Ahead of trial, ‘Chapo’ podcast debuts — in English and Spanish

November 1, 2018

Meeting 'El Chapo's' mom; the real Supreme 'proposal' story; firing time

After bumping along for three hours in rural Mexico, the road suddenly turned paved, the houses got bigger. In a mountain town, a compound stood out, in orange. That's where El Chapo's 90-year-old mom lives.

And that's where Consuelo Loera talked about her "hard-working" son, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, who used to sell oranges to help the family, before he found something more lucrative.

Vice News reporters talked with the drug kingpin's family as well as heroin cooks, hitmen, a former Mexican president and families of the fallen in an eight-part podcast beginning Thursday on Spotify, on the eve of his trial in a Brooklyn courthouse for murder and drug trafficking. It's actually two podcasts, one in English and one in Spanish, hosted by Vice News's Keegan Hamilton and Miguel Ángel Vega, a Sinaloa-raised reporter, film director and "fixer." 

The two, along with Kate Osborn, lead producer of the English-language podcast, were traveling that day in Sinaloa state to El Chapo's hometown when they were stopped by a half-dozen gunmen with AK-47s and AR-15s, Vega told me by phone from Mexico. A reporter who had covered narcos since the 1990s, Vega had warned Hamilton and Osborne of this moment at an unofficial drug trafficking "checkpoint." The journalists produced IDs and press credentials, then let the armed men search the trunk and their equipment.

"Miguel was the one who did the talking," Hamilton told me, "and they waved us right through.”

The journalists arrived in El Chapo's hometown to a festival atmosphere. The town was setting up for all-night party, with fireworks, bands, flashy pickup trucks and men with masks and tactical vests and guns. “At one point, " Hamilton said, "we asked, ‘Are they doing this just for us?’”

No.

It just happened to be the birthday of Guzmán's brother, nicknamed El Guano, who had ascended to regional drug chief after his brother's arrest and extradition to the United States two years ago. The journalists, staying with a cousin of El Chapo in his modest two-bedroom brick home, weren't invited to the compound, although El Chapo's sister said they might send down food later, Hamilton said.

The topic of El Chapo has fascinated both Spanish- and English-speakers. Hundreds of ballads, known as "narcocorridos," were written about him after two daring escapes from Mexican prisons. Netflix and Univision co-produced a popular fictionalized account for three seasons on TV. The Vice News-Spotify venture seeks to shed real-life insight into his life and on Mexico's drug trafficking culture.

Vega said he has experienced the temptations of that culture since age 12, when he found out a schoolmate's dad was a guard outside Guzmán's mansion, in a gated community. "There were beautiful women, fancy cars," Vega said. "I thought, 'When I grow old, I want to be a drug trafficker like El Chapo.'"

Last year, he saw the consequences of that business close-at-hand, when Javier Valdez, a colleague at his Ríodoce weekly newsmagazine, was assassinated a block and a half from the office, after writing a story about a rival drug lord.

When asked, both Hamilton and Vega said they hope their podcast humanizes and provides context to the trial, which begins Monday. (Both will be covering it.) Both said that while Guzmán deserves justice, that he was not the only or the paramount leader of a multi-headed Sinaloa cartel.

“Of course, he’s a drug trafficker, and he led a criminal organization and he must face justice," Vega said. "But it’s impossible that he’s the only one responsible for smuggling all the drugs in the U.S.”

Quick hits

CLOSED: The print alt-weekly Creative Loafing Charlotte (North Carolina) has been shut down, and its publisher says the 31-year-old publication will be digital only, the Charlotte Observer reported. The timing came just after the publication had closed its pre-election issue, and editor-in-chief Ryan Pitkin said all seven staffers, including himself, had been fired by the publisher. “You send a paper out, then 10 minutes later the publisher comes in and lays everyone off, giving you 10 minutes to get your stuff,” added assistant editor Courtney Mihocik. “It’s a really horrid move.”

CHECK, PLEASE?: A food editor quit after “joking” about killing vegans and force-feeding them meat, The Guardian reported.

WHOOPS: Who to vote for? English-language readers of the Los Angeles Times got one set of endorsements; Spanish-language readers got another set, with many different picks. What gives? The endorsements that appeared on the LA Times en Español website “were originally published in HOY Los Angeles and were posted on the LA Times en Español in error,” Latino Rebels quoted Hillary Manning, director of communications for the LA Times, as saying. “The Hoy LA endorsements are separate from those of the Los Angeles Times editorial board. Our editors are updating that post, and will direct readers to the endorsements from Hoy LA and the LA Times,” Manning said.

GOLD IN THE ARCHIVES: The William Rehnquist-Sandra Day O’Connor proposal story shows the values of deep digging, and the relevance of history. (The headline: She turned him down at Stanford Law, married another, but the two remained lifelong friends and Supreme Court colleagues). The interesting part of the story, tweeted Amee Vanderpool, isn’t the proposal. “It's that after both graduated top of their class, he was offered a clerkship on SCOTUS while O'Connor could only get a job as a secretary.”

SPEAKING OF ARCHIVISTS: A just-released Watergate report may provide a road map for the Mueller prosecution of President Trump. By Spencer Hsu. Here's the document, via Lawfare.

ELECTING THE HOUSE: This insightful and deliciously wonky map by CityLab, tracing the history of House elections, shows that "deviation from the norm is the norm."

RUNNING FROM RESPONSIBILITY: Kara Swisher’s devastating take on tech’s failed dream to improve democracy — and its connection to the likes of Mohammed bin Salman. “Social media platforms,” Swisher writes, “are designed so that the awful travels twice as fast as the good. And they are operating with sloppy disregard of the consequences of that awful speech, leading to disasters that they then have to clean up after.” Or don’t.

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Have a good Thursday. See you tomorrow.