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Mexican ex-governors, drug traffickers and Venezuela officials hired Spanish disinformation firm to whitewash their online image

Eliminalia uses fake news, cloned websites and bots to deceive Google, according to an investigation by Forbidden Stories and EL PAÍS, which for the first time reveals the company’s client list

Eliminalia
Trade unionist Pedro Haces Barba, ex-governor Javier Duarte and Joaquín Leal, a businessman linked to the Venezuelan regime.Cuartoscuro / RR SS

The Spanish company Eliminalia has earned millions of euros in the last decade for cleaning up the online reputation of hundreds of clients who were convicted and investigated in 54 countries for corruption, money laundering, sexual abuse and drug trafficking. These findings are the result of an investigation by the journalism organization Forbidden Stories, in which EL PAÍS participates along with more than 20 media outlets such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and Haaretz. It also reveals the disinformation tricks used by this company to eliminate digital content. Fake websites and the fraudulent use of copyright laws are their main weapons.

A hundred reporters analyzed a leak of 50,000 internal documents that includes contracts, passports, content to be deleted and fees paid by nearly 1,500 users. The initiative is part of the Story killers project, which breaks down the workings of the disinformation industry.

Eliminalia’s client list in Latin America includes more than 400 citizens and companies. Mexico (159 users), Colombia (73), Argentina (51) and Peru (32) top the list. Clients range from ex-governors gripped by corruption such as Javier Duarte, the former governor of the Mexican state of Veracruz who was once affiliated with the PRI party; to doctors with a dark past linked to Chile’s DINA, the repressive arm of the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), such as as Hernán Horacio Taricco Lavin. There are also relatives of Venezuelan Chavista leaders who were allegedly bribed by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, such as María Eugenia Baptista Zacarías, wife of former Venezuelan Minister of Transportation and Public Works Haiman El Troudi. And there are businessmen accused of laundering money for the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, such as Miguel Ángel Colorado Cessa.

Under strict confidentiality clauses, Eliminalia has managed to delete the online fingerprints of an Italian company fined for selling spy systems to the Syrian regime (Area Spa) and a Swiss bank that hosted the questionable fortunes of alleged Venezuelan money launderers (CBH Compagnie Bancaire Helvétique).

Two investigative journalism websites, Maka Angola and The Elephant, were also in the sights of this company that uses the slogan “we erase your past.”

The fees paid by politicians, drug traffickers, sexual abusers, white-collar criminals and businessmen in trouble to delete their digital past range from $500 for a website – according to a 2018 contract – to $427,584. The invoice depends on the items to be neutralized and their complexity.

To achieve its purpose, the firm resorts to different disinformation tactics. One is sending petitions to search engines and web hosting companies denouncing false copyright infringement. Between 2015 and 2021, Eliminalia sent thousands of these fraudulent requests on the claim that they affected information that had already been published. And it resorted to shell companies to hide the trail.

Another way to get rid of unwanted content is by tricking the algorithm of search engines like Google to better position news created ad hoc by Eliminalia on fake websites. These are articles that highlight their customers’ supposed positive points while burying undesired information deep down on the internet.

For this purpose, Eliminalia uses a network of 600 websites that it controls through its Florida company Maidan Holding, according to technical analyst Tord Lundström. Dozens of fraudulent real-looking websites such as Le Monde France, London New Times, and CNNEWS Today have hosted news articles about the company’s customers.

Founded in 2013 by Diego (Didac) Sánchez Jiménez, a 30-year-old who presents himself as a “self-made” entrepreneur and who is the author of the book The Secret to Success, Eliminalia has extended its network to 12 countries. Italy, Switzerland, Turkey and the US are part of an organization chart that has one of its headquarters in Tbilisi (Georgia), where the company moved from Kiyv in February 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Together with Sánchez, the business strategist is José María Hill Prados, 62. Founder of the Russian children’s foster organization Padres para Siempre (Parents forever), this entrepreneur masterminded Eliminalia’s international expansion. The Spanish intelligence services described the choice of Ukraine as the epicenter of Eliminalia’s operations until last year as having an economic purpose: “Ukraine is a country where money laundering controls are almost non-existent.”

Through corporate webs, the founder of Eliminalia controls several companies with his partner Hill Prados, who was sentenced by a Barcelona court to eight years in prison for abusing a minor in 2005.

Sánchez and Hill Prados have declined to respond to requests for comment. A Paris law firm representing Eliminalia and headed by the lawyers David and Pascal Winter said that most of the questions sent to Eliminalia “concern business secrecy” or request information about clients to which they cannot respond.

With declared income in 2021 of €791,110 compared to €1.7 million the previous year, the company with which the company operates in Spain (Eliminalia 2013 S. L.) changed its name on January 20 of this year, just as this investigation was facing the final stretch. Idata Protection S. L. is its new name, according to business register records.

On a quiet floor of a business building on Avenida Portal de l’Àngel in Barcelona, a sign gives notice of this change. “The company is called Idata Protection, but we belong to Eliminalia,” explains one of the three employees of the small office. Another worker confirms by phone that the company is now dedicated to data protection and that Sánchez is not in Barcelona.

The following are some of Eliminalia’s most relevant clients in Latin America. Their records include the fees they paid and the content they wanted to wipe out of cyberspace.

Javier Duarte

Duarte, the former governor of Veracruz – the third most populous state in Mexico – is today serving a nine-year prison sentence for money laundering and criminal association. The PRI politician – who was governor between 2010 and 2016 – was arrested in 2017 in Guatemala when he was planning to escape. He pleaded guilty to corruption and reached an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office (PGR), which accused him of participating in a scheme to divert $13 million.

Eliminalia was commissioned to delete dozens of news articles about the scheme, as well as YouTube videos of Duarte. Most of this content was published in the media and on websites such as sinembargo.mx, publimetro.com and vanguardia.com.mx in 2020.

Eliminalia charged $32,000 for this work, which was billed to a highway maintenance firm owned by Jaime Antonio Porres Fernández Cavadas. According to the Mexican daily El Universal, Fernández Cavadas is a friend of Duarte’s and did business with him when the latter was governor of Veracruz.

Headlines such as “Duarte’s hotel and apartment buildings on display in Spain” and “Duarte sold a house in the United States to his uncle for $10, according to documents,” were on Eliminalia’s radar.

Pedro Miguel Haces Barba

Haces Barba, the former leader of the PRI and a bullfighting fan, hired Eliminalia’s services for 110,000 – the currency was not indicated in the file. The general secretary of the Autonomous Confederation of Workers and Employees of Mexico wanted the company to make 300 news articles, published between 2019 and 2020, disappear from the internet. This included the article headlined “Senator Pedro Haces: booked for robbery and possession of weapons” and reports accusing him of being a misogynist after he allegedly said that women should wear “less provocative clothing.” Haces Barba also commissioned the Spanish firm to de-index information that connected him with former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte.

Hernan Horacio Taricco Lavin

Taricco Lavin was linked to DINA, the fearsome political police of the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. In 2020, the doctor was prosecuted as an accessory in the 1977 murder of army corporal and former DINA official Manuel Lyton, who was poisoned with sarin gas. In 2013, lawyer Carmen Hertz, a current lawmaker, named him on a list of doctors linked to the repression in Chile, reports Rocío Montes.

In August 2019, Taricco Lavin paid $5,900 to Eliminalia to deindex blog entries with headlines such as “Doctors, Pinochet supporters and Torturers,” as well as articles on memoriaviva.com, which described him as a criminal, and news stories that denounced the censorship of a TV program on Chile’s Channel 13, which discussed his alleged connection to the dictatorship. The article “Héctor Taricco Lavin, part of a long history of torture doctors,” published by Radio Villa Francia, was one of the pieces of stories that he wanted to make disappear.

Miguel Angel Colorado Cessa

The Specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime Investigation (SEIDO) accused Colorado Cessa – the former candidate of Mexico’s National Action Party (PAN) in the 2009 federal elections – of laundering money for the Los Zetas cartel group. In 2018, Colorado Cessa paid Eliminalia $9,000 to delete and de-index 32 online news stories that connected him with organized crime. These stories were found on sites such as aristeguinoticias.com, sinembargo.mx or proceso.com.mx.

Seguritech

The Mexican security camera company Seguritech wanted to fix its bad reputation online. In 2018, an investigation by the magazine Proceso revealed alleged failures in its surveillance devices. The administration of Miguel Ángel Mancera, who was head of the Mexico City government between 2012 and 2018, awarded Seguritech a $125 million contract to provide 501,000 neighborhood alarms. The devices were purchased above market price, according to Proceso. The firm hired Eliminalia for $9,900 so that it would delete dozens of articles, with headlines such as “Seguritech: Poor services, million-dollar profits.”

Majed Khalil Majzoub

Khalil Majzoub is a businessman close to Venezuela’s Chavista government, with interests in Venezuela, the United States and Panama. In 2020, the Venezuelan government awarded him the milk company Lácteos los Andes, which – according to Armando.info – had been expropriated by the Hugo Chávez administration in 2020 and became part of the state-owned oil company PDVSA

In 2004, the US withdrew this businessman’s visa for his alleged laundering activities and connections with Islamic radicalism, according to Armado.info. In April 2018, Majed Khalil Majzoub hired Eliminalia to deindex links on websites such as cuentasclarasdigital.org.

Isaac Sultan

Sultan is a Venezuelan maritime trade businessman connected to the Chavista government who managed warehouses in the port city of Puerto Cabello. According to Armando.info, Sultan bought an exclusive building in central Madrid for $28 million in 2016 and an apartment in Florida in 2016 via a complex corporate network, which included the Luxembourg firm Fimis Holding. In 2017 Sultan hired Eliminalia for $100,000 to try to conceal information.

Maria Eugenia Baptista Zacarias

Baptista Zacarias is the wife of Haiman El Troudi, who was Venezuela’s minister of transportation and public works between 2013 and 2015 and a state lawmaker for Miranda until 2020. According to The Pandora Papers, El Troudi allegedly collected $90 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht through a sophisticated money laundering scheme devised by the Portuguese banking group Banco Espírito Santo that also involved his wife. According to Armando.info, in 2013 – after El Troudi was appointed minister – Baptista Zacarías bought a duplex apartment in Lisbon’s historic Chiado neighborhood for $1.5 million. Eliminalia charged 30,000 (the invoice does not specify the currency) to try to de-index dozens of links to news stories that were critical of Baptista Zacarias and connected her to bribes from Odebrecht. These stories were published on elpais.com, armando.info, reuters.com and aporrea.org.

Joaquin Leal

This 30-year-old Mexican entrepreneur is considered by the US Treasury Department to be part of a vast network that allowed Venezuela to evade US oil sanctions.This network was devised by Alex Saab, the alleged front man for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Leal, with two co-partners, founded the first private company authorized to resell electricity in Mexico: Suministros Sustentables de Energía en México (Sumex). In March 2020, Leal paid $380 to Eliminalia.

Diego Marynberg

Nicknamed Maradona, this Israeli-Argentine businessman has maintained close ties with controversial Venezuelan magnates. His name came to light in 2020 in the FinCEN Files – a leak of 2,100 suspicious activity reports from banks sent to the US Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). According to Armando.info, the leaked files showed that US banks and authorities were tracking Marynberg through the movements of at least two companies: the Adar Latam fund and the Mercantil Valores financial firm. Eliminalia charged Marynberg 17,200 (no currency specified) to de-index about 30 links to news stories on websites such as lanacion.com.ar, elfaro-israel.com and poderypolitica.com.ar.

Wissam Mohamad Nassar

Under the alias William da Pioneer, this Lebanese businessman was arrested in 2021 in Foz de Yguazú (Brazil) for his alleged membership in an international prostitution network. According to the Paraguayan newspaper ABC, he paid to have sex with minors, with a prerfence for influencers and YouTubers. In October Mohamad Nassar paid at least $800 to Eliminalia to remove stories such as “The industry of child sexual exploitation has a new chapter,” published on portalcis.com.br, from the internet.

James Shasha

Shasha, a gaming and hotel entrepreneur who lives in Argentina, runs the company HCI SA as well as the Panoramic casinos, Café Central and the hotels Iguazú Grand and Panoramic Grand, according to the newspaper Clarín. In November 2018, the businessman – under the name L.J. Shasha – paid Eliminalia $1,500 to eliminate or de-index a dozen news items that linked him to the terrorist group Hezbollah.

Ronald Oswaldo Caballero Cantero

Known as Careconi, Caballero Cantero was an alleged drug trafficker who operated in Paraguay. He worked as secretary to drug lord Pedro Pablo Quevedo Medina, Peter Medina, considered the mastermind of the 2010 attempted murder of Robert Acevedo, the head of Paraguayan parliament. In 2017, Caballero Cantero at the age of 39 after his white BMWX6 sports coupe crashed into a tractor blade, according to the Paraguayan newspaper ABC. In February 2016, Careconi hired Eliminalia to remove links to online stories about him on ABC.

German Trujillo Manrique

Trujillo Manrique is a businessman convicted of diverting Colombian public funds from the School Food Plan (PAE), which aimed to provide food for students in schools. According to El Tiempo, a ruling by a court in Bucaramanga (Colombia) confirmed that Trujillo Manrique had bought an apartment with the looted money. In March 2017, Trujillo Manrique hired Eliminalia for $2,549 to de-index links to stories on eltiempo.com and diariodelhuila.com that spoke about “the food cartel.”

Morris Harf

Harf was Colombia’s minister of commerce under the presidency of Ernesto Samper (1994-1998). He hired the Spanish firm in August 2017 to “remove content on Google” and 26 links. There is no information about the content of the articles he wanted to be removed.

Silvana Relats

Relats was the former manager of a hotel owned by Argentina’s former presidents, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner. He died of cancer in 2018. In June 2017, he paid Eliminalia $2,100 to de-index four articles, including one headlined: “The Relats case: the curse of the Kirchner administration,” which was published on www.noticias.perfil.com.

EL PAÍS contacted all the company’s clients mentioned in this article, but received no response.


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