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Blog PERIODISMO EN LAS AMERICAS

Pulitzer Prize winner says Mexican transparency laws helped her investigation into Wal-Mart




Alejandra Xanic Von Bertrab won the Pulitzer Prize together with David Bartstow for their investigation into corrupt practices in Wal-Mart de México. This photo was taken one day before the winners were announced. Source: Laura Martínez via Twitter.

The independent Mexican journalist Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her research on the network of bribery and corruption that was a key part of Wal-Mart de México’s expansion strategy, recounted to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas how she joined the investigation begun by David Barstow of the New York Times into the Mexican operations of the world’s largest supermarket chain.

“It’s a story that was possible thanks to Mexico’s transparency laws,” said Von Bertrab. Her 18-month investigation required 800 freedom of information requests from municipal, state, and federal offices in Mexico, and a total of 200 interviews.

It all began when Barstow got internal documents from the company that described the corrupt practices used to speed up the opening of new stores in Mexico. “So he decided that he needed someone in Mexico to help confirm the credibility of that information,” she said.

Von Bertrad and Barstow had never met before beginning the investigation, but mutual colleagues put them in touch. “He offered me a project in exchange for keeping a secret,” said Von Bertrab in a telephone interview from Mexico City. “For all that time, we kept that secret only between ourselves and that was key in keeping the investigation under control,” she added.

From there, she set out on one year of work completely dedicated to the investigation. “I felt like a nun in a convent because my friends didn’t know what I was working on the whole time.  It was a brutal amount of demand and isolation,” she said.

To do investigative journalism work, Von Bertrab recommends learning the different names of official documents and the differences between a memo, a work order, meeting minutes, and other documents. “In a lot of government offices I became part of the furniture. I would spend two or three days in a room with boxes of files. I would get there at 8 in the morning and leave at 7 at night, but they never asked who I was or why I wanted that information,” she said.

Mexico’s transparency law allowed her to work anonymously, as it prohibits government workers from asking who a citizen is or why they’re requesting information. “I was shocked at how much they respected that law,” said Von Bertrab.

“It was a great joy as a Mexican to prove how well the transparency law works,” she said. “The key is to know what to ask for and understand the law, because the government workers can only give you existing information, not create it,” she explained.

Her investigation also required her to understand laws and regulations on health, the environment, hydraulic construction, public services, and historical preservation to understand what kind of rules Wal-Mart was attempting to circumvent or violate in building new stores, as well as the procedures and permissions necessary to open a new store.

“What we found time and again was that there was always a problem, a municipal government opposed to the new store, a merchants’ organization, neighborhood groups opposed to land use changes, diverse conflicts, there were always obstacles,” she explained.

The climax of the investigation was finding a map that prohibited commercial projects in the land adjacent to the Pyramids of Teotihuacán, where Wal-Mart planned to build a new branch.  For the giant chain the map was another challenge to beat. The map was to be published in the official gazette to become law, and Wal-Mart paid a $52,000 bribe to have the map changed before publication, according to documents and interviews obtained by the two journalists. “We spent six months looking for that map,” said Von Bertrab.

For Von Bertrab, the best prize from her work was being able to learn from an experienced US journalist. “He’s the most strategic reporter I’ve ever met. He’s a smart player who knows when to be an observer and when to shake the tree,” she said.

Thanks to his experience with the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Bartsow recommended that Von Bertrab ask for documents like visitor lists, hard drives, and CDs. “He had ideas that hadn’t occurred to me,” she said.

On the afternoon of April 15, in the Times newsroom, Von Bertrab and Barstow both heard that they were Pulitzer winners, something they were not expecting, she said.

According to the Pulitzer Prize website, Von Bertrab began her career in Guadalajara and has covered topics such as drug trafficking, state corruption, political assassinations, and human righs.

In 1992 she received the National Journalism Prize for her coverage of explosions in the streets of Guadalajara.  She has worked for many Mexican media outlets, including the newspapers Reforma and Milenio, and magazines like Gatopardo, Expansíon, and National Geographic. She has also become an expert in the use of the Federal Institute for the Access of Information.




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