CARTEL CHRONICLES is an ongoing series of dispatches from the front lines of the drug war in Latin America.
The heavily tattooed arms of casting director Eduardo Giralt Brun move excitedly as he talks in strongly accented Venezuelan Spanish about how he’s looking for genuine gangsters from the mountains of Sinaloa with experience in crime and killing to star in his latest movie.
And he’s come to the right place: Sinaloa, a state in western Mexico. Most of the youths standing and smoking in silence as they listen to him work for the Sinaloa Cartel, formerly controlled by Joaquin “el Chapo" Guzman, currently on trial in the United States. Giralt Brun is here because he's looking for realism in his casting, tempting Mexico’s criminal ranks into the limelight while offering independent Mexican directors a chance to make films that reflect the country’s social reality.
Mexico has been ravaged by violence in a drug war that has left swathes of the country controlled and co-opted by organised crime. A generation of working-class young men – especially in states such as Sinaloa, which is where Mexico’s organised drug trade was born – is practically being raised by the drug business. In part the drug business is attractive due to a lack of better job options, but it also offers status and power to a disenfranchised youth. It can be an enjoyable if ultimately short-lived rush, much like that offered by the cocaine they peddle.
Mexico’s popular culture has always featured drug dealers, so it feels like a natural progression that some directors want them on set. Giralt Brun believes that only those who have truly lived something can portray it adequately on screen.
“I’m talking about the outcasts and the renegades. You see it in their eyes, how they stand and hold themselves and how they look at you when they talk. There’s no way to recreate that and if there was a way I think it would be a waste of time because there is nothing as good as reality,” he said.
It was during the making of his own short film, called Los Debiles (The Weak Ones), that Giralt Brun first dipped into organised crime as a source for actors. The movie, which won recognition on the international film festival circuit in 2017, follows a character seeking vengeance after his dogs are killed by a local crime gang. Most of the actors are from the world the film depicts, and everything grew from there.
“I feel that in countries like Mexico there is a lot of need to talk about what is happening, and the fairest thing is to give a chance to people who are protagonists in real life and can be on the screen,” said Giralt Brun.
His Instagram feed is littered with outtakes from his keyhole into this world. He wanders into communities, usually helped by locals, to make contact with la maña – criminals, delinquents, and others living on the fringes. He asks wannabe actors to play out scenes in front of his phone, and then shows them to the directors who contract him to find these actors.
Giralt Brun has tapped other vocations looking for real people to cast – construction workers in Mexico City, for example. But he struggles with the disparity of power between the film industry and the people it is trying to represent.
“When I work with people from organised crime I feel the same position of superiority one can feel working with indigenous people, displaced people, people in construction," he said. "But there is something with the kids involved in the drug trade that's different. I don’t feel like I am taking advantage of anyone. In fact it’s quite the opposite, I am in the weaker position.”
Many of the young men that Giralt Burn casts already have some standing in their communities, albeit as malandros (bad guys), unlike people working in working-class occupations, who he says tends to be more submissive.
“These guys are more in control,” said Giralt Brun. “If they want to do me harm they can, and they know that, and that changes the game completely.”
The daily tasks of these young men, aged between 15 and 25, range from local lookouts to kidnappers and killers.
That said, they have to be able to take orders or they don’t make the cut, said Giralt Brun. “They have to be able to take very concrete, very specific direction – direction with them cannot be conceptual or metaphoric as it often is with professional actors.”
Last year, he cast some of the actors in the independent movie Comprame Un Revolver (Buy Me a Revolver), directed by Julio Hernández Cordón. The film is about a young girl living with her father on an abandoned baseball pitch used by young narcos who work for the local capo, or crime boss.
“The person I found knew how to hold a weapon, how to hide drugs – he knew, he was there, he suffered,” said Giralt Brun. “He was the real deal.”
That actor, named Lucho, didn’t do well during auditions, but Giralt Brun had a hunch about him and cast him anyway. He stepped up, and showed the rest of the cast how to manage weapons on camera in a realistic way.
For those Giralt Brun can coax onto the screen from the criminal underworld, it is a chance for them to do something different from the day-to-day, to escape the innate boredom of jobs such as being a cartel watchman, as well as earn some extra money. Giralt Brun said that one gang member told him the audition process made him more nervous than the prospect of kidnapping an entire family.
The risks that Giralt Brun runs to find these faces are obvious.
“Eduardo has the same commitment to making film as a war correspondent to journalism. That’s very inspiring and contagious, so I have always wanted to support him,” said Gabriel Stavenhagen, founder of the production company Cineburó.
Stavenhagen is backing Giralt Brun's latest project, which is a documentary about millennial sicarios (killers). Based in part on research from his casting work, Giralt Brun is now placing himself as a fly on the wall in the lives of these young men, filming everything but their criminal acts. Working with partner Emmanuel Massú, a local Sinaloan rapper known as “El Enfermo” (the sick one), they are building a bank of characters from the underworld in an attempt to paint a picture of their daily lives, motivations, and struggles.
“It’s one of those projects that arrived at the right time and the right place and sometimes you just have to do it,” said Stavenhagen.
“It’s very moving," Giralt Brun said, "to see these guys, who have spent their lives being told that they’re good for nothing, to find a talent for doing something that is good.”
Correction: An earlier headline to this story misidentified Giralt Brun as Mexican. We regret the error.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.