Reporters Christopher Sherman, Martha Mendoza and Garance Burke were weeks into a deep look at police misconduct in Honduras, where public mistrust of law enforcement is among the highest in the world. So when they heard a new national police chief had been appointed, they immediately shifted gears and began asking questions about him.
What they found was explosive – a confidential government security document that detailed a troubling allegation regarding the force. It said the newly named National Police Chief Jose David Aguilar Moran had once helped a drug cartel leader pull off the delivery of nearly a ton of cocaine. The clandestine haul, worth at least $20 million on U.S. streets, was packed inside a tanker truck that, the report said, was escorted by corrupt police officers to the home of Wilter Blanco, a drug trafficker recently convicted in Florida and now serving a 20-year sentence.
For their dogged reporting, Sherman, Mendoza and Burke share the Beat of the Week.
Getting the report was the first step. Vetting and confirming it took long, exhaustive hours, as the three reported in both Honduras and the United States to authenticate both the document and the damning allegations it detailed. They came away with four sources and other internal memos and a page from a personnel file to independently verify the claims.
Then it was time to tell the story. There were U.S. court records involving Blanco and his drug dealing, a police purge underway in Honduras and the compelling narrative outlined in the secret government report: On Oct. 15, 2013, a local head of a tourism police agency, acting on a tip, stopped a tanker truck loaded with cocaine around noon. Protecting the load were 11 police officers in four vehicles. The tourism officer hauled everyone — and the tanker of cocaine — into the station, but soon an irate regional police chief showed up, threatening to get everyone fired for interfering with the illicit delivery. They argued, the tourism officer pulled his gun and the regional chief ended up on the floor in handcuffs, demanding a call to Aguilar, the report said.
Aguilar put a stop to the bust, ordering the release of both the police officer and the cocaine, according to the report. Soon, it said, the drugs were back on their route to Blanco.
As they approached publication, Sherman, based in Mexico City, and Mendoza and Burke in California made sure to use heightened security online and on calls with Global Investigations Editor Michael Hudson. They gave the Honduran president and police chief ample opportunity to respond and sought comment from U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, whose namesake laws ban U.S. funds from military or security forces that violate human rights with impunity.
When the story published, AP was alone in telling the world about the troubling incident that raises questions about the reliability of the administration of President Jose Orlando Hernandez, a key U.S. ally in the war on drugs.
The multi-format investigation got excellent play a day before Hernandez’s inauguration following a highly disputed election. It dominated newscasts and headlines in Honduras and across the region. The story received prominent mention in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times, ABC News, Fox News, Voice of America, the Chicago Tribune and the Daily Mail, among others. It was featured on the homepage of Honduran papers El Heraldo, El Tiempo, Proceso, La Tribuna, Criterio and La Prensa, and prominently displayed by Canal 6 and TeleSUR.
The package ran with still photographs of the police chief’s inauguration, unrest in the streets and past instances of police corruption. AP’s social media strategy deftly promoted the story throughout the day as it topped the wire, and reader engagement was very high at 1:45 minutes in English and Spanish.
El Heraldo ran an editorial saying that instead of criticizing journalists, authorities should investigate the allegations raised by AP.
Authorities in Honduras pledged to investigate both Aguilar and the AP, and that too was widely covered in Honduras. On Thursday a leading newspaper, El Heraldo, ran an editorial that said instead of criticizing journalists, authorities should investigate the allegations raised in AP’s story to remove any doubts regarding the new chief’s background.
For painstaking work that yielded a major scoop, Sherman, Mendoza and Burke will share the $500 Beat of the Week prize.