September 22, 2021
Eduardo Giralt is a Venezuelan film-maker and director. He is the co-director of the recent documentary, ‘Los Plebes’ (2021), that tells the story of a young group of Mexican sicarios and their lives with drug cartels. This blog accompanies our Street Talk interview with Giralt that can be viewed here. You can view the Los Plebes trailer here.
I was raised in Caracas, Venezuela and studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. I currently live in Mexico where I do on-ground research for filmmakers, journalists and photographers. I also scout for individuals from high-risk contexts or remote communities to participate in films with a social narrative. For a film that was shot in Sonora titled Buy Me A Gun, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, I reached out to someone who worked for the criminal clan of Los Salazar (a Mexican cartel) so he could advise the director with the technical aspects of actions that needed to look realistic such as drug packaging or gun fights.
One of these projects had me working with youngsters from low-income neighborhoods in Sinaloa. Because I knew the criminal landscape of that region, I was aware that during my field work I was going to encounter young foot soldiers from the Cartel of Sinaloa. To my surprise, I did not just encounter them but was also able to cast them and eventually directed a documentary about their life entitled Los Plebes.
In 2018, I arrived in a town on the outskirts of Culiacan which is the capital of Sinaloa. We set up a basecamp at the office of a local community organizer who had helped us spread the word about the casting. I noticed that a group of youngsters, with walkie-talkies strapped to their jeans, started arriving to the basecamp on motorcycles. They asked several questions about who we were and what the casting was about. As soon as they learned that the movie was about teenage bank robbers, they were eager to participate. But since they were active members of a local crime cell, we could not cast them in front of everyone. So, we agreed to cast them at a place of their convenience. The meeting points ranged from junkyards to abandoned houses.
Having finished the casting process, I went back to Mexico City. I could not stop thinking about my experience with the young cartel members and the type of projects I could do with this access. Therefore, I started to work on hypothetical storylines to pursue through a documentary. This documentary would be guided by a few key questions: (1) How do youngsters working for drug trafficking organizations see themselves? (2) What do teenagers belonging to organized crime groups do in their spare time? And (3) How integral are social networks to the lives of young men from criminal outfits?
I then talked to a colleague from Sinaloa who has the same intellectual curiosity towards organized criminal violence, the inner workings of drug trafficking organizations and the geopolitics of criminal groups. We discussed filming a documentary on the narco-youth we had met during our fieldwork. So, I moved back to Sinaloa to begin the on-the-ground research that was needed to find the best subjects for our new project. We made a list of the young cartel members we knew: a gunman, a look-out boy, a communication and logistics specialist, a watchman of a trap house and a bodyguard of a boss.
We created a filter process just like we would do for a regular casting of a film or documentary. We needed to find participants that were good storytellers and had good memories. So, we asked them to recount memories from their childhood. If they said no, or hesitated, we did not include them in the documentary. It was also important to have a sense of their trustworthiness, curiosity and vanity.
In the end, we narrowed down our candidates to three youngsters as the main characters. La Vagancia is the leader of a tactical team of gunmen. He is a romantic and nostalgic person. Given his age (he is in his late twenties), he has already reached the life expectancy of a gunman. In the documentary, he constantly talks about what freedom means to him and religion plays a hugely important part of his life. The second is a communication and logistics specialist (in his early twenties), and the most Machiavellian of the bunch. He is very analytical and is confident that he will become a boss. He likes to ride his motorcycle at night as a way to decompress. He talks about his fallen cartel mates and how he misses his former life outside the criminal organization. The Gamer is the youngest one, at age 18. He works as a look-out boy and spends his free time playing Call of Duty online with teenagers from around the world and in the company of his girlfriend. The Gamer is the new generation of young men in drug cartels – more intellectually oriented, tech-savvy, and cynical about the honor codes that supposedly govern the conduct of drug traffickers.
We decided to title our documentary Los Plebes which is what youngsters are called in the north of Mexico. Los Plebes cannot be described as another film about Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations. On the contrary, it is a film about teenagers born into a spiral of multi-dimensional violence. Most of the youngsters we encountered were regular boys who were born inside criminal hubs where the only respected job is being a member of a criminal organization. Even though some of them state that they have chosen this type of life motivated by poverty and the promises of a lavish lifestyle, this documentary captures the economic precariousness and hardships of these young cartel members and the little money they are paid, leaving open the question of why they join the ranks of these criminal groups. Is it a call to adventure, camaraderie or sense of belonging? What is clear is that they are caught in a limbo from which it appears they have no exit: the choices are between bad and worse.
Los Plebes also challenges the public conception manufactured by the government that dehumanizes these young men as if they were enemies from a foreign force. Mass media has been complicit as well by using the same counterinsurgency lexicon that reduces teenagers to abstract terms such as ‘enemies of the state’, ‘violent non-state actors’, ‘narcos’ or ‘sicarios’. Once these youngsters are treated as ‘a national security threat’, there are few incentives for them to abandon the criminal milieu or to trust any rehabilitation process that might be offered by the state or the non-governmental sphere.
This documentary, therefore, encourages viewers to question their preconceived ideas about young men in drug cartels and what drives them into the life of crime and drug trafficking. I also hope it will lead the audience to question the strategy taken by the Mexican government to disrupt drug trafficking by removing the bosses of the different transnational drug syndicates, which has only lead to a higher level of intra- and inter-cartel battles: in other words, more plebes killing plebes.
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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Word on the Street blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Urban Violence Research Network.