Powerful Mexicans pay to scrub their reputations online. Lawyers fear it’s hindering criminal investigations

In 2017, Luis Carriles, then a journalist at the Mexican business newspaper El Economista, got wind of a hot story. Police had discovered a clandestine pipeline running from a state-owned oil refinery to land in an industrial park owned by a local construction company, Construcciones Industriales Tapia, known as Citapia. It felt like part of something bigger: Citapia wasn’t just a construction company — it was connected to a former Mexican administration embroiled in a massive corruption scandal.

Carriles wrote the story, linking the shady pipeline to wider issues within the energy sector. He told Rest of World that Citapia pushed back hard. The company’s chief legal representative, along with his PR team and lawyers, contacted El Economista to get the story retracted, Carriles said. The paper ignored their requests, and the piece is still available online. What Carriles didn’t know was that, at the same time as the PR pressure, someone was also trying to get the piece removed from search engines. 

Documents seen by Rest of World seem to show that Eliminalia, a “reputation management” company with headquarters in Spain and Ukraine, was employed to de-index — remove from search engines — or takedown content critical of Citapia, in 2017. The documents, which were first reported by Rest of World in early February, include lists of thousands “clients” from around the world. They appear alongside URLs of pages that Eliminalia apparently targeted on their behalf.

Citapia and the legal representative named in the documents did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Magalis Camellón, head of Eliminalia’s legal department, said in an email that the company’s records contained no mention of Citapia nor any persons or companies involved with the construction firm. Eliminalia also continued to deny any connection to the documents seen by Rest of World.

The documents seem to indicate that between March 2015 and August 2019, Eliminalia’s services targeted articles involving more than 100 individuals in Mexico who used Eliminalia’s services. Many of those listed are politically connected people, and the URLs are principally news stories about allegations of corruption and drug trafficking. 

Whether or not clients turn to reputation-defense firms specifically to hinder legal prosecution, anti-corruption campaigners and free-speech activists in Mexico told Rest of World that services like Eliminalia’s, which enable the removal of information from public view, may interfere with the country’s justice system, disrupting investigations into corruption and other crimes.

“For those of us working against corruption, journalism is everything,” said Estefanía Medina, co-founder of Tojil, an NGO that investigates public corruption. “Every single one of the cases we’ve taken to court have originated from journalistic investigations.”

Services like Eliminalia work by exploiting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a piece of U.S. legislation that is supposed to prevent intellectual property theft online. Under the DMCA, internet users can submit a request to search engines or web hosting providers, claiming that a piece of content belongs to them and demanding that it be taken down or de-indexed. 


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Reputation management companies have also begun to cite other laws, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to try to convince hosting companies to remove content. Eliminalia has been accused of making unfounded complaints under both the DMCA and the GDPR to get content removed or de-indexed. Eliminalia’s spokesperson denied all allegations of its involvement in such practices. 

In the case of the 51 URLs involving Citapia in the documents, most are news stories — including Carriles’ piece. There are also academic articles and citizen complaints. The links even include the Twitter handle of the Atitalaquía municipal government, where the pipeline had been discovered. The account had sarcastically tweeted, “If you can’t buy or import gasoline, just acquire the land surrounding the Tula oil refinery by force and illegally tap one of the ducts to siphon it like Construcctiones Industriales Tapia does.”

Many of the links listed are now down, and Rest of World was unable to review them. But the URLs spelled out in Eliminalia’s documents give some clue to the nature of the stories. These include “company-milked-pipelines-in-higalgo-but-the-jig-is-up” and a citizen complaint website translating to “www.theystink.com/cases/construcciones-industriales-tapia.”

The use of services like Eliminalia can have a real impact on the business and legal fortunes of major companies in the region. With evidence and reporting of potential malfeasance erased or out of sight, prosecuting firms for wrongdoing becomes considerably more difficult.

For instance, the document points to a number of URLs that refer to ties between Citapia and the now-disgraced Brazilian construction company at the heart of the biggest corruption case in Latin America’s modern history, Odebrecht.

Between 2001 and 2016, the Brazilian company coordinated a global scheme to secure contracts through enormous bribes given to high officials across Latin America and in parts of Africa. In his subsequent December 2016 confession, the head of Odebrecht Mexico name-checked Citapia and its founder, Juan Carlos Tapia Vargas, among the companies “recommended” to him by Emilio Lozoya. Lozoya would go on to become head of Mexico’s state oil company, Pemex, after leading a bribery network to finance the successful presidential campaign of Enrique Peña Nieto.

Tapia Vargas has since denied all wrongdoing before Mexican federal prosecutors. 

“Odebrecht” is mentioned 98 times in the links listed in the documents Rest of World reviewed, next to names of apparent clients in Mexico, the U.S., and elsewhere in Latin America.

“If a digital publication disappears it never gets a chance to reach legal scrutiny. It’s an attack on freedom of expression and citizens’ right to information.”

Tojil’s Medina told Rest of World that the targeted removal of stories relating to corruption could deny prosecutors and investigators the information that they need to pursue legal cases. “When we belatedly started analyzing cases like the Tula refinery and Odebrecht … we needed all the contemporary information we could get to start building a guiding thread between the existing evidence,” she said. “If you don’t have access to that, you can’t connect the newer evidence that emerges from other countries with what was happening here [in Mexico].”

“If a digital publication disappears,” Medina concluded, “it never gets a chance to reach legal scrutiny. It’s an attack on freedom of expression and citizens’ right to information.”  

When Mexico’s national prosecutor published a heavily redacted internal dossier about its investigations concerning Odebrecht this past January, news outlet Animal Político observed that “at least during the first year of the investigation [2017], much of the information that the authorities gathered had been previously published in extensive journalistic reports.”

For Priscilla Ruiz, legal coordinator for digital rights at Article 19, an NGO defending press freedom, the stakes are even higher. “Free speech,” she told Rest of World, “is crucial for the building and preservation of democracy.”

Rest of World contacted authors whose work had apparently been targeted by Eliminalia. Most were not aware that their stories had been affected, although few expressed particular surprise. Journalists are routinely targeted in Mexico by powerful actors with government pressure, harassment, and often violence

The Mexican government eventually prosecuted Citapia in 2019. The company was fined over 206 million pesos (just over $10.4 million at the time) for “presenting false information to obtain benefits from Pemex Refining.”

Though investigations are ongoing, Carriles and Enrique Hernández Jiménez, a journalist from near Atitalaquía who had closely covered Citapia’s rise, told Rest of World that he and Carriles suspected that the full scale of the alleged wrongdoing linking Citapia to Odebrecht would emerge in prosecution. Though, in their opinion, there simply won’t be enough evidence.

Hernández Jiménez said that whenever he published a story that was considered inconvenient for the company, “the government would say, ‘You can’t publish this,’ and they’d take the piece down,” he told Rest of World. But, he said, he never imagined that the powerful would be able to eliminate news articles.

For those fighting impunity, the internet often serves as a cold case archive containing crucial evidence. This is why Medina says that the journalism that companies like Eliminalia target is so important. Taking down those stories, Medina says, is like “casting a curse that helps [the corrupt] perpetuate impunity.”

https://restofworld.org/2022/mexicans-scrub-reputations-online/

Erlando F Rasatro

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