By Lorenzo Holt
The transnational investigative journalism series "Império das Cinzas" (“Empire of Ashes”), about illegal cigarette trafficking in South America, was announced winner of the Global Shining Light Award on Oct. 10.
Composed by a team of five Latin American journalists, the series documented the rise of contraband cigarettes as the most illegally traded item in parts of South America, and Paraguay in particular. The investigation itself lasted for five months.
"In 1993 Paraguay had 3 cigarette factories. Now  it has 32. The majority are located on the frontier to facilitate contraband to Brazil," according to their article “Um negócio de Estado.”
The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) sponsored the award, which “honors investigative journalism conducted in a developing or transitioning country, done under threat, duress, or in the direst of conditions,” according to GIJN. “Empire of Ashes” shared the first place award with “Unholy Alliances,” another investigative series on organized crime and corruption in Montenegro.
“The Global Shining Light Awards show us that the flame of investigative journalism remains alive, even in the most trying circumstances,” said judge Sheila Coronel, as quoted by GIJN. “Defying risks and threats, determined journalists continue to hold power to account. The winners uphold the highest standards of investigative reporting.”
The investigative series out of Latin America involved the tracking of containers, trips to border zones, and the investigation of 60 different companies “and succeeded in demonstrating that the trafficking of Paraguayan cigarettes in the so-called triple frontier (Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina) exceeded, in volume, that of coca and is about to surpass it in value,” according to El Tiempo.
The team working on the project consisted of Mauri König, Albari Rosa and Diego Antonelli of Brazil’s Gazeta do Povo; Martha Elvira Soto Franco of Colombia’s El Tiempo; and Costa Rican journalist Ronny Rojas.
The reports covered everything from trafficking routes, countermeasures by police, a $2 million contraband bust, and the extent of government involvement. In one of the series' articles, called "A Government Business," the journalists accused the Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes of beign a leading player in the trade. They alleged that Cartes' company is indirectly involved in financing violent groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC for its acronym in Spanish) and the paramilitaries. The series also explored the Paraguayan government’s attitude toward policies against smuggling.
"Contraband in Paraguay is an almost ancestral problem, a way of life," said Paraguayan Deputy Minister of Commerce Pablo Cuevas, as reported by Gazeta do Povo.
The "Empire of Ashes" series, which finished in April 2014, serves as an example of transnational investigative journalism that has been increasing in popularity around the globe in recent years.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.