Maria Teresa Ronderos
Co-Founder and Director, Latin American Center For Investigative Journalism
Fellow project website: www.elclip.org
María Teresa Ronderos, herself a top investigative journalist, is empowering journalists across Latin America to collaborate beyond borders—allowing them to break bigger stories and more effectively hold large, transnational powers to account.
THE NEW IDEA
Aiming to identify, connect, and coordinate journalists to jointly report on transnational stories, María Teresa Ron-deros founded the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística, or CLIP) in 2019. Cross-border collaboration is crucial for investigative journalists, in a time and place where the most important stories require seeing the driving forces and incentives at work on a continental level. Powerful actors, such as drug cartels and corrupt politicians and corporations, often operate across borders, but journalists in Latin America traditionally have not. CLIP breaks down these national barriers by initiating and coordinating transnational investigations throughout the continent. In addition, it supports journalists in their own investigations, by providing safe access to collaborative tools and relevant and sensitive information.
As a secondary objective, CLIP aims to serve as a platform for broader community collaboration. As journalism is slowly losing its legitimacy in many parts of society, María Teresa recognizes the critical importance of engaging the audience as active participants, rather than looking at them as passive recipients. With its digital platform, CLIP aims to build a network of at least 10,000 strong community voices who contribute their skills, know-how, and information to investigations across the continent. Currently, this digital community has around 1,000 active members.
CLIP’s methodology, leaving old organizational limitations behind, is rapidly setting a new standard for investigative journalism in Latin America. The collaboration and sharing enable reduced investigation costs and personal risk. In an increasingly authoritarian environment, where journalists and other critical voices—in Latin America more than in most of the world—are being threatened, silenced, and even murdered by authoritarian regimes and criminal organizations, working through CLIP provides some level of safety and support to individual journalists.
Since 2019, CLIP has forged collaborations with over 80 outlets in almost every country in Latin America and pub-lished more than 200 significant articles and other pieces of media. It has provided a platform for sensitive stories that couldn’t be published locally—such as the murder case of Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach—and shed light on previously unknown or underreported stories, like the systematic disappearance of public funds meant to fight Covid-19. CLIP’s investigations have inspired po-litical action in multiple countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Peru, and are serving to strengthen and corroborate the work of civil society organizations across the continent.
At a time when internet technology should be allowing journalism to flourish, independent journalism is embattled on almost all fronts. María Teresa Ronderos knows those battles first-hand. She has devoted her career to fearless reporting, while working to protect and nurture the independence of her colleagues worldwide.”
Open Society Foundation
Corruption, organized crime, human rights violations, and environmental deterioration are some of the most urgent challenges that every Latin American society is facing in modern times. Moreover, many of these challenges are far more pronounced in Latin America than elsewhere in the world. Nearly all countries on the continent (except Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica) rank in the bottom half of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, cartels vying to control the transportation of drugs to the United States are responsible for tens of thousands of deaths across the continent each year, while South America, home to the world’s largest forest, is losing millions of hectares of trees every year, recently at record rates.
Well-organized and independent investigative journalism is one of the few, and one of the most powerful, tools available to uncover these large-scale issues and hold the influential organizations and individuals behind them to account. As such, investigative journalists play a key role in supporting and upholding democracy, by informing the public and compelling lawmakers to take action. For example, when one of CLIP’s stories uncovered the systemic failures of Colombia’s carbon market—intended to be an innovative solution against deforestation—it was discussed extensively in a debate in the Colombian Congress on October 26, 2021, leading the then-Minister of Environment to announce plans for greater transparency.
However, Latin American journalists’ ability to report on these larger problems has been limited, due to their geographical limitations. Many of these crucial issues have a transnational nature. They are driven by actors that operate on an international level and have implications in multiple countries. By contrast, investigative journalism in Latin America has traditionally had a strong local focus. Journalists do report on these larger phenomena, but only from the lens of what happens within the borders of their own country.
The problem with this limited approach can be seen in the corruption scandal around Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which led to the sentencing of the company’s top executives and a score of politicians across the region, including multiple (former) heads of state. For over a decade, Odebrecht paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to public officials and political parties in at least 12 Latin American countries. In return, the company received billions of dollars’ worth of public contracts, inflated prices, and ignored environmental safeguards.
Crucially, it wasn’t investigative journalists who first uncovered this story in 2014, but rather the Brazilian police, who stumbled upon Odebrecht’s practices while conducting a different investigation. For many years, the absence of an organization like CLIP meant that when local journalists received leads on Odebrecht’s bribes, their investigations didn’t look beyond their own country’s borders. As a result, they didn’t realize that these were not isolated incidents, and they never uncovered the extent of Odebrecht’s corruption machine. By the time the Brazilian police finally did, many more public resources had been lost.
LIP’s existence has fundamentally changed this. Its impact is clear in the case of another multinational construction company: Costa Rican firm Meco. Even though Meco and its owner have been under judicial investigation for bribery in Costa Rica since 2019, the company has continued to win public contracts in other countries, including Panama and Colombia. CLIP’s reporting on this story—a collaboration by journalists from all three countries—has led to a significant shift in public opinion, forcing Meco to remove its owner from the board of directors and to cede $300 million worth of contracts in Colombia.
CLIP initiates, coordinates, and supports collaborative, cross-border investigations throughout Latin America. Most of its investigations focus on corruption, environmental deterioration, and human rights abuses by governments, criminal organizations, and religious institutions. In addition, CLIP supports local outlets and journalists with strategic guidance and sometimes funding, offers several online tools that facilitate collaboration, and serves as a publication outlet for sensitive stories. Through these efforts, CLIP provides journalists with safety, helps reduce their research costs, enables them to conduct larger investigations, helps maximize their impact on public opinion and legislative action, and engages the public as active participants.
Working through CLIP provides individual journalists with safety, both because collectives are harder to target than individuals and because CLIP offers the possibility to publish sensitive stories anonymously. One of these stories was the “Miroslava Project,” in which Mexican journalists spent almost two years to investigate the judicial operation of the murder case of journalist Miroslava Breach in 2017. Because publication in local media would have been highly dangerous for the investigators, CLIP gave them the opportunity to publish anonymously, with María Teresa acting as the media spokesperson for the project. In response to this publication, almost the entire Mexican press ended up covering the story, informing a much wider audience and likely influencing the sentence of one of the murderers.
The Miroslava Project illustrates CLIP’s role as a publication platform, but also how the strategic guidance and operational assistance it provides to journalists and local outlets serves to catalyze their impact. CLIP helped the original journalists with the final stretch of their investigation and with creating and editing individual stories. This support, as well as María Teresa’s role as a spokesperson, enabled the story’s widespread coverage and amplified its effect on public opinion.CLIP has developed several online tools that are crucial in facilitating cross-border collaboration. Its private database, NINA, enables journalists across Latin America to access information on campaign financing, public procurement, and public sanctions. In addition, CLIP created an encrypted platform called “La Vecindad,” “The Neighborhood,” which is used for all collective investigations. It enables journalists and other contributors to share and access all documentation related to an investigation, including data, images, interviews, and others.
[Her] eagerness to offer readers clear, comprehensive, and profound information became her personal seal, and it has given results.
These tools drastically reduce investigation cost and time and allow journalists to conduct larger investigations with significantly more parties involved. The largest of these projects, “Migrants from Another World,” which was initiated by María Teresa herself, involved 30 journalists from 14 different countries. The project covered the harrowing stories of the thousands of Asian and African migrants who land in Latin America each year, with the objective of reaching the United States or Canada. Having paid a fortune to traffickers, these people embark on an arduous overland journey, often starting in South America, only to end up in detention camps in Mexico or before. Along the way, many lose their own lives, or those of their family members, to the jungles they must cross. Of those that make it to the overcrowded detention camps, where they receive little food and no medical care, many get deported back to their country of origin. Only a handful reach their destination.
The Migrants from Another World project yielded a large collection of stories, an interactive website, and a book that was published by Penguin Random House in August 2021. Its publication bolstered human rights organizations across the region in their work, was presented in a Panamanian court to compel the government to better protect immigrants’ rights, and likely influenced the Mexican government’s decision to remodel some of its overcrowded detention facilities.
In addition to enabling cross-border collaboration, CLIP’s online tools also facilitate María Teresa’s vision for engaging the public as active participants. CLIP offers individuals and organizations a way to safely share information, expertise, and evidence that can help initiate or strengthen an investigation. CLIP provides not just the opportunity to contribute safely and anonymously—sensitive evidence is shared through encrypted emails—but also the reliable promise that shared leads and information will be in good hands and taken seriously. For example, in its reporting on Colombia’s carbon market, CLIP relied heavily on the alerts, expertise, and online collaboration provided by multiple carbon bond experts.
Beyond achieving these main objectives, María Teresa is also working hard on making CLIP more financially sustainable and independent. CLIP’s primary financial objective is to expand and diversify its donor base, in order to decrease its dependence on individual donors. The goal is to have its largest donor contribute at most 10-12% of the annual budget (this figure is currently 24%). In addition, CLIP has started generating revenue worth roughly 10% of its budget, through services offered to large media outlets, civil society organizations, and other clients across the region. These include data services, such as support with mining and processing data or creating algorithms, as well as high-level training on topics like specialized data visualization. CLIP is also piloting a tailored service that helps clients identify what information they should want to obtain from public records on a recurring basis, and then write the necessary algorithms.
In addition to expanding its donor base, service offerings, and media products like books and podcasts, CLIP’s aim is to continue improving access to information and collaborative partners for journalists across the region. Eventually, María Teresa wants to expand CLIP’s network and investigations to all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the Latin American communities living in the United States.
María Teresa founded CLIP on the back of a long, international career as a prolific investigative journalist and a committed defender and innovator of her profession. Her international exposure began even before her professional career. Born in 1959 in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, she was raised by her father, who was a serial entrepreneur in construction, banking, and hospitality, and her mother, who was an artist. They sent María Teresa to attend a year of boarding school in Scotland when she was 16. After her undergraduate studies in Colombia, she studied at Florida International University, and she holds a master’s degree in Political Science from Syracuse University.
In 1983 [María Teresa Ronderos] started as a reporter in Buenos Aires [...] and in all these years she has maintained her balance while walking the tightrope of a threatened profession. [With CLIP], she once again demonstrates her ability to innovate and renew the sector.
Simón Bolívar Foundation
María Teresa quickly developed a passion for journalism and serving the public good. As a student at the University of the Andes, she became the leader of the university newspaper, where she reported on how the armed forces were using the country’s State of Emergency—meant to combat guerillas—to arbitrarily arrest students and other youth who were not guerilla fighters. In her first job, she spent five years in Argentina, covering the country’s transition to democracy and the trials of the former military dictators.
María Teresa perfected her craft as a journalist back in Colombia. She wrote and directed an investigative 60 Minutes-style TV show and became the first female political editor of the newspaper El Tiempo, where she reported on drug terrorism in Colombia. She worked as a reporter, editor, and columnist with several other outlets, before joining Colombia’s leading news magazine, Sem-ana. Starting in 2000, she spent 14 years with the magazine, as a reporter, website editor, and managing editor.
Her cutting-edge investigative reporting earned María Teresa widespread recognition. As early as 1996, she won the King of Spain Award, Latin America’s most prestigious journalism award, for her examination of Colombia’s media coverage of corruption scandals and the ties between politicians and drug lords. The difficult and risky investigation—which she conducted together with a journalist from a competing newspaper—not only showed María Teresa’s initiative and courage but also her instinct to collaborate. María Teresa’s impact grew to extend far beyond her own research and publications, and beyond her own country. She became acutely aware of the dangers and pressures investigative journalists are exposed to in Latin America and the rest of the world. This understanding, and her commitment to the importance of high-quality investigative reporting, drove her to devote a significant and growing part of her career to promoting and protecting the overall field of journalism. She worked towards this goal with the Open Society Foundations, where she led the Independent Journalism Program from 2014 to 2018. There, she supported over 130 media and freedom of expression organizations around the world. In addition, she has held several board positions, including on the international Committee to Protect Journalists, and worked to protect the lives of journalists in danger as the president ad honorem of the Colombian Foundation for Press Freedom.
Beyond taking up these types of positions, María Teresa has gradually learned how to fortify and innovate the field of journalism, by building websites that both facilitate collaborations and fundamentally transform the relationship between journalists and the public. Her experience began with LaNota.com, a website with information, analysis, and opinions about business in Colombia, which she co-founded in the early days of the internet. In the early 2000s, María Teresa developed VoteBien.com (“Vote Well”). Uniting media and civil society organizations, this website provided independent coverage of Colombian elections at all levels for about 10 years and offered an interactive test to help voters identify which candidate aligned most with their views. In 2008, María Teresa founded VerdadAbierta.com (“Open Truth”), where she served as the editor-in-chief until 2014. This specialized, interactive website continues to cover serious human rights violations, transitional justice, and the consolidation of peace during the internal armed conflict in Colombia.
With CLIP, María Teresa is able to bring together her different passions: Creating investigative reporting of the highest quality, collaborating across borders and with the region’s best investigative journalists, and teaching, mentoring, and building capacity with younger journal-ists around the continent. In addition to her work with CLIP, María Teresa plans to continue to devote a significant part of her life to promoting freedom of expression through her pro bono board memberships.
Beyond that, working in journalism in Latin America has taught María Teresa that making plans is often futile. Instead, she intends to remain flexible to changing circumstances, and deeply committed to her vision: Bring-ing investigative journalists together, making journalism more transparent, and “ending the era of us journalists versus the audience.”