It was December 2019 when Carlos Loret de Mola got on a plane bound for New York City. Four months earlier, the Mexican journalist had quit his job as a prime-time news anchor on Televisa, Mexico’s TV hegemon. Lacking the support but also freed from the constraints of a traditional outlet like Televisa, where he had been for fifteen years, Loret de Mola suddenly was on the brink of the unknown. But he had a new project in the works. He was in Manhattan to promote what would become Mexico’s newest, all-star, all-digital news media platform: Latinus.
During his stay in New York City, the anchor met up with potential employees. Mexican and Spanish reporters were invited by word of mouth to speak with him. His aim was to recruit seasoned journalists with newspaper backgrounds to cover the Latino population living in the U.S. That was as much as Loret de Mola would say to interviewees, refusing to disclose who was financing Latinus nor how and to what end they intended to cover Latino experiences.
What was clear was that Latinus was assembling a team of A-list entertainers, sports, and news commentators alongside Loret de Mola, all of whom would immediately make the outlet a force to be reckoned with. Impremedia, the U.S.’s largest Spanish-language newspaper publisher for over a century, was seriously worried. One of its employees told Rest of World that Latinus was poised to take a huge bite out of Impremedia’s 31 million-person monthly audience.
But Latinus didn’t follow through. In the end, Loret de Mola didn’t hire a single U.S.-based reporter during his 2019 trip. “What’s strange is that, despite branding themselves as an outlet for Latino audiences in the U.S., I don’t see any content speaking to that community,” Gisela Pérez de Acha, an investigative journalist and digital media researcher at UC Berkeley, told Rest of World. “Unlike Univision or Telemundo, their content seems monolithically focused on Mexico alone.”
What may have seemed on the surface like an innocuous pivot marked an epiphany for the fledgling media company. Over the past year, Latinus has become a rallying point for Mexico’s political opposition to the presidency of López Obrador, a political figure who had, until recently, dominated the national conversation through his skillful use of social media. It is a formidable adversary: Latinus has a loyal following of millions and a vast war chest to fund its binational operation, leading many to wonder whether Latinus is truly an independent outlet or the propaganda division of the anti–López Obrador movement.
Traditionally, Mexican media was unique in its dependence on the government. During seven decades of single-party rule under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), newspapers in Mexico printed only what the government allowed. The state famously controlled the press by paying journalists a bribe known as chayote (named after a greenish edible gourd) or by controlling newsrooms’ acquisition of paper; the government owned the country’s only paper production company. This form of control eventually shifted to government-run advertising, which most newspapers now depend on to survive.
Television is one of the media outlets that operates via state-granted station concessions; it currently owns 249 commercial stations out of 607. TV Azteca, the other television giant in Mexico, owns 180. These contracts rely on good relationships with the government.
Televisa’s founder, for instance, is infamously remembered for boasting in 1982 that he was the PRI’s faithful soldier. In the company’s heyday during the 1990s and early 2000s, it reached up to 85% of households and was the main source of information for millions of people, making it so powerful that politicians ended up depending on Televisa for coverage if they wanted to win elections. “In France there are media outlets from the right, moderate media, and media from the left,” said Pérez de Acha, the digital media researcher. “As a reader, you know what you’re getting. In the U.S., for a long time, journalism tried to present both sides of the story. In Mexico, we’re coming from media authoritarianism.”
The current president was unable to avoid this dynamic. During his 30 years as an opposition politician, López Obrador, who goes by AMLO, needed Televisa to get his message out, even though he repeatedly complained that the network was biased and gave him less air time than his rivals in the incumbent political party.
Then, in 2001, as mayor of Mexico City, AMLO instituted daily pressers with reporters. This was a breakthrough. He was suddenly seen as an approachable, transparent public figure — a total innovation in Mexican politics. It was about that time that he became incredibly popular, to the point that he ran for president in 2006 and again in the following two elections. In 2008, he opened his YouTube account. Twitter followed, and with his social media channels, AMLO began to bypass Televisa in popularity, even taking shots at Loret de Mola on Twitter, after sitting down with him for an interview.
Part of AMLO’s presidential victory in 2018 can be attributed to digital innovation in campaigning. In addition to building up his social media presence, he was also assisted by Abre Más Los Ojos, a social media content producer. Founded by a group of millennials with, according to David Ricardo González Ruiz, who worked alongside the group, “autonomy and freedom from internal party politics,” they translated AMLO’s bland talking points into policy proposals attractive to a younger audience hungry for social justice, feminist poliltics, and environmental activism. Because the organization was not part of Morena, AMLO’s political party, Abre Más Los Ojos had “a lot of freedom,” said González Ruiz.
By election day, Abre Más Los Ojos had generated more than 98 million organic engagements over the course of three months on Facebook alone. Propaganda booklets posted on its website were downloaded over 150,000 times. When presidential election results were published, it came out that AMLO’s strongest voter demographic was young adults between the ages of 18 and 25. In November 2018, months after the election, the president-elect took to Facebook Live to call upon all his “friends on the blessed social media” to spread his message. Six months into his presidency, in June 2019, he shared a video boasting he had reached more than a million followers on YouTube. Brandishing a golden trophy with a play button in the middle — the award granted to influencers and creators — AMLO dedicated the honor to his followers.
The day after he was sworn in, on December 3, the president held the first of what would soon be institutionalized as the Mañanera. Mañaneras are a 7 a.m., hour-long daily speech in front of the country’s press. They are reminiscent of his 2001 conferences, only the whole thing is broadcast live on YouTube and Facebook. During his first three months in office, these daily press conferences racked up over 15 million views on the president’s Facebook page. In contrast, the Mañanera’s main competitors — including Loret de Mola’s morning news show at Televisa — had barely four million views each. The president simply had more views, higher engagement, and more likes and dislikes than the major influencers and media outlets on social media. Regardless of how many people Loret de Mola was reaching via Televisa, the conversation was happening elsewhere.
Without a mediator, AMLO had a free hand in shaping the media’s daily news cycle. In the months to come, he said at one Mañanera, “we no longer depend on conventional media alone,” and “the press is regulated by the press, and now we have social media to our advantage.”
Latinus officially launched to the public in February 2020. It is 100% digital and, in little over a year, has built a massive following. In Latinus, Mexico’s president seemed to have met his match, and the fight to control public debate has escalated into a war. The battleground is not simply the internet, but specifically social media. While Latinus.us — the news outlet’s site — does not yet rank among Mexico’s top 50 websites, it has amassed a loyal following on YouTube.com, Instagram.com, Twitter.com, and Facebook.com. On the latter alone, it has a community of over 1.4 million and growing.
“I like how they’ve gone viral, especially because it’s been organic growth,” said Johanna Asiain, co-founder of México Libre, a right-of-center political organization. “Latinus was born as an entirely digital platform, not because that’s how they could best present their stories but because of how they could build an audience [and] reach social media users, where the outlet’s presence has grown noticeably,” she said. Yet, even if Latinus didn’t buy fake followers in bulk, it certainly did purchase influence. It just did it the old-fashioned way: by throwing money at celebrities who carried over their own social followings. “It ended up becoming one of the most viewed news outlets in Mexico,” concluded Asiain.
“Whoever thought of it is a genius because they presented a single, shared enemy,” said Jorge Eleazar, a PR strategist specialized in influencer marketing. To him, Latinus “brings together the political opposition from the entire ideological spectrum — regardless of their political party — under a single anti-AMLO cause.” The outlet’s anchors have interviewed almost everyone across the political spectrum. No other media outlet in the country would be able to do this. “The news media in Mexico are in such a credibility crisis that no one believes what they publish anymore. Latinus is still a new publication and, as such, is still untarnished,” said Eleazar.
Money lets Latinus do well online, but being online also allows it to be less transparent about its potential political ambitions. Though it is not uncommon for media organizations to disguise opinion as news in order to sway the public, what Latinus has done is substantively different.
Latinus’ operation was installed so briskly that the outlet’s “About” section has changed more than five times in the past year. Its Instagram stories often replicate other national newspapers’ headlines and section formats. “I’m not sure Latinus is filling an information void. Most of its content is boilerplate Notimex,” said Pérez de Acha, referring to Mexico’s public news agency. Its employees, including its biggest names, were also all brought in from other publications and TV networks, most notably Televisa. Its website still has glitches and coding errors, yet, at the same time, it has still somehow been able to develop complicated, timely investigations.
On June 4, 2020, as Mexico was undergoing its first wave of Covid-19, Latinus published a story about a corruption scandal involving the director of the Mexican Institute of Social Security. A week later, on June 11, Latinus published another corruption investigation into the secretary of public administration, who is nominally in charge of “eradicating corruption from national life.” Then, in August and December, two more stories about corruption were published; these involved AMLO’s brother and cousin. Latinus doesn’t only have journalistic star power, through the sheer force of its investigations it has been able to publish accountability stories based on public documentation. These are arduous and time-consuming, yet the outlet finds them so routinely that it’s almost as if they knew where to look.
A high-ranking public official in Mexico’s federal administration, who spoke to Rest of World on condition of anonymity, thinks Latinus is simply despicable: “It is evidently anti-government and anti-federal public administration in general.” This isn’t necessarily bad: as Pérez de Acha explained, “All journalism should hit the government hard.” What’s intriguing is how Latinus manages to produce such strong exposés in such a timely — almost surgical — fashion.
The government is responding in kind. As recently as March 29, 2021, Sin Embargo, a left-leaning news portal, ran a story in which it presented public documents as proof of Latinus having received financial backing from opposition politicians. Another journalist republished the entire exposé word for word on his website. “There have obviously been coordinated attacks against Latinus,” González Ruiz explained. AMLO has personally mentioned Loret de Mola dozens of times in his Mañaneras, sometimes out of the blue, often attempting to discredit both Latinus as well as its frontman.
Latinus did not reply until the social media storm became unignorable. The company posted a statement on Twitter, which in turn was retweeted over 22,000 times. Loret de Mola complemented Latinus’ post with a tweet that showed how much the government was being hurt by Latinus’ investigations. It was then retweeted over 20,000 times.
While somebody is clearly funnelling millions of pesos into the organization, it’s not clear why. Even though Loret de Mola is the face of the company, he’s likely not the main backer. The financial backing for the outlet is purposefully hidden behind the Latinus Media Group, an LLC incorporated in Delaware, a state that offers some benefits, such as not taxing out-of-state income for foreign LLCs, confidentiality for its owners, and a dedicated court specialized in corporate cases. Meanwhile, Latinus operates under a different legal entity in Mexico: BCG Limited Consulting, a company owned by Christian González Guadarrama, unrelated to the better-known management consulting group. “I’m not really sure how the outlet is structured,” said Enrique Pons, a columnist for Latinus. “A lot of people think Carlos Loret de Mola owns the platform, but as far as I know, he doesn’t.”
To the anonymous public official, funding and ownership is critical to understanding Latinus’s modus operandi. “Their news stories are biased, like bloggers’ content, like El Soberano,” he said, referring to an online tabloid that openly favors the current administration, while keeping an independent façade, “but for the opposition.” The issue, he said, is that “these aren’t kids blogging at home, but people that clearly have a strong infrastructure and financial backing,” and estimates that each one of Loret’s episodes is worth millions of pesos. “Where is that money coming from? Their page has the same sort of ads as other digital media in the country, such as Sin Embargo and Animal Político, but it just doesn’t add up. There’s clearly more financial backing than that.”
For those in the political opposition, the source of its finances is irrelevant. “I like that Latinus stepped in where national media outlets were slacking, like the fact that it is evidently an opposition outlet — or an outlet that is not aligned with the government,” said Asiain. In a country where media power is often the equivalent of political power, the question remains: If Latinus is clearly against the government, what is it for?
It is practically impossible to find out. Latinus might be for transparency when it comes to the government, but it doesn’t preach by example. It imposes a rigorous three-line whip among its employees. This is rare for a news organization but is often deployed by political parties to maintain internal discipline, guarantee synchronized political responses, and coordinate electoral campaigns. Rest of World sent Latinus over 15 requests for employee interviews. Requests went unanswered or were declined, the few who answered did so via coordinated messages: “I’d rather do the interviews than the other way around” or “as a matter of principle, I don’t give interviews about my work, I conduct the interviews.” With the exception of two people, not a single Latinus reporter, columnist, producer, or collaborator was willing to speak to Rest of World.
Beyond Latinus’ internal discipline, journalists from other Mexican news organizations, former Latinus producers, and reporters invited to Latinus’ recruiting process refrained from comment. Some worried Latinus’ clout among media stakeholders and company owners could bring retribution in the workplace.
Asiain thinks that “Latinus is framing the main opposition as under initiatives like Sí por México,” a right-wing political movement that has publicly claimed not to be against AMLO but, in practice, supports any and all of the political parties running against him. “The people at Latinus try to sway public opinion to support other political actors, not themselves,” added Asiain.
As the media landscape continues to polarize, the Mexican president appears to be increasingly intolerant of the press, going as far as to attack freedom of expression organizations. As long as he doesn’t need to get personally involved in censoring anyone — official newspapers will defend his talking points — Latinus will remain firm in its resolution to undermine AMLO’s credibility. As of yet, it is still unclear who will ultimately emerge victorious, whether political power will dominate the media or if the media might be able to conquer the politicians. Whatever the answer, this particular battle between AMLO’s administration and Latinus is more akin to a Cold War–reminiscent arms race, rather than a straightforward political debate.
To Eleazar, the influencer marketer, “if Latinus became a political party, it would immediately have thousands of followers. It would simply kick ass, just because it coalesces the entire anti-AMLO sentiment.” Asiain, who has worked in political campaigns for nearly a decade, said, “I wish Loret would enter politics. It’s always easy to criticize from the outside, but I don’t think the people at Latinus dare go into politics.”
The pro-government digital media that monopolized the internet during AMLO’s first two years have now met their match. “Latinus has managed to do something that no other media outlet has achieved: to take over the public debate, despite the president’s best efforts,” González Ruiz told Rest of World. “Latinus has cornered the president into giving public statements about certain issues. It’s usually the other way around.” For Pérez de Acha, this is murky territory: “When all you publish is opinion pieces in a polarized environment, you’ll obviously be labeled as the opposition. The crazy thing is that that is probably quite profitable for the outlet because of how algorithms work: the more you play the polarization game, the greater number of clicks you’ll have. But in the big picture, it doesn’t make us a better-informed society, just a more polarized one.”