Podcast Dept.
“The Making of a Massacre” Explores the D.E.A.’s Role in a Mexican Tragedy
By Sarah Larson
May 15, 2018
The new podcast “The Making of a Massacre,” a joint production by ProPublica and Audible, recounts the destruction of Allende, Mexico, at the hands of the Zeta drug cartel.Photograph by Kirsten Luce
“The Making of a Massacre,” a new investigative podcast from Audible and ProPublica, is a two-hour dramatic exploration of a 2011 massacre in Allende, Mexico, reported and narrated by Ginger Thompson. “There’s no missing the signs that something unspeakable happened in Allende,” she says in the first episode. “People were murdered here. Gunmen from one of the most violent drug-trafficking organizations in the world swept through this little town like a flash flood.” We hear a translated account: “They broke into houses. They looted them and burned them. Afterward, they kidnapped the people who lived in those houses and took them to a ranch just outside of Allende.” Dozens were killed and their bodies were burned. Thompson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is an investigative reporter at ProPublica and a former Mexico City bureau chief for the Times; she grew up on the border and has been writing about Mexico for decades. Cartel-related massacres are “mind-numbingly common,” she says. But this story is different: this massacre, she learns, had been set off by the United States. “It’s a story that’s never been told before,” Thompson tells us. “And it starts here.”
This is a classic podcast beginning—surprising, vivid, urgent, portending lessons about human folly and government error. We’re eager to hear the rest. Then the podcast proceeds in a way that alternately fulfills our expectations and unsettles them, because of the ways in which it dramatizes the content. In the course of its five ambitious episodes, “Making a Massacre” employs both NPR-type narrative audio and a dramatic style that evokes Hollywood: the investigative reporting is dramatized not just with music and sound design but with performances by the film and TV actors Cheech Marin, Danny Trejo, Alana de la Garza, Clifton Collins, Jr., and Snow Tha Product, who deliver interviewees’ words, translated from the Spanish. Trejo also narrates the episodes’ titles—“Chapter 1: The Takeover”—with a husky-voiced gravitas that suggests a horror-movie trailer. Then we hear friendly ranchera music, horses’ hooves, and an introduction to Allende before the massacre, and we’re back in the familiar genre of narrative nonfiction, getting to know our setting. Throughout, the tone switches back and forth, sometimes easily, sometimes less so.
Allende is a ranching town of twenty-three thousand people in the state of Coahuila, a forty-minute drive from Eagle Pass, Texas; it’s home to farmers, teachers, professionals with large houses. It has an annual equestrian parade and rodeo. Thompson narrates in a kindly tone that sounds a bit slowed down for our benefit, and she takes a tour of Allende with the town’s former property assessor, a beekeeper who rents his bees out to melon farmers. He takes her on what he calls, with a nervous laugh, a “narco tour.” They pass dozens of ruined houses, some mini-mansions. “Whatever walls were left standing had holes big enough to shoot basketballs through them,” Thompson says. The beekeeper is willing to drive by but not to stop. “It was as if he was afraid the people who had knocked the houses down seven years ago were still watching,” she says.
The people responsible are the Zetas, a powerful drug-smuggling cartel. Before the Zetas, there was smuggling in Allende—but the local kingpin respected society and society respected him, and life proceeded mostly peacefully. Then he was murdered. The Zetas, led by two brothers, Miguel and Omar Treviño, known as Forty and Forty-two, both moved to Allende and quickly established dominance. The Zetas were known for their flouting of norms and for their spectacular violence—beheadings, dissolving bodies in acid—and ambition: they wanted to rule not just the drug trade but the country. (Both brothers are now in prison.) “The Making of a Massacre” deftly illustrates how the Zetas took power: through violence; by bribing and intimidating government agencies; and, insidiously, by establishing personal ties. An Allende veterinarian memorably describes agreeing to provide veterinary care to a dog belonging to the young son of a cartel member. Soon, locals and cartel are intertwined. When the D.E.A. gets coveted intelligence on the Zetas through cartel operatives and makes a “deadly miscalculation”—sharing the information with Mexican authorities—shocking cruelty ensues. Allende’s townspeople, many unrelated to the drug trade, are its victims. The massacre, its aftermath, and its implications are examined in the second half of the series.
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The story of the massacre has been told before, by major news outlets and by Thompson herself, last year, in National Geographic and the Washington Post. But it hasn’t been dramatized this way, and in this form it may deservedly reach a wider audience. Hearing the voices of the people involved, as well as their translated transcripts read by actors, connects us more intimately and urgently to an unimaginable situation. The Spanish-speaking interviewees include former cartel members living under federal protection in the United States and locals from Allende who survived the massacre but lost loved ones. The actors’ interpretations range in tone. Many are convincing, approximating the casual imperfection of real interviews; some feel obviously read, infused with professionally trained emotion. A section in which the former mayor recounts yelling at the police and then at the Zetas for beating up his kid—“Why in the hell did you let these assholes beat my son?”—feels natural. A reënactment of a panicked phone call between a trafficker and his wife as the D.E.A. surrounds their house feels melodramatic. “Flush the phones down the toilet? Oh my god, oh my god!” she breathes, over jazzy drumbeats. Such moments evoke a movie or an audiobook, reminding us that we’re listening to a hybrid of Audible and ProPublica. The problem with this is that we’re listening to investigative journalism, and we tend to associate acting with fiction.
Thompson is a warm, brave guide to the story that she reported, and the sections in which she narrates are well-written and easy to follow. But there are a couple of off notes: occasional unwelcome heightening of drama, such as when she first encounters the former mayor, a grocer, who blanches when she asks about the Zetas and tells her that he doesn’t have much to say. “So I stood there for a minute and stared him in the eye until he gave in,” Thompson tells us, in an even tone with a sense of pride. Elsewhere, the podcast juxtaposes two different styles of Thompson’s narration, like cameras switching angles on a news anchor, making us disorientingly aware of the medium. In the main narration, she talks to us; in sections that sound like field recordings, her tone of voice and style of delivery sound conversational, indirect, as if she’s talking to someone travelling with her. From the fourth episode, “The Massacre”:
People descended on these houses and took away whatever they could that was salvageable, right? . . . So they weren’t just destroyed, they were looted, you know . . . . Um, you know, we’ve been able to talk to the bulldozer driver who did a lot of this, um, knocking down, and he was sort of forced by the Zetas to do this, and he did it because he felt that if he didn’t the Zetas would next come after him.
The tape then cuts to Thompson in the noiseless studio, narrating to us directly, which sharpens the feeling that the Thompson of two seconds ago was someone else. “The bulldozer driver is one of the many people I spoke to who asked that we not use his name and never changed his mind,” she tells us. “He’s both terrified and terribly ashamed.” This is followed by a devastating interview with the bulldozer driver, and we’re grateful to hear it.
In “Massacre” ’s five episodes, Thompson and her team make a convincing case about the D.E.A.’s fatal error. They also illuminate the creeping threat of highly motivated criminals intimidating, and in some cases influencing, the vulnerable, neutral people around them. Many got sucked into the Zetas’ control and were powerless to stop their violence, or even to avoid participating in it. “We had believed all this time that the people who did this had been brought from another state,” an Allende woman says in the final episode. “In the end, we learned they were people from here. The monsters we thought had come from who knows where were monsters who had lived among us.”
Sarah Larson, a staff writer, has been contributing to The New Yorker since 2007.
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