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Watchdog journalism in Guatemala: the results of Plaza Pública’s fiscal monitoring

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Guatemalan online platform Plaza Pública has exercised constant scrutiny over emergency procurement in the country. The results have been remarkable: several measures were introduced to correct problems in contracts awarded by the Ministry of Health, contracts where there were conflicts of interest were suspended, and those deemed responsible are being investigated.

«The news articles don’t take long to read. Some of them are barely four paragraphs long,» says Pavel Vega, the journalist spearheading the «Compras de Calamidad» project, a simple idea that took off more than expected. The idea behind the project was to run the same news page with constant updates on findings about the government’s public procurement to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. The project aimed to monitor progress in the COVID-19 response, reveal attention-grabbing facts, and track public spending on a month-by-month basis. In short, a daily scrutiny of government spending. 

The project involved giving updates and constantly reviewing the procurement activities of the Ministry of Health and other related departments in their efforts to manage the pandemic. Plaza Pública relied on a resource they did not use before: short news items and daily updates. Timely information distributed at the right moment has the capacity to generate impact, very much in line with the maxim that «dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence». The result? Lucrative contracts suspended, two deputy Health Ministers fired, criminal investigations launched as well as other results, all of which took place over a turbulent weekend as a result of publishing important information in real time.

In Guatemala, Plaza Pública is known for its in-depth investigative journalism. As a non-profit university-supported news site, Plaza Pública has typically explored topics associated with cooptation of the government by private interests, and explained social phenomena that are not headline news. So its project to monitor emergency procurement represented a change in form albeit consistent with its identity and purpose: to scrutinize those in power.

Very often impact does not come from an action itself, but from the ability to keep a watch over things. With this seemingly straightforward project, Plaza Pública sought to consolidate the trend for scrutiny of resources, which in emergency times tends to adopt flexible mechanisms, ignoring requirements for competition and transparency in order to speed up the procurement process. This constant focus strategy enabled Plaza Pública to publish information in a timely manner and to change how resources are managed in urgent and turbulent times such as the COVID-19 emergency. Especially when there was silence from other national media.

We had to publish information in real time and much quicker. In a crisis like this, protecting every single penny is vital.

Enrique Naveda

The harvest reaped

If you scroll down to the end of this news page, you will find the first entry in this blog about Guatemala’s emergency procurement, posted on 21 March, five days after the country recorded its first case of COVID-19. Two days later, the first finding was published: the Ministry of Health was planning to buy a drug for Q19 million (US$2.45 million) despite there being no scientific evidence that it was effective in treating the coronavirus. Plaza Pública reported on this planned purchase, which did not follow the approved protocols for treatment, and revealed that the Ministry was taking advantage of the more flexible procurement mechanisms allowed following the declaration of a State of Calamity, namely that goods and services could be procured without a public call for tenders. 

Six days further on, the first fruit of this harvest arrived: the Ministry had cancelled the contract. 

A similar story happened on 8 April, when a company represented by a former advisor to previous governments was awarded a Q20 million (US$2.57 million) contract to supply face masks. Plaza Pública queried the award because the company did not have that quantity of masks in stock and the very next day the contract was cancelled by the Ministry of Health. 

According to Vega, the investigations involved a second level of scrutiny: not only seeking information about the contracts and purchases in question but also inquiring into the beneficiaries behind certain companies. «The connection between individual contracts shows that the contracting and procurement system is a flawed system that’s not always based on technical merit but rather on political or personal business decisions,» the journalist explains. Contracts should not be read in isolation. They are more understandable when contextual information is given about the members or legal representatives of certain companies. 

Guatemala’s commitments to the IMF include a pledge to publish the names of companies awarded contracts for the COVID-19 response as well as the names of their beneficial owners. However, the information used by Plaza Pública is taken from the Guatemalan Companies Registry and can be found using existing search mechanisms for which a fee is payable. 

For example, Plaza Pública’s investigations revealed that Rodolfo Galdámez, who was the Deputy Health Minister, continued to be a government supplier despite the fact that public officials are expressly prohibited from contracting with the government. During his time as a public official alone, the private diagnostic center that he owned received at least Q218,000 in contracts (US$28 million).

Enrique Naveda, Plaza Pública’s coordinator, describes the fruits of these findings as «a series of reactions against impunity, all of which happened in the same week». An abundant harvest indeed. Firstly, the Presidential Commission against Corruption pledged during a live TV program to report two high-ranking officials responsible for purchases of Q19 million and Q9 million respectively (US$3.60 million in total) to the District Attorney’s Office. Secondly, besides the two deputy ministers, the complaint also relates to six officials who were working at the Ministry of Health and were part of the process. Thirdly, the District Attorney’s Office announced that these actions were already being investigated, prior to the formal complaint, because they were in the public domain.

According to the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commissioner, Óscar Dávila, both tenders «practically involve the same people, people in senior management from the deputy office and a number of procurement-related departments». 

Systemic change despite small scope

Naveda explains that this project involving looking every day at Guatecompras, the country’s public procurement portal and finding information to tell bigger stories. This effort yielded «significant results considering the tiny size of the project,» he says. As a consequence of the lucrative contracts that were suspended, the direct pressure leading to the dismissal of a deputy minister and the contributions made towards the bringing of criminal proceedings against another minister who was subsequently forced to resign, Naveda also highlights a further consequence that happened months later: the eventual dismissal of the Health Minister under whom all of this happened. 

«We are not after the blood of public officials. We are simply looking for systemic change,» Naveda explains, pointing out that when these changes occur, new people take up the positions and «things essentially stay the same». 

The former Health Minister, Hugo Monroy, was repeatedly questioned during his tenure both about the strategy for tackling the pandemic and about the ministry’s lack of transparency not only in relation to procurement and contracting, but also in terms of key information on testing, patients, deaths and infections, and their geographical distribution across the country. 

In 2020, the urgency to address the pandemic meant that there was increased interest and focus on contracts and contract management. In addition, «many of those processes rely on access to public information, such as the Companies Registry, notarial documents, company formations, records and other State documentation centers,» explains Naveda, noting that not all of them are open and that changes are happening — sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards — in terms of their opening up. 

According to its coordinator, Plaza Pública came to this project because of the standstill situation reached with various investigations it was planning. The decision was made to refocus on covering the pandemic. However, although the idea of scrutinizing procurement activities may be attractive, the reality is that it is not that easy to find journalists who have specific skills and extensive experience in investigative methods, information finding and record searching. That is why it is vital to involve talented journalists who match that profile. 

This is precisely the type of work that journalists such as Pavel Vega are doing in this project. According to Vega, «focusing on the details allows you to discover the major (power) structure and what that all means. And this can be done after finding connections between all of the possible details,» he says, explaining the investigation process. 

Risks involved in shining a light on the beneficiaries of power

This task of reading every single detail led Pavel Vega down the path of looking more closely at the most senior official in the country, Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei, and his circle of influence. Through his investigations, Vega raised question marks over his ties with Miguel Martinez, whom Giammattei appointed as head of the Centro de Gobierno, a government coordinating body, and who are both members of a public limited company

These reports prompted Martinez to issue a press statement claiming that Plaza Pública was threatening him, and to file a criminal complaint for alleged «harassment, threats and extortion». In contrast, the freedom of expression watchdog described these reactions as an abuse of power obstructing journalistic work and exploiting criminal law powers to punish freedom of expression and were part of a series of attacks on the press directed at members of the media who were scrutinizing this body.

According to Vega, the journalist who shone the light on the commercial ties between the head of this body and the president, procurement scrutiny makes more sense journalistically when it also investigates the people behind the companies benefiting from the contracts awarded. «I am not a comptroller or public prosecutor, but by using public portals and other records we journalists can discover questionable facts.» Using information in journalistic investigations into public procurement is a powerful tool. But when public procurement is being investigated, it is also power itself that needs to be investigated.