MEXICO CITY — In a recent poll, 64% of Mexicans said that their government wasn’t doing enough to combat corruption. Under the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto, scandals seemed to come and go without consequences for corrupt officials.
But while Mexican governments were dragging their feet, journalists like Nayeli Roldán, a 35-year-old reporter for investigative news site Animal Político, raised the costs of inaction.
In September 2017, Roldán and her colleagues at Animal Político and Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (MCCI), a watchdog group, published the results of an investigation into what became known as La Estafa Maestra, or “Master Swindle.” The scheme involved the diversion of millions of dollars in government funds through irregular contracts with public universities.
“At the beginning … we were just looking at it in our spare time,” Roldán said. “We didn’t know how big it would become.”
Roldán and her colleagues’ work eventually earned them recognition in Mexico and abroad, including the Ortega y Gasset prize for investigative journalism in 2018. But Roldán said she spent many sleepless nights in the week before their report was published.
“We were accusing the government of fraud. If we got just one detail wrong, they’d be able to discredit the whole thing,” Roldán said.
In a country that is often dangerous for journalists, Animal Político had proved its mettle before; its previous reporting helped push a former governor from the ruling PRI party from office. While no public officials have yet been convicted for their role in La Estafa Maestra, the case was central to corruption allegations — many of them revealed by journalists — that weighed down Peña Nieto and the PRI in the run-up to the 2018 election.
“Even if there hasn’t been a legal impact, there has been an important social impact,” said Roldán. “We don’t do journalism to bring down a government … We do journalism so that people have information to make decisions.”
Russell is AQ’s correspondent in Mexico City