"Chapo": Listen to the real story behind the rise — and trial — of a kingpin

Listen to all the “Chapo: Kingpin on Trial” podcast episodes here.
November 20, 2018, 4:24pm
"Chapo": Listen to the real story behind the rise — and trial — of a kingpin

The trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is unfolding inside a federal courthouse in Brooklyn, and the testimony so far is reshaping the legend of the notorious Sinaloa cartel leader. Jurors have already heard stunning details about his alleged bribes to Mexican presidents, his smuggling tunnels underneath the border, and his brazen escapes from prison.

But there are some stories that won’t be told in the courtroom. Before the trial got underway, VICE News spent nearly a year reporting on El Chapo for a podcast that’s now available for free in both English and Spanish, exclusively on Spotify.

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Over the course of eight episodes, we’re taking listeners on a journey across Mexico and the U.S. to meet people affected by El Chapo’s rise and fall. This is a story about the entire war on drugs, and the countless lives it has impacted on both sides of the border. Here’s a rundown of each episode, plus links to our ongoing web coverage of the trial.

Episode 1: The Fixer

How the heroin business works, what fuels violence in Mexico, and why it's dangerous for journalists to cover the drug trade.

In the first episode of our show, we do a Brooklyn Bridge stakeout to get a glimpse of the security convoy that escorts El Chapo to court from his jail cell in Manhattan. Then we travel to the Sinaloa cartel stronghold of Culiacán to meet Miguel Angel Vega, a fixer and local journalist who specializes in covering the drug trade. He introduces us to a heroin trafficker, and we visit the scene of a suspected cartel execution.

Episode 2: The Legend

Why the people of Sinaloa treat El Chapo like a modern-day Robin Hood, how El Chapo was beaten up by Mexican soldiers as a teenager, and what he did to support his family.

To learn about El Chapo’s origin story, we visit his hometown of La Tuna, a tiny village in the heart of a remote and rugged region known as the “Golden Triangle,” where for generations farmers have grown marijuana and the opium poppies that get processed into heroin. We spend the night at the home of one of his family members, and interview El Chapo’s mother and sister. We also witnessed dozens of heavily armed gunmen standing guard during a birthday party for El Chapo’s brother, Aureliano “El Guano” Guzmán, another leader of the cartel.

Episode 3: The Federation

How the U.S. war on drugs led to the rise of the Sinaloa cartel, why El Chapo may have been framed for the killing of a Catholic Church official, and what everyone might be getting wrong about El Chapo’s first escape from prison.

In this episode, we trace El Chapo’s rise to power. It starts with the formation of Mexico’s first drug cartel and takes a gruesome turn when a DEA agent in Mexico is kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. El Chapo then became a leader of “The Federation,” a new arrangement where multiple cartels control different territories across the country. We hear about the 1993 assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, learn about El Chapo’s lavish lifestyle in prison, and get the details on his first prison escape, which supposedly involves him being wheeled out of a maximum-security facility hidden in a laundry cart.

Episode 4: The Border

Why drug traffickers love NAFTA, how El Chapo contributed to the violence in Juarez, and what Mexico’s former president says about his decision to escalate the drug war.

Starting in 2006, a war between the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels turned Ciudad Juarez into the murder capital of the world. We visit a morgue in the city on the U.S.-Mexico border to meet a doctor who has developed a new way to identify human remains, and we meet Señora Luz Davila, a factory worker in Juarez who lost both her sons to a cartel massacre. We also interview Mexico’s controversial former President Felipe Calderon and discuss whether his decision to deploy the military to fight cartels made violence worse in Mexico.

Episode 5: The Fugitive

How changing drug demand in the U.S. is affecting Mexican farmers, why the Mexican military allegedly abducted a teenage boy from the mountains of Sinaloa, and what this story tells us about loyalty to kingpins.

In this episode, we take a trip into the mountains of Sinaloa to meet farmers who grow opium poppies — the plants that get processed into heroin. On the way to meet the farmers, we find out about the abduction of a teenage boy during the Mexican military’s search for Rafael Caro Quintero, a fugitive drug kingpin. Townspeople said the marines detained and abused the boy during their hunt for Caro Quintero. As we investigate this alleged incident, we learn why some Mexicans are more loyal to drug lords than to their own government.

The trial: Read about people who almost get picked for El Chapo's jury

Episode 6: The Hunt

How El Chapo got caught, escaped, and got busted again.

Drew Hogan, a former special agent with the DEA, details his multiyear hunt for El Chapo, which culminated with the drug kingpin's capture in 2014 at a beachfront hotel in Sinaloa. We visit one of El Chapo's hideouts in Culiacán and go inside a tunnel that he used to escape from an early-morning raid by Hogan and the Mexican military. We also hear about El Chapo’s spectacular 2016 escape from prison through a mile-long tunnel, and explain how his subsequent rendezvous with the actor Sean Penn and Mexican star Kate del Castillo contributed to his downfall.

Episode 7: The Fallout

Why the capture of El Chapo triggered violence in Sinaloa, a look at some of those it impacted, and where narcos are buried.

After El Chapo was captured and extradited to the U.S., a wave a violence crashed over his home state Sinaloa, and it directly affected the co-host of our podcast. In this episode, Miguel Angel Vega details the day his friend and colleague Javier Valdez, a revered journalist and the co-founder of the newspaper Ríodoce, was killed by cartel hitmen.

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The power struggle that followed El Chapo’s downfall also led to the disappearance of Yosimar Garcia, a local police officer in the cartel stronghold of Culiacán. We meet his mother, Isabel, and join her group Las Rastreadores (The Trackers), who use amateur forensic techniques to search for shallow graves that may contain the remains of their sons, husbands, and other men who vanished during the drug war. We also tour a famous cemetery where many top narcos, including one of El Chapo’s brothers, are buried in extravagant mausoleums built to look like the Taj Mahal and baroque chapels.

Episode 8: The Trial

Meet the Flores twins' wives.

In this episode we turn to El Chapo’s trial and take a look at the Flores brothers: identical twins and former cartel associates who flipped on El Chapo in exchange for leniency in their own cases.

Pedro and Margarito Flores are expected to be two of the most important “cooperating witnesses.” The brothers, who are from Chicago, built a $2 billion drug empire by shipping the Sinaloa cartel’s drugs across the U.S. After fleeing Mexico to escape a U.S. indictment, the brothers flipped on El Chapo.

We hear the story of Pedro and Margarito through their wives, Olivia and Mia Flores. While they wait for their husbands to testify against El Chapo, Olivia and Mia live in hiding and wear disguises when they go out in public because they fear retribution from cartel assassins. They tell us why their husbands became informants, what life was like inside the highest echelon of the Sinaloa cartel, and what the impact of El Chapo’s trial will be.