petrocaribe, as well as short summaries of each long-form report, searchable database and aerial drone video. We also published copies of the original documents used in our investigation.

Timing and impact

The legitimacy of Venezuela’s 2018 presidential election has been called into question by internal opposition and foreign governments alike. As a result, the CONNECTAS partners decided to publish the findings of their Petrofraude investigation the day after Nicolás Maduro started the second term of his presidency in January 2019. 

Later that month, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) spoke about the Petrofraude project on the floor of the U.S. Senate. He called it “a collaborative and brave Venezueulan media effort” that spotlighted corruption in Venezuela. In February, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant announced nine measures aimed at investigating Petrocaribe corruption and addressing the country's economic crisis.

Check out Petrofraude in Spanish or English to read all of the findings.

Fabiola Torres is an ICFJ Knight Fellow who is strengthening journalists’ digital investigative reporting skills to improve coverage of corruption, transparency and governance issues in Latin America.

Main image is a screenshot of Petrofraude's homepage