In the 21st century, the fight for transparency starts online. But in following up with my colleague Pete Guest’s global exposé on “digital reputation” firms, I reported on a worrying practice unknown to most and used by the corrupt, the criminal, or the powerful to change the content of the internet. It is a secret weapon that allows the rich and powerful to launder their reputations online, and perhaps even avoid prosecution by authorities if they have committed crimes.

Documents seen by Rest of World show how powerful people in Latin America, and Mexico particularly, are prolific users of these “reputation management” services. In Mexico, where the conflict against organized crime has claimed an estimated 150,000 lives since 2006, the potential consequences are most striking. 

A whopping 98% of crimes go unsolved in the country. Grappling with this problem is the small phalanx of citizen lawyers in strategic litigation nonprofits, who are responsible for moving along the country’s most high-profile cases.

There is a massive backlog of cold cases, the evidence for which can be found on the internet in the form of journalistic reports. “Every single one of the cases we’ve taken to court has originated from journalistic investigations,” Estefanía Medina, co-founder of Tojil, one of these strategic litigation organizations, told me.

What our investigation reveals is that if you are rich and powerful in Mexico, you can hire companies that scrub “inconvenient” articles off the internet — often through the shadiest of means. Not only does this work to potentially exonerate individuals linked to some of the worst criminal conspiracies of our time, but those eliminated URLs could potentially be the missing links leading to their prosecution.
None of the lawyers, journalists, or lay people I spoke to knew how the practice worked or that it even existed, including the victims of these services. In the global war against impunity and disinformation, the first line of defense is to know what you’re up against.