Issue 184,  published November 6, 2018

Chapo Court House

The trial of Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman began with jury selection on 5 November in Brooklyn, New York. Guzman was extradited to the US in January 2017, having escaped twice from prisons in Mexico, and is now facing charges of drug trafficking and conspiracy. In light of both the length of the trial (it’s expected to run for at least four months) and the high level of global media interest in the case, the jurors will remain anonymous for their own safety and reporting will be scrutinised carefully for any potential impact on the judicial outcome — prosecutors have even asked to have sketch artists blocked from the courtroom, in case the Sinaloa cartel are able to make identifications from such images.

It is into this environment that Vice News has launched its first podcast, Chapo. It’s a bilingual English-Spanish narrative documentary series that promises to tell “the stories you won’t hear in the courtroom during El Chapo’s federal prosecution.” It trails some pretty impressive-sounding interviewees, from the former DEA agents who captured Guzman to a former president of Mexico. The first episode dropped on all platforms on 1 November, to be followed by two more released widely. The rest of the eight-part series will be exclusive to Spotify, released weekly on Thursdays. All eight episodes of the Spanish-language version of the show will also be exclusive to Spotify.

There were several different aspects to this production that caught my attention, from the high profile subject matter to the Spotify-led release plan to the fact that this is Vice News’ first foray into audio. (Though, it should be noted that the broader Vice Media organization has long dabbled in podcasting.)

A Vice News spokesperson told me over the phone that they did originally explore whether this story could work on one of Vice News’s other video or digital outlets, such as the Vice News website. “Keegan Hamilton, our host, he’s been covering the drug trade for over a decade, and he came with this idea,” that person said. “He really wanted to go into Chapo’s life and get the stories that nobody has ever got before, leading up to this trial. . . As the reporting evolved, they realised how in-depth the story was and that there were so many aspects to it, so the best way to do it would be to serialize the reporting. That meant putting it through a podcast, which Vice News had never done before.”

Hamilton has been reporting for the podcast for most of 2018. The spine of the show is a conversation with co-host Miguel Angel Vega, an investigative journalist in Mexico who writes for the Riodoce newspaper. Vega is also a crucial part of the Spanish language version of the podcast, which isn’t completely parallel with the English version, but is rather a refashioning with extra context for listeners in Mexico and across Latin America.

This choice to go bilingual came early on, Hamilton told me over email. “Right from the beginning we knew we had to tell El Chapo’s story on both sides of the border, which meant including the voices of both Mexicans and Americans who were somehow affected by the drug war and El Chapo’s rise and fall,” he said. “It didn’t take us long to realize we had a ton of great tape from our reporting in Mexico that would lend itself to making a Spanish adaptation. There’s also tremendous interest in El Chapo’s case in Mexico and across Latin America and in order to effectively reach that audience the only option was to produce a version in Spanish.”

Ryan McCarthy, editor in chief of Vice News, added that the two versions of Chapo “diverge in really interesting ways,” and that they are also “really excited about doing more bilingual projects in the future”. You can read this intention in some of the talent assembled for this show — the producer for the Spanish edition of Chapo is Martina Castro, the CEO and founder of Adonde Media who also co-founded NPR’s Radio Ambulante. (You can read Nick’s interview with her from April about bilingual podcasts here).

As for the decision to make all but the first three episode of the English edition exclusive to Spotify, Vice News told me that it’s the team’s “way into the podcast world.” The show isn’t just available to Premium users, though — the strategy seems to be more about raising awareness of Spotify generally as a platform for podcasts, rather than specifically driving paid sign ups.

Chapo is also far from a bystander in this story. McCarthy said that the desire to do the show came out of a strong feeling that “it was time for a different kind of conversation about the U.S. and Mexico. Because of the monumental case against Chapo and the rhetoric we’ve seen in politics over immigration and President Trump’s border wall, we wanted to give people a new way of looking at how the U.S. and Mexico are connected.”

Hamilton pointed out that the podcast had been referenced alongside other media in a recent court filing by the prosecution in the Chapo trial, which suggested that such coverage could “taint the jury pool and derail the jury selection process.” “The judge ultimately refused to delay the start of the trial, and he mentioned a podcast — though he didn’t cite ours by name — when explaining his decision,” Hamilton explained. As the trial gets underway this week and media attention on it builds, I imagine this won’t be the last time this contention is raised.

Chapo is just the first of more audio projects from Vice News, McCarthy said. “Vice News has some really big plans for more investigative and narrative podcasts,” he said. “Looking forward to sharing more of those in the coming months.”