“This is like the Cave of Wonders,” someone said at one of the online meetings the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists organized to share the advances of the investigation that last week culminated in the publication of the Pandora Papers. On the computer screen appeared several faces and many small black squares. Not even the 600 journalists who collaborated on this project could fit into the virtual space of the video call. The few people you could see showed different parts of their day: while Emilia Díaz-Struck, research editor and coordinator for Latin America at the consortium, was having breakfast late in the morning, in Spain we had already digested our lunch. . A colleague from Japan was congratulated for being able to connect, there it was almost midnight.
In the wonderful cave that gave the project its first code name – Aladdin – there were no diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds. Not even a magic carpet. When we all saw each other at this online meeting, our EL PAÍS team had been up to their necks for more than five months in another very different treasure: a mountain of papers to read. 11.9 million documents, to be exact, which took up 2.9 Terabytes, the space needed to store one million digital copies of the Bible. Constitution minutes, powers, customer records, email conversations, invoices, passports, Google searches, notarial minutes…
The value of this investigation and its potential impact on the hidden wealth industry contrasts with the everyday reality of what it was like to work in it. No cover journalists and clandestine encounters with evasive sources. We spent the weeks sitting in front of the screen, sometimes in our pajamas, burning our eyelashes with the scroll of the mouse: seeing one document, and another, and another, and another… And learning, almost by osmosis, new details about global finance and its mercantile law.
The process seems tedious, but it had something addictive about it. As if the seeker were a slot machine. Providing a measly clue (a name, an address, a well-known figurehead) after three hours of fruitless searching gave us back the desire to continue digging. We resumed the polls with a satisfied smile, confident that now a good sequel would come.
When night came and our companions – eager for dinner – would find us with their noses glued to the screen, we would say to ourselves: “Five more results and I’ll stop”. Then we reviewed another thirty.
Over the months we built our own database, a small shed attached to the cave of wonders with the names and details of the people we unearthed. Who is it? What is your supplier? What society are you connected to? Are there any important details? The most relevant stories were shared with the rest of the consortium’s vehicles on its internal platform. It functions as a forum, and is the real brain of this and other Consortium investigations. It’s the place to share discoveries, doubts, reflections and where a famous reporter from The Washington Post it has the same weight as the only writer of a website in Chile. This is where a Swiss journalist can provide local information about the societies of King Juan Carlos and where from Spain we can help discover the properties, in the name of a front man, a Serbian minister, a key player in the stories of the reporters from that country.
In Mexico we had created a team earlier this year. The first few months were spent reviewing mountains of documents until I found the names of Mexicans who used a tax haven. With the local team, formed with colleagues from the process, Univision and Fifth Element Lab, we divided the 14 law firms involved. Each one was in charge of reviewing, like a sniffer dog, the documents of his office. Our objective was to write each name down on a list, so that nothing or anyone would escape us. With names in hand, it was easier to review documents and decide which stories could be told and which data were missing.
Search for Mexican bankers, Colombian officials and Spanish celebrities in Pandora Papers it was as difficult as doing it in the darkness of any cave. Hours and hours trying dozens of combinations that could be successful in a seeker who had a lot to give. All you had to do was find the key name. Amid the investigation came the biggest elections in Mexico’s history, and we wondered if we should look for every candidate running for office, but there were more than 20,000 nationwide. We decided to follow the trail only of those who won, this reduced our list and expanded our chances of finding something in the cave where dozens of political characters were hiding.
Three months before publication, it was time to review in detail which cases deserved to be told. We publish the stories of the powerful: of kings, bankers, businessmen, presidents and ministers; but we also saw anonymous citizens: dentists, merchants and talent scouts. Some stories were discarded for this, for lack of public interest. In other cases, there was simply not enough documentation to understand what was going on.
The clues received by the Pandora Papers they were just the first step. The investigation led us to delve into the mercantile records of the Virgin Islands and Panama, review plans for ski slopes and mansions in Utah and Colorado, and open the secret vaults of art galleries in Brussels and Geneva. To get there, we don’t need to take a plane. A fellow member of the Mexican team summed it up something like this: “This is more about reviewing PDFs in our usual apartments than going to the beaches of the Bahamas.” When scanning tax havens, the pink sand beaches became too far away and the law firms too close.
As we repeat in each article, third-party offshore companies are not illegal per se. The problem is the parallel wealth system that these societies create and that the surrounding industry maintains. To fill the gaps between a paper and a name, between a tax haven and another, we spoke with lawyers, professors, researchers and officials, asked for the last documents that were missing from inhospitable country records and, a few weeks before publishing, we started to enter in contact with those involved.
A few weeks before publishing, the Consortium contacted the companies at the heart of the leak. We wanted your version and check with them for the clearest signs of some illicit behavior on your part and your customers. It is the most delicate moment, because for the first time, someone outside the investigation knows, above all, what we are preparing.
In Spain we send around fifty letters written in the name of EL PAÍS, the friday and the other vehicles of the consortium. Why was this company registered? Was it declared to the Spanish Treasury? What is your relationship with this service provider? Do you have any other offshore companies? For some we got detailed answers, others were limited to meager “we will not make statements”, others still do not respond. In Mexico, we sent out so many questionnaires that bothered some of those involved. Two of them responded with the announcement that they had already filed a complaint for extortion against our team, even before the publication of the Pandora Papers. Most responded with evasions and never did.
With the publication date approaching, which had been decided and with no possibility of change for months, the Consortium’s internal forum became an anteater. Media sharing their calendar of stories, colleagues asking for permission to republish them, a constant trickle of posts created to check a piece of data (the thread to coordinate the reporting on Andrej Babis, the Czech prime minister, accumulated 625 messages in two months ) and share the characters’ responses we’ve all been waiting for.
On October 3, with less than thirty minutes to go before the agreed time of 600 people, we sat down next to the team in charge of the cover of the EL PAÍS website to prepare the publication of the stories. We couldn’t get to the last few meters of this marathon without the hard work of our colleagues on both sides of the Atlantic: editors, copywriters, photographers, cameramen, designers, audience specialists, social media managers, technicians and translators.
As we frantically pressed F5 – the button to refresh the page – hoping to see the result of a year of effort on the cover, the Madrid newsroom began to hear the sound of sirens of firefighters. Luckily for us, they were just coming to put out a small fire in a nearby building.
Minutes later, the smell of burning had dissipated and Pandora’s box was already open.
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