This podcast begins with a birthday. That of Lauren Bajorek, a young girl from the United States who was blowing out 21 candles in the Spanish city of Seville, where she was studying during the summer of 2015. That night she went out with her friends to celebrate, but she never came back. It soon emerged that she had fallen to her death off a balcony in an apartment belonging to a Spanish tour guide.
By chance, journalist Candace Mittel Kahn saw a Facebook post from one of Lauren’s friends. “It was asking questions, looking for legal assistance for Lauren’s family because, while they always thought that Lauren had accidentally fallen from the balcony in the apartment of her Spanish tour guide, they had recently discovered something shocking about him on TV: a woman had accused him of drugging and raping her during her study trip abroad.”
In 2018, another woman, Gabrielle Vega, also put a message on Facebook warning about the dangers of a tour guide named Manuel Blanco Vela. Gabrielle said that if anyone had had similar experiences to hers, that they should write to her. She started to receive a number of emails from American girls who had stories of all kinds of alleged offenses. Later on, Gabrielle – together with two of those girls – went on a national TV show in the US to talk about what had happened to them, and from then on the whole story went viral.
After Gabrielle Vega appeared on national television, more than 30 women got in touch with her and her lawyer to share accusations that ranged from rape to sexual harassment
Candace and her colleague at the WBEZ Chicago radio network, Alexandra Salomon, knew that they had a story for their podcast Motive. “Motive was the investigative series from WBEZ that brought its listeners, each season, a single story based on real events and that tried to answer a very wide-open question: how could this have happened?”
At the center of this story was, of course, Manuel Blanco Vela, the only connection between these women who had suffered abuse and harassment. “We know that Manuel Blanco Vela ran a tourism company in Seville called Discover Excursions for years,” Alexandra explains. “The company worked with foreign students, most of them Americans abroad, and it took them on reasonably priced trips to nearby countries such as Morocco and Portugal, and sometimes to cities in Spain.”
After Gabrielle Vega appeared on national television, more than 30 women got in touch with her and her lawyer to share stories about Manuel, accusations that ranged from rape to sexual harassment, as well as inappropriate sexual comments. “On the podcast we were able to speak to the majority of these women,” Alexandra explains.
The script and narrative arc of Motive is incredible, given that its creators are practically creating each episode as they go along, depending on what they discover
An investigation by Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, began in May 2018. In October 2019, the public prosecutor requested an extension, meaning that it is likely to continue for at least another year. “I can tell you that the women from here are experiencing communication problems,” Candace explains from Chicago. “Many of them don’t know what is happening, and despite having provided written statements, all except one are waiting to be interviewed by the prosecutor via videoconference, which is how they have to give their official testimony.”
The script and narrative arc of Motive is incredible, given that its creators are practically creating each episode as they go along, depending on what they discover. One of the main points of investigation is: why has no one been arrested yet in this case? “Sources told me that when deciding whether to arrest someone while an investigation is ongoing, the authorities consider a number of factors,” explains Alexandra from Chicago. “Is there a risk that the person being investigated will leave Spain? Is there a risk that evidence will be destroyed? Is there a risk that the accusers could be unreliable while the investigation is being opened? The sources I spoke about the case with don’t feel that these risk factors apply in this case because the women who are making these accusations do not live in Spain, they are not worried about the destruction of evidence here and the accused has been placed under precautionary measures by a judge in Seville, which means they don’t think he is a flight risk.”
Many of the women who are making the accusations against Blanco Vela never informed the authorities of what had happened at the time. The reasons they give have been cited many times before in similar cases. “The women were scared that no one would believe them, that they wouldn’t be seen as credible,” explains Candace. “‘Oh, but you were out drinking,’ the authorities could say. Or, ‘Why did you go to a bedroom with a stranger?’ They feared being the kind of victim we so often blame in this kind of case. What’s more, many of the women were ashamed and felt very guilty. Lastly, you have to remember that these women were studying in a foreign country: they were far from home, they did not have relatives or friends in Spain, they didn’t speak the language and they didn’t understand much about the justice system in Spain,” Candace explains.
The city of Chicago has a certain reputation for innovation. When it comes to podcasts, non-fiction classics such as This American Life, Wait Wait ... Don’t Tell Me! and Serial were born there. And now Motive has arrived, adding to that list of fascinating works of audio journalism.
English version by Simon Hunter.