An Oral History of Dónde Están Los Ladrones? – the Album That Made Shakira a Renegade Pop Star

Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla

The story that most people know about Shakira’s seminal album Dónde Están los Ladrones? has become a kind of lore now. When the singer was preparing the follow-up to her 1995 breakthrough Pies Descalzos at age 19, she had filled a briefcase full of song lyrics. Unfortunately, the briefcase was stolen at Colombia’s El Dorado airport, and the work she’d done disappeared forever. Shakira was completely distraught and grappled with writer’s block for months as she tried to come up with new material. She later called the experience a “trauma,” and it stayed with her so much that when she did finally finish the album almost three years later, she named it after the thieves who had stolen her music.

Dónde Están los Ladrones? celebrated its 20th anniversary last week. When it first debuted, it gave Shakira a chance to tell countless other stories — of her heartbreaks and heartaches, of feeling dumb and blind because of a boyfriend, of believing in love above Jean Paul Sartre and Brian Weiss. The songs established her as a deeply perceptive lyricist with a rocker’s renegade spirit, and positioned her as a dexterous pop star with the potential to transcend cultural borders. Boasting hit after hit, the album soared to the top of Billboard’s Latin Albums chart for 11 weeks and won her two awards at the first-ever Latin Grammys in 2000. More importantly, it set her up to transition into international stardom.

“The album had all of these different elements — one song had a little bit of ranchera in it, there was rock, there were ballads. There had definitely been a lot of thought put into who it was going to appeal to, and yet the songs never sounded like anyone else but her,” remembered Leila Cobo, Billboard’s executive director of content and programming for Latin music and a journalist who covered Shakira’s early career. “This was the album that consolidated her sound and broke her in a big way.”

In honor of the album’s vicennial, Remezcla looks back at its significance — and at the untold stories that went into putting the album together. In interviews, many of Shakira’s collaborators shared their memories of making Dónde Están los Ladrones? and explained what the songs mean to them 20 years later.

Two decades may have passed since the album dropped, but it doesn’t feel that way to Emilio Estefan, the legendary producer who oversaw Dónde Están los Ladrones? in its entirety. “Believe it or not, but I’m driving to the studio right now and it feels like the first day when I went in to record with her,” he told Remezcla on a call recently.

Shakira and Estefan met through Jairo Martínez, a promoter who managed the singer’s public relations for many years. Shakira was just coming off of the success of her third album Pies Descalzos, which had won her fans within Latin America. But Estefan, the industry gatekeeper known for launching massive Latino acts like Thalia and his wife Gloria Estefan, represented a huge jump in her career and the possibility to break into a wider fanbase.

“I got 10 minutes with him, talking, and I figured out that he was the right person and I was at the right place,” Shakira says in a VH1 documentary that chronicles her success. Estefan adds, “I knew right away she was special — that this girl had something new and fresh for the market.”

“To me, she was this shy girl, but with a lot of energy, who wanted to do things. And that’s what I loved — I love people who love music, so the connection was really strong,” Estefan told Remezcla. “I remember she came in to see the studio, and she said, ‘How about you produce the whole album?’”

Still, Shakira wanted to maintain creative control, and reports allege that she signed a contract with Estefan ensuring she would have final approval of the album. Estefan ended up managing her as well, and despite rumors that they had differences during and after this time period, she praised Estefan for granting her autonomy while helping her navigate the industry, calling their partnership “destiny.”

“She was this shy girl, but with a lot of energy, who wanted to do things.”

“He had to come into my life because if he hadn’t, I would have gone crazy,” she told one interviewer in 1998, adding, “He gave me all of the security and the confidence I needed to undertake this project, and he made available the key people who I worked with, the collaborators on this album.”

Shakira and Estefan started production at his famed Crescent Moon Studios in Miami. She had already recruited her longtime producer Luis Fernando Ochoa, who continues to work with her until this day and has credits on her most recent album, El Dorado. But joining forces with Estefan in the U.S. also opened Shakira up to a world of new collaborations. He had her meet with the artist and songwriter Estefano, and arranged for her to travel across the country to connect with different musicians and producers to bring her ideas to life on the album.

One of the people who got pulled in early on was Grammy-, Emmy-, and ACM-nominated songwriter and composer Dillon O’Brian. Although he had first heard about Shakira through his friend, the hit producer Steve Lindsey, there had been murmurings in the industry about the Colombian newcomer. “In the music business, someone always makes a music pitch and they come up with some kind of comparison — ‘It’s this meets that.’ So someone was saying, ‘She’s like the Latin Madonna,’ or something like that,” O’Brian told Remezcla. “Of course when you listen to her, you realize she’s nothing like Madonna, at least musically.”

He didn’t know much else about the singer, except that she had sold millions of records in Latin America and that she had an interest in a triple-A format sound, the 70s revival singer-songwriter style that artists like Sheryl Crow were doing then. He had arranged to meet her for a writing session in Los Angeles, where Shakira showed up with an A&R manager — and quickly took him by surprise.

“I’m a big guy — I’m 6’3 and 250 [pounds] — so to me, she’s this tiny girl. At the time, she had dark hair and what I remember most is that she was just so quiet — really nice and kind of shy,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, how did this girl get to selling all those records?’”

O’Brian sat down with her at a piano and went through a few different ideas for melodies. Shakira had a notebook in her lap, filled with lyrics and pieces of songs she’d written beforehand, but she hadn’t mastered her English yet. The A&R rep acted as a translator in some instances, but the pair communicated mainly through the music, facial expressions, sounds, and hand gestures. That was enough to get them started on a potential song, and pretty soon, they had made headway on a verse and a b-section.

“She was making sounds to indicate that she liked the direction I was going in,” O’Brian recalled. “But we weren’t hitting a chorus that she liked yet. So I said, ‘Well let me hear some of the stuff you’ve done so far,’ and we went into the control room to play a few of her records. That was the first time I had heard her sing — I hadn’t heard her before that — and I realized she had this huge voice. I was like, ‘ Holy cow, this girl is amazing.’ It was right around the time Alanis Morissette had come up, and Shakira had that unique vocal quality with her voice and the phrasing, but she was also totally doing her own thing.”

“We were just two people sitting on the same bench at the piano, and we didn’t speak each other’s languages.”

O’Brian suddenly had a surge of inspiration. “I said, ‘I think I know what you’re looking for,’ and I sang a melody. Her eyes just lit up.”

The chorus’ melody and chords were from a song O’Brian had written for a solo album of his that was never released, and it eventually formed part of the chorus for Shakira’s acclaimed ballad “Tú.”

“Her A&R guy, who was in the room, said, ‘She thinks she has something that will work with this that she’s already written, and that ended up being most of the lyrics of ‘Tú,” O’Brian remembered.

The session concluded, and O’Brian almost forgot about the song until he was sitting in a Mexican restaurant with a friend several years later and heard something playing over the sound system. “The song was in Spanish and for a second, I couldn’t place it. I asked my friend, who is a songwriter, ‘Is this one of your songs?’ And she said no. And then when it got to the chorus, I said ‘Oh, yeah!’” he laughed. The experience came flying back to him. “It really had been incredible — we were just two people sitting on the same bench at the piano, and we didn’t speak each other’s languages. It was just a totally cool, organic thing. We were there for a few hours and it was one of those rare moments where there were four to five people in the studio, but only two people are there for the specific purpose of writing a song.”

In a short promo for Dónde Están los Ladrones?, Shakira later revealed that she took her time perfecting the song until she got what she wanted out of it. “This song, in specific, is one of many that had more than two or three demos before being recorded. I think I was really insistent with myself, and I didn’t record any song until I was completely satisfied,” she said.

“Tú” was also a testament of Shakira’s ability to tap into moments of honesty and vulnerability, something she did repeatedly on the album. “Moscas En La Casa,” rumored to be about her relationship with the Puerto Rican actor Osvaldo Ríos, and “Inevitable,” a searing rock ballad, all saw the 21-year-old singer unafraid to interrogate her emotions and failed relationships. Other songs, like “Ciega, Sordomuda” and “No Creo” were playfully sardonic and witty, with the narrator often poking fun at herself in a self-aware, courageous way.

“Shakira just came in with a whole new attitude — it was like seeing an American rock star, but singing in Spanish, and singing about things we could relate to.”

“She’s one of the first artists that when I listened to her, I was like, ‘She sings like she talks.’ It wasn’t these kind of overwrought lyrics. They were very believable, and she sounds like a real person in her songs,” Cobo said. “Most of the women, and I don’t want to say all, but a lot of the female pop artists were doing more traditional pop ballads with people talking about love. And [Shakira] just came in with a whole new attitude — it was like seeing an American rock star, but singing in Spanish, and singing about things we could relate to.”

Far before Shakira entered the music scene, DJ Pablo Flores had been commanding attention as a remix maverick. After working the club circuit in Puerto Rico, he began spinning in Miami and gaining fans for his ability to transform Spanish-language ballads into dance jams. “It was very rustic, with just with two turntables, but people went crazy over it,” he told Remezcla.

He had mixed a Gloria Estefan song, and one night, when Miami Sound Machine was performing at a nearby hotel, they came to hear Flores play it. Emilio Estefan introduced himself to Flores and later enlisted him to make remixes.

Years later, when Shakira was brainstorming for Dónde Están los Ladrones?, Flores and his music partner Javier Garza (who would serve as an engineer on some of Shakira’s biggest hits) had made a short track with a Middle Eastern groove and given it to Estefan. “We were downstairs doing another remix, and we got a call from Emilio, and he said, ‘Can you guys come up here?’” Flores remembered. “Shakira had heard the instrumental track. She was of Lebanese descent and one of the plans she had in her life was to make a song paying tribute to that part of her. I remember she told us, ‘This track in particular isn’t what I’m looking for — I want something more up-tempo — but you’ve got the right sounds and this is the way I want to go.’”

Garza still recalls her enthusiasm. “She said, ‘I love that track. But let’s do something completely different.’”

Flores, Garza, and Estefan scrapped the original groove (which eventually made an appearance on Mandy Moore’s 2001 song “One-Sided Love”) and started from scratch. With Shakira, they landed on the sounds that made up “Ojos Así,” a song that also grew to hold a special meaning for Estefan.

“As a producer, you start talking and getting into the personal things, and I knew that Shakira and I both had Lebanese backgrounds,” he told Remezcla. “I said, ‘Let me develop a track and come back to you with it,’ and I pulled in Javier Garza and Pablo Flores, and we came up with ‘Ojos Así.’ It had such a great sound and it hadn’t really been done before, and it was something that was very new for the market.”

The song represented a change for Shakira, too. It was poppy and dance-oriented, foreshadowing the global ambitions she’d one day take on. It was also a chance for her to perform a verse in Arabic and show off the belly-dance training she had been learning since she was a child — and she wanted everything to be perfect. Pretty soon, it became clear that “Ojos Así” would be the biggest production on the album.

“Shakira wanted authenticity, so we actually hired real Middle Eastern musicians — not someone trying to sound Middle Eastern, but people who were really experts,” Flores said. “It was an amazing experience because the percussionists would come in, there would be musicians with all of these ouds and string instruments, and we would just add tracks on top of tracks. We even had this girl come in to do the tiny finger bells, and in the [Arab world], women make these high-pitched trills with their tongues [called ululation], so we had her do that, too. There’s a part in the song at the beginning where you can hear the girl doing that in this really high voice.”

Shakira asserted herself throughout the entire process, and pushed everyone around her to get the exact energy she wanted, Flores remembered.

“I liked watching her work. She could get very picky — very picky — and would go, ‘Is this little detail right?’ No, she didn’t like it, what about this? No, and this thing happening, no, that won’t work,” Flores recalled. “One night, she brought in a hairdresser to listen and we were like… But I realized what she was doing: She was looking for someone who wouldn’t come in with any kind of musical prejudice, who wasn’t an engineer or a producer, and would just hear the song as anyone would hear it. She would say, ‘This is nice, but how about someone living in a tiny country town, will they like it?’ It could be late at night and she would keep nitpicking and we’d get frustrated, but after that, you had to listen to the end result. And the end result was really masterful.”

“The thing about Shakira, like with a lot of great artists, is that you can throw something she really likes at her, something she gets excited about, but she likes to keep trying other things, to keep exploring for alternatives. She likes to have different options and to live with those different options…until she makes absolutely sure the idea she chooses is the perfect part for the puzzle,” Garza explained.

“I really believe in energy, and the energy we felt with that album was incredible — it was this feeling of happiness and just a wonderful moment in both of our careers.”

In addition to co-producing “Ojos Así,” Garza also mixed several of the songs on Dónde Están los Ladrones?, including “Ciega, Sordomuda” and “No Creo.” The process for mixing was similar, but less intense than some of the production experiences.

“She was very hands on,” he described, elaborating later, “If she didn’t like a section, we would work on it and really zoom in on it. She wasn’t afraid to say, ‘Let’s try something else.’”

To this day, Flores says Dónde Están los Ladrones? is the album that gets people instantly excited when he mentions that he worked with the singer. “When I tell people that I’ve worked with Shakira and I say, ‘Do you know ‘Ojos Así?’, they freak out. Working on that album is an honor — it was something that happens once in a lifetime.”

Flores hadn’t heard the whole album until it was finished, but he was familiar with the songs from spending time at the studio. “From what I knew, it was so clear that some of them were going to be smash hits. The first one, ‘Ciega, Sordomuda,’ which I did the remix for, was going to be huge. All of it — it was one of those things where everything fell into place. The songs were good, she was good, and you knew it was going to be a huge step for her.”

Estefan told Remezcla that while every album comes with some uncertainty, he had a gut feeling about Dónde Están los Ladrones? from the beginning.

“You never know what to expect. But there were two things that gave me hope: I saw people from Sony so excited about the album, and I loved that because you can’t make an album by yourself. You need to have the team and the company behind you, and people believed in it. And I really believe in energy, and the energy we felt with that album was incredible — it was this feeling of happiness and just a wonderful moment in both of our careers.”

That energy — and a sense of freshness — is still palpable on the album even 20 years later. Listening in 2018, the songs somehow don’t feel outdated, almost alchemically withstanding the test of time and offering the empowered voice of a woman who is giving herself fully to her listeners. For young Latinas at the time, the narrator on the album was a peer embracing her flaws and idiosyncrasies, eager and unafraid to put herself out there. Shakira would eventually take the risky and controversial dive into broader fame, but to many, Dónde Están los Ladrones? was the first everything — the first step, the first introduction, the first handshake to the world.