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Q&A: Noah Hurowitz '13, Journalist and Author

A lot has been written about notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera. But in his new book, Noah Hurowitz '13 tells the untold story. 


Name: Noah Hurowitz

Age: 31

Year graduated and degree: 2013, BA sociology

Why did you choose USM?: I wanted to live in Portland, and USM struck me as a school that was accessible, perfectly located, and took its students seriously.

What got you into journalism?: I was at a transfer orientation the summer before beginning at USM (after two years at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts) and I spotted the Free Press table at the event. I signed up without much thought, like hey this seems cool as a work-study job. My first story was an examination of “town vs. gown” issues surrounding fraternity houses in Gorham, and I was hooked. It was fun, it was interesting, I got to call people and try to get them to talk to me. It was a challenge. It felt like something I could grow into as a career and as a discipline, and even better, a career where I could do my best to bother powerful people. I spent the next two years hustling at the Free Press, did an internship for the Bangor Daily News, and then after working spring and summer 2013 as a news assistant at The Forecaster, I moved to New York, where I’ve been ever since (apart from a few stints in Peru, Mexico, and Greece). It’s been a slog at times, the industry is not an easy place to gain or maintain a foothold, but it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.

Noah Hurowitz. Photo by Liam Quigley.

What's your writing specialty?: After a long stint as a local beat reporter in Brooklyn, then Manhattan, then Brooklyn again, I began covering domestic drug policy in the United States and later began covering the drug war and its causes and effects in Mexico.

Tell us about your new book, “El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord”: “El Chapo” is part biography, part critical history, with a dash of polemic mixed in for good measure. It follows El Chapo’s life and career from boyhood to his life imprisonment, with all the bizarre episodes and prison breaks that came between. But it also goes deeper, to examine the root causes of violence and corruption in Mexico, to illuminate the networks of collusion between state forces and organized crime, and to point out the myriad vested interested both public and private in the U.S. that ensure the brutality that naturally stems from prohibition will continue unabated.

How did you get connected to the El Chapo trial?: Rolling Stone needed someone to cover the trial and they put their faith in me. Thanks y’all!

How immersed were you in the story?: From the moment the trial began it was like I was living in a different world. I would spend 15 hours at the courthouse in downtown Brooklyn, go home, file a story, sleep for a few hours, and then head back. It completely took over my life. I don’t necessarily recommend that kind of imbalance, but it was thrilling to dive in headfirst like that. After the trial wrapped, I headed to Mexico and spent the next year bouncing between my home base in Mexico City, El Chapo’s home turf of Sinaloa, and areas along the U.S. border affected by the war on drugs, such as Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and Agua Prieta, Sonora. I was all in.

A lot has been written about El Chapo. What was your goal with your book?: So much of what’s been written about El Chapo has suffered from two major fatal flaws: a lack of fact-checking of the various myths that surround him, and a failure to put him in the context of time and place, the social, economic, and political forces that shaped him, that he rode to power.

 I didn’t just want to write a biography. I wanted to tell his story in the most truthful way I could, but more importantly to use that story to tell the larger story of the war on drugs. Every stage of El Chapo’s life, every leap he made in his career, happened because he was or was not able to exploit those larger forces, and his story isn’t complete without that context.

What's your favorite part of the book? The thing you want everyone to know?: I’m most proud of the reporting I did in Sinaloa and in Ciudad Juárez, in which I spoke to ordinary people caught up in the violence and insecurity that El Chapo, his rivals, or their allies and enemies in government helped to cause. The toll that this conflict has taken in Mexico is staggering, and I am deeply grateful to the people who trusted me enough with their stories.

The wildest portion of the book is the section that deals with the trials and tribulations of Christian Rodriguez, a young Colombian tech whiz who helped El Chapo and other traffickers set up encrypted communications networks. He was an outsider in an insider’s world, and his naive attempt to profit from that world without it touching him is really something. As a story, it’s the stuff of Hollywood, and as a literary device, he works fantastically as a pair of eyes with which the reader can peer into a world that would rather remain obscured..

What's next for your career?: I plan to continue reporting on issues of organized crime, insecurity, and inequality in the Americas.

How did your time at USM help prepare you for your future?: I would not be anywhere close to where I’m at now if I’d never signed up for the Free Press that day in 2010. I’m deeply grateful to my fellow reporters on staff there during those years, and to the professors who never let me slack off in my academic work, which in turn helped me a lot to figure out how to chew everything I'd bitten off. But honestly, when I think back to my time at USM, it's all about my time at the paper. The Free Press is your student newspaper, make it what you want to and let that process show you what you want for yourself.