Two policeman and one of the most notorious narco lords in the world walk into a seedy motel room. He’s covered in filth from a daring escape through the sewers. They’re ordinary working-class Mexicans who stopped a speeding car and captured him.
What happens next? And what has this got to do with Canberra?
Stage production Twenty Minutes With the Devil, now in rehearsal at the Street Theatre, is a matryoshka doll of a play filled with layer upon layer of ideas and subtexts. The starting point is the almost accidental 2016 arrest of El Chapo, head of the Sinaloa Cartel and one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world.
He’d eluded law enforcement multiple times via series of tunnels so elaborate they included railway tracks. The final (failed) bust involved not only a Mexican soap opera star, but also Hollywood actor Sean Penn. But after escaping massed US and Mexican law enforcement troops, his getaway vehicle was stopped for speeding by a couple of highway patrol officers.
They’re told to wait for reinforcements. Playwrights Luis Gomez Romero, a law lecturer at the University of Wollongong, and Des Manderson – who in his spare time is an academic at the ANU College of Law – think the most fascinating (and unknown) part of this story is what might have happened next.
“The police are not the only ones who have called for back up,” says Des. “The story is, what did they talk about in that room, waiting for, maybe, the end of the world?
“We know just three lines from the real events, which are in the play – ‘I can fix your life forever,’ and, ‘My people are coming, there’s going to be a bloodbath.’
“Why don’t they take the bribes? Why don’t they take the threat seriously?”
Luis, who left Mexico with his family because of the dizzying escalation of violence and lawlessness, says this remarkable moment is contextualised by a lengthy history of tension between Mexico and its northern neighbours, the US, whose insatiable demand fuels the drug trade and a growing divide between the law and justice.
The conflict is intrinsically about inequality, he says.
“Capitalism gone wild is what the drug traffickers represent,” says Luis. “They want to be wealthy and successful capitalists, and unfettered capitalism has these results. Anything goes.
“In response, the Mexican and US markets are controlled through violence that begets more violence. In the meantime, conservative estimates say that in the past 15 years, 75,000 Mexicans have disappeared as a consequence.”
But Luis says that Twenty Minutes With the Devil is emphatically not another Breaking Bad or Traffic, which he describes as stereotyped “narco narratives” where “crazy, whimsical, irrational” Latin Americans are evil caricatures, eventually contained by the American hero.
Instead, he and Des, who describe each other as the storyteller and the poet, wanted to start a much deeper conversation about justice and using the arts to explore the origins of conflict and violence.
Des, who wrote his first drama at the age of nine and was a concert pianist and actor before he became an academic, instantly visualised the play.
“I saw three people, one room, and this enormous pressure building and building,” he says.
The Street Theatre’s Caroline Stacey was convinced by the duo’s vision and worked “relentlessly” with them to turn their good idea into real drama. A three-week residency with actors and dramaturgy developed the work collaboratively, as Luis and Des pared down their drafts so not one tense word was wasted.
Veteran Canberra actor PJ Williams took the lead role, joined by Joanna Richards and Raoul Craemer. Promotional photos were shot at Lyneham Motor Inn, a suitably atmospheric substitute for the original ‘love hotel’ where El Chapo was detained.
And why should we care in Canberra, many thousands of kilometres away from the cartels?
Des, who recently gave expert evidence at the ACT Legislative Assembly inquiry into drug decriminalisation in the ACT, says we are all complicit in the drug war.
“There are costs here, but they are largely borne in places such as Mexico,” he says.
The other reason he gives is bigger still.
“In the modern world, we face huge problems such as climate change and political disengagement,” says Des. “Our ability to do anything is harder and harder.
“This is a play about time running out for enormous problems. It asks, how do you break through to make a difference?”
Twenty Minutes With the Devil is at the Street Theatre from 21-29 August, 2021. Bookings and further information is available from the Street Theatre.
There will be a facilitated discussion with Des Manderson, Luis Gomez Romero and Associate Professor David Caldicott on ‘The Crisis of Justice in the Modern World’ on 26 August, 2021, from 6.15 pm.