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Minn got his start by working on network news and America's Most Wanted, and one can see how these experiences influenced him as a filmmaker. He works fast and cheap—Es el Chapo? marks his 16th documentary feature in five years—and he's got a knack for appealing to viewers' morbid curiosity. Es el Chapo? features at least three eyewitness recordings of cartel-related violence, and it practically concludes with Minn peeking around one of Guzman's estates, speculating as to whether it contains secret escape passages. His narration is hyperbolic and frequently awkward (a concluding onscreen title reads, "In complete devotion to all the innocent Mexican people who became victims during this unspeakable violence"). Some of his directorial choices are simply baffling. In one passage, Minn seeks opinions about the Guzman case at the University of Texas at El Paso, interviewing professors of social work and anthropology. In others, Minn shows himself walking around areas of Sinaloa that Guzman frequented and saying the first things that come to mind.
In conversation, Minn is cheery and excitable. He tends to equate news coverage of his documentaries on the war on drugs (there now have been four) with coverage of the war itself. As in Es el Chapo?, he peppers his arguments with hearsay and with statistics whose sources he never cites. He's also quick to mention that he's covered this subject as no one else has. "I strategize things, I'm methodical," he told me over the phone. "I really tap into the human element."
Ben Sachs: What motivated you to make a documentary about Chapo Guzman?
Charlie Minn: I got on this huge justice thing for Mexico. I started studying the country about five years ago, when I moved to El Paso, and when I did, I was embarrassed by how little I knew about the human-rights disaster going on there. But I went through hard work and research and was able to educate myself. I'm actually working on my fifth film about the tragedy in Mexico. It's about the 43 students who went missing in Guerrero.
What brought you to El Paso originally?
I did a movie about the largest unsolved shooting in the country to date, A Nightmare in Las Cruces. That movie was sold to Lion's Gate. The trailer's very, very graphic—there's actual crime-scene video in it. Most police departments never release crime scene video, but this one gave it to me to try to drive home the sympathy and the emotional power [of the case]. And a lot of leads started coming in as soon as the film was released.
My first three [documentaries about Mexico] were on Juarez. They've killed 12,000 people in that city since 2008. And it's right at our feet, right at our border. I blame the United States for a lot of the mess in Mexico. We're the ones consuming the illegal drugs, we're the ones financing the war [on drugs], we're the ones arming Mexican citizens with guns. If you Google "U.S. government and Sinaloa cartel," which Chapo was the head of, you'll see the corruption I'm referring to.
What do you consider the most shocking thing you've learned about government corruption in the process of making these films?
That's an excellent question, and I want to start the answer by telling you that these films are very difficult to make—the drug war is so freaking mysterious. You sure as hell can't sit down with people who are going to tell you a lot, like cartel members. Ninety-five percent of the [drug-related] murders in Mexico are not investigated, and that leads to three questions: Who's being killed, by who, and why?
But to focus on your question more specifically, it's also very vague on this side of the border, and I think that stems from the corruption. You know, the DEA will tell you, "Don't worry about this, the drugs aren't flowing in." That's BS. The drugs are flowing in more today than ever before. According to my research and from talking to experts in the field, the drugs are readily available today in the United States. That's what's caused so much damage in Chicago, since Chapo Guzman was declared public enemy number one there. I mean, there has to be a reason he was declared public enemy number one. You don't just hand somebody that title on a tray. So obviously, there's some evidence out there which points to this man causing havoc on the streets of Chicago.
Whenever people talk about the violence in Mexico—which is rare, by the way—the United States gets only a slap on the wrist. No one works it the way I do. We are a huge accomplice to this war. It's never really described that way, and it bothers me to no end.
Your movie centers on the question of whether it was really Guzman whom the authorities arrested last year.
It was big news there in El Paso. I started hearing people say [around the time of his arrest], "I don't think it's him." That's when a light went on in my head—this could be a documentary! I mean, here we have the largest criminal in the world after bin Laden. He was the most wanted man at the time—that is, if you believe that bin Laden was murdered—he got caught, and a lot of people aren't sure that it's him.
Only in Mexico could that happen. A few years ago, they reported that the leader of the Knights Templar cartel was killed—but then, a few months later they reported he was killed again. How did he die twice? It just points to the corruption. The Mexican people are not going to believe anything their government tells them, like if they say that Chapo Guzman got caught.
The controversy, then, speaks as much to this lack of faith in government as to the events surrounding Guzman's arrest. Because you don't offer much compelling evidence that it wasn't him.
In the Chapo Guzman case, people have pointed out that there wasn't a single shot fired when [authorities arrested him]. Where were his 300 armed guards? Why was a billionaire hanging out at an $89-a-night condominium? Why hasn't the violence situation changed in Mexico since his arrest? Right away the speculation began. They took polls in Mexico and the United States—I put that in the movie—and they found there's serious doubt about this.
When you interview Phil Jordan, the former director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, he offers a plausible theory that Guzman agreed to the arrest in advance and that, in exchange, the Mexican government is letting him run the Sinaloa Cartel from prison.
This is what I think happened, after all the research I did. I think it was him, but that they already released him. I think it was to show the Mexican people that [President Enrique] Peña Nieto's on top of the security issues. Peña Nieto may have also gotten pressure from the United States. If they already released him, this would look very bad, obviously, on the USA, since they helped with the capture. But if it wasn't him from the word "go," then this would be the biggest embarrassment in the history of law enforcement between both countries—and the United States on its own too.
There's enough speculation about this: about 50 percent of people in the U.S. and about 40 percent in Mexico think it wasn't him. I'm surprised that that total wasn't higher. I think that the [Mexican] government might have manipulated those numbers to make it seem like more people believe [the real Guzman] was caught.
But what does this speculation confirm?
We're talking about the most iconic figure in Mexico, the biggest drug lord in the world. He gets caught and people are thinking it's not him. That's a spectacular news story!
"Iconic" is a good word. There's a scene in the movie where you show that shrine for Jesus Malverde, who's become known as the "patron saint" of drug trafficking. There's something similar to cult of personality surrounding Guzman. You capture that when you show that "Free Chapo" demonstration in Culiacán.
I found out after the film was released that those people were paid to protest. If you go back and look at their faces, they look very happy during the march. That's because they got paid. In Sinaloa [Guzman's] beloved, despite 80,000 people dying because of his cartel, according to one report. They love him because he provides for the poor. People in Sinaloa are almost trained to say that they love the guy and that he gave them a job.
Did you find out what kinds of jobs he created?
We asked that towards the end of [making] the film and people would never be specific. They would just say "jobs that helped me feed my family." [Guzman] did build hospitals and churches and schools; he got streets built in Culiacán. So, some Mexican people view Chapo as being like the government. What the government cannot give them, he can. If that's not true, then how could they like a man who's killed so many people? That's got to be it, because that's what so many people are telling me.
It's similar to how people in Chicago felt about Al Capone in the 1920s, and to a lesser extent, today.
A lot of people told me to bring Es el Chapo? to Chicago because [Guzman] was public enemy number one here, and because Chicago has the country's biggest Mexican population outside of LA.
Do you see these films as primarily for Mexican and Mexican-American audiences?
With my three films in Juarez, this Chapo one, and then I'm sure for the 43 missing students [documentary], my main audience is Hispanic. I'd say it's about 80 to 90 percent of my audience. Also I would say the average American is disconnected from violence in Mexico. It's not reported enough. I would say that 80 to 90 percent of the drug users do not know that they're contributing to the Mexican violence by consuming these drugs.
Do you hope to reach a larger audience?
I do. The [English-language] media needs to cover this more, in my opinion. The Spanish-language newspapers will cover it, because their readers have friends and family in Mexico; they want to know about this. But even then sometimes I'll ask the Spanish-language media to cover it even more. English-language media is very hard to reach. Three years ago, when I brought 8 Murders a Day [one of the documentaries about Juarez] to Chicago, I didn't get one bit of coverage. I had a better chance of becoming pregnant than of getting coverage here three years ago. But I think that now—with the 43 missing students and Chapo being public enemy number one—the Chicago media realizes that this is an important story.
Let's get back to the matter of corruption in the United States. Who do you believe benefits the most in this country from the war on drugs?
I would say the U.S. government benefits from all the money that's produced from all the jobs created. The DEA, rehab centers—all that produces money. Again, I really hope you Google "U.S. government Sinaloa cartel" so you see how together they are. According to Anabel Hernandez, most of the money [going to Mexican cartels] is being wired from U.S. banks. I don't know if there's any ironclad proof that we can point to, but Anabel's pretty sure because of, I guess, some court documents she got her hands on.
It must be frustrating, having so little hard evidence when you're trying to build an argument.
Right. I would say the biggest thing I'm trying to do is create awareness, represent some of the people who have been murdered. That's why I escape from the [Guzman] topic and show emotional moments—[footage of] the lady walking up to the former President and trying to tell him about the death of her two sons, the kindergarten teacher in Monterrey [whose class gets interrupted by gunfire], that lady getting shot in Chihuahua, which was captured on a security camera at night. You could certainly make the argument, "What does that have to do with Chapo's arrest?" But I'm trying to show people how many innocent people have died, these heartbreaking situations. Any opportunity I have to raise awareness, I will.