Just days after "The Legend of Shorty" – a documentary examining why authorities hadn't captured the notorious drug lord known as "El Chapo" – was about complete and two weeks before it was set to debut on the all-important festival circuit, the famed fugitive was...captured by authorities. But the directors still see the news, which made the front page of newspapers across the world, as a good thing.
“I thought, what a brilliant advert for the film,” jokes “The Legend the Shorty” director Angus Macqueen about the apprehension of Joaquín "El Chapo" ("The Shorty") Guzman, in what The New York Times called “the biggest arrest in a generation.” He was arrested by Mexican authorities after 13 years on the run from a prison escape via, by some accounts, a laundry cart.
But his arrest also complicates the film’s premise. Macqueen and his co-director Guillermo Galdos traveled to Culiacán, Sinaloa’s capital, in search of Guzman, who had claimed Al Capone's crown of Public Enemy No. 1. And they came pretty close to finding him, ending up in La Tuna, his hometown. In addition to being in direct contact with Guzman, they got some of his associates – and even his mother – on camera. Their multiple attempts to meet Guzman himself fell through, and authorities arrested Guzman three days after the filmmakers had finished the bulk of the final film. They rushed back to the studio to recut the beginning and the end of the movie to reflect his capture in time for its premiere Friday at the tech and culture festival SXSW.
“We obviously made the film, all the time knowing that [the authorities] could get him whenever they felt like it. And so we were always aware that this could happen,” Macqueen says.
He adds that Guzman’s capture was a “shock,” but not necessarily because Guzman was that difficult to find. By passing up a carefully-worded letter to a few contacts they had in Guzman's Sinaloa cartel – “We’re not completely certain which [letter] was the successful one,” Macqueen says – the filmmakers were gradually granted access to Guzman’s associates both in Mexico and in Chicago, Sinaloa’s U.S. headquarters. In the film, they speak to the farmers working the fields that produce the drugs Sinaloa peddles around the world, which include marijuana, cocaine, heroine and everything in between. They get a tour of the hilltop estate in La Tuna where Guzman’s mother lives and the terrace where Guzman is said to often have breakfast. Meanwhile, a government official compares Guzman’s situation to that of Saddam Hussein's before he was caught, hiding out in caves to avoid detection. The details of Guzman's arrest – found at a seaside resort with his family – certainly show otherwise.
By tracking Guzman’s whereabouts and speaking to those who say they see him regularly, the underlying suggestion of “The Legend of Shorty” is that authorities were either incompetent, corrupt or had some other reason not to find Guzman. That claim is made more explicitly by the film’s other characters, which include the journalist Anabel Hernandez and a lawyer hired by the Catholic Church to investigate the death of a cardinal in what appeared to be a drug-related shooting.
Many Mexicans, polled after his capture, agreed with the notion as well. One survey showed 69 percent of Mexicans believing Guzman had support of people in the Mexican government. Even a former DEA agent told Univision he was surprised by Guzmán's arrest, alleging his cartel had been involved in politics. And a 2010 NPR report found Sinaloa seemed to be given more favorable treatment by the government than other drug gangs.
While “The Legend of Shorty” is perhaps a little one-sided in its questioning of the government’s inability to find Guzman for so long, it touches on a number of aspects of the drugs wars that have killed as many as 80,000 people by some estimates. It references the violent rivalries between Sinaloa and other cartels, like the Zetas. (Macqueen says his Sinaloa contacts told him his greatest danger was the other cartels finding out what they were up to).
The film also riffs on the tradition of narco corridos – Mexican music that glorifies the exploits of drug lords like “a medieval court musician,” as Macqueen puts it – by including original songs written for the film by American musician Jackson Scott that examine and critique Guzman's rise to power.
“What was terribly important is that I couldn’t have gotten a Mexican to safely compose those lyrics,” Macqueen says.
For these and other reasons, Macqueen says Guzman’s capture didn’t really affect the film’s message.
“They've get this legend, they caught this huge figure who is on Forbes [World's Most Powerful People List], incredibly important, America’s most wanted, and what in the fundamentals of everything does that change?” Macqueen says. "Does it change the supply of drugs in America? Does it change the amounts of money being made through the supply of drugs being sold around the world? Does it change the way in which they are grown? Does it mean more Mexicans are going to get killed?"
Perhaps the biggest change, in the film anyway, is the central question one which it now ends. No longer, “why hasn’t the government caught el Chapo?” but rather, “why now?”
“[Guzman’s arrest] probably improves it,” Macqueen says of his film. “It gives it an end, or at least a full stock in his capture, which we didn’t have beforehand."