Patrulla Letal (Lethal Patrol)
Category: Best data-driven reporting (small and large newsrooms)
Country/area: Dominican Republic
Organisation: Diario Libre
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 11 Dec 2019
Credit: Mariela Mejía, Tania Molina, Suhelis Tejero
Patrulla Letal (Lethal Patrol) is an investigation that strips the hidden part of the deaths in the so-called shooting exchanges between police and civilians in the Dominican Republic.
It includes an unpublished database, prepared from scratch for the investigation. In this, almost 2,000 cases of people who since 2004 were killed by the Dominican police and other security forces are organized and presented, with their credentials to details of any judicial process, if any. The data gave rise to 33 cases of victims whose deaths were questionable. Likewise, details of police corruption in this regard are revealed in the investigation.
When presenting the database and the findings in a multimedia special, the impact of the research has been overwhelming. In a society with individuals who support the “hard hand” of the police to eliminate criminals, the evidence presented to question many of these cases is overwhelming and allows us to estimate in its magnitude a problem that is usually taken as a response from the authorities to crime.
For the first time in our small country, a media deepens and presents in a special the magnitude of the problem of human rights violations in many deaths reported as shooting exchanges. Likewise, for the first time a former police chief reveals how the corruption chain operates inside the Police to organize promotions and police themselves tell how they killed offenders instead of making them available to justice.
The families of the victims found with the investigation a way to demand justice and to forget the cases of their relatives killed by a system with serious weaknesses.
Former deputy and political leader Minou Tavárez Mirabal dedicated an editorial in a radio program demanding response from the authorities to the results of the investigation.
The team of journalists was invited to a television program to talk about the findings. Also, the National Human Rights Commission reported that it will use it for its annual report and as a mechanism for continuous consultation, and cited it in a statement sent to the press deploring extrajudicial executions.
The investigation was republished by the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, the Mexican media Aristegui Noticias and Connectas.org.
In the absence of an official database with the more than 3,000 people that the police report as dead since 2004 by their agents a in service, we set out to prepare one with the information published by the press. Thus, for four months we worked hard to build a database in Excel with different fields, ranging from the date of death, credentials of the victim, until there was any judicial process and conviction against the agents. Once the cases were compiled from 2004 to August 2019, we proceeded to share the Excel with a programmer and web designer who took care of bringing the database to a way that could be visualized and navigated using filters. Simultaneous to this, we took 33 cases from the database that merited investigation and would be a representative sample of how the police operate. In each case a video was made with interviews with the families and details of the judicial proceedings, and a video gallery was created. We innovate with a comic that recreates scenes told by interviewed policemen in which they explain how they killed suspects and reported the fact as an exchange of shots. The special was published in November 2019 with 1,844 victims in the database. A few weeks later we added more cases and the number increased to 1,872. The objective is to continue updating the database as new deaths are reported and the project continues. Soon will be an update. From the database we extracted a secondary with more than 100 victims wanted for committing a crime against a policeman and develop a story with this approach. The tool has preponderant places in the special web and is public. It becomes a contribution to society, which can be consulted for personal interest, for academic work or country
What was the hardest part of this project?
The most difficult part of this project was to review hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of journalistic publications since 2004 and tabulate them based on the criteria we established for the database. Also track if there were videos of the event reported.
It was a very hard job that initially took four months and involved dedicating work hours, free time in our homes, weekends and holidays. It was very tiring.
This is followed by a risk field work that involved finding relatives in 33 specific cases and finding their files in justice. This led us to move to violent neighborhoods in the Dominican capital and cities in the interior of the country. In these tours, looking for information, we are in the middle of microtraffickers who sold or packaged drugs for marketing. Also, an individual threatened us with a knife, and several people claimed in a threatening attitude why we inquired about certain victims.
We also had to apply source protection techniques, since we were dealing with a sensitive issue that involves people with power or who were being accused of crimes.
We can also mention that it was complex for web programmers to ensure that the database could be viewed in its entirety and navigated in its entirety, but we made it!
We overcome the risks and fatigue to present the magnitude of a harsh reality that many citizens take as normal, but that involves abuse of power, corruption and violation of human rights.
Due to the importance of the project, it was republished by foreign media such as the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, the Mexican media Aristegui Noticias and our allies Connectas.org. This became a boost to publicize the documented social problem internationally.
What can others learn from this project?
This project can teach other people how to create an extensive database from scratch, with credibility, and what criteria to be important when dealing with victims of the security forces.
In addition, it serves as a lesson to discriminate how to convert tabulated data into stories, and how to publish in a striking way when there is a lot of material to explain a topic.
It allows to exemplify how when there is no official information, with dedication and responsibility, databases can be created that can become a public service, which in the end that is the essence of journalism.
It is also another example of how to proceed to protect sources, families and the same journalist against the risks involved in covering topics like this.
This project is an example of how the use of the right digital tools allow the reader to immerse themselves in the stories and consume the resource that interests them (text, videos, comics, database, infographics…).
A relevant aspect taught by this project is how teamwork is vital for extensive research. In this worked three journalists, seven photojournalists, an illustrator and different vehicle drivers. Two people edited about 37 videos, five others were responsible for programming, design and web support, one helped with the social media posts…
In short, all a rigorous work that was delegated to different people that ultimately resulted in a microsite.
If we talk about some motivational aspect, this project is an example of perseverance and courage, since dedicating more than six months to a sensitive topic and free time is a challenge.