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If you don’t know who Ricardo Mendez Matta and Poli Marichal are by now, you will once you
see Ladrones y Mentirosos (Thieves and Liars), a gritty look at Puerto
Rico high on drugs: Think Syriana meets The Sopranos meets Traffic,
La Charca and Les Miserables–abridged of course–set on
a Caribbean island, with blockbuster appeal.
Puerto Rican Film Commission announced that it was accepting
submissions for its Film Industry Fund–created in 2001 with the
intention of promoting film production on the island—Matta and Marichal were eventually awarded $1.3 million–the largest ever awarded. That is hardly surprising, given the work
this husband-and-wife team have done so far.
But it is surprising that the Puerto Rican government would help bring
this film to life, given that the government is counted among its bad
guys. In this fictionalized drama about three Puerto Rican families,
culled from real-life and the daily news, Matta and Marichal have
plenty to say about the drug trade and the systemic corruption that has
developed on the island in the past twenty years.
I caught up with Matta and Marichal during the recent New York International
Latino Film Festival to talk about Ladrones y Mentirosos.
Where did you get the motivation for the film?
If you were to ask any Puerto Rican what they thought
about this, everybody would tell you about one person or more in their
lives who is or has been in the drug industry or affected by it. We’ve
all seen a great deal of change in the past twenty years. It’s of the same
sort you’d see in every other place affected by drugs. But unlike
those places, Puerto Rico has a second problem, similar to what happens
in Juarez, Mexico…Puerto Rico is used as a thruway for traffic to
be sent on its way north.
This underground economy has changed lives. Middle-class families can’t
afford to live there anymore. Before, everyone had humble cars; now
you’ll see young guys driving Hummers. Even though things like this
make it seem so obvious, even with lots of evidence, money-laundering
charges, the arresting of corrupt police and documentation–which
underscores the fact that this is not a secret–something about the
nature of the industry cultivates an air of denial, no collective
How did it get so bad?
Under Clinton, legislation changed from transit-zone
interdiction to source-country efforts, which meant that it became that
much easier to overlook what was happening in Puerto Rico. Whenever
you hear about drugs or the corruption that comes along with it, we
focus on Colombia when, truth be told, the same thing is happening
right underneath the American flag. This, even though, Puerto Rico has
FBI and DEA offices that thirty states don’t have. What also makes it
so easy is that Puerto Rico is surrounded by water. The dealers have
droves of boats available to them while the police have a handful, and
those that they do have cannot make it into the shallow regions where
the drug dealers’ boats go.
It is also difficult for the police force in other ways: It is
difficult for them to detect these boats on radar; fingerprints are not
digitalized; the information system of the priors of every criminal and
action in Puerto Rico is inept. The government does not have enough
money to effectively even out this imbalance. The dealers have a very
intricate way of tracking police officers. Indeed, because so many
police officers are involved in the industry, things get tricky.
Why not a documentary?
First, I’m not a documentarian…
Well, I’ve done documentaries, but still we wanted to
do a drama, because we think that drama is the best way to get to
people, get them more involved emotionally. What worth is there in
preaching to the choir?
Those who go see documentaries are usually people who
are on the side of the documentarian. With popular entertainment, we
thought we could reach more people.
In making this film you were so adamant about making it a Puerto Rican
film, meaning that the story, the actors, the funds, everything would
be from or of the island? Why?
We wanted to show that it could be done. Film crews do
come to the island, but we wanted to show that there is a
self-sustaining community here that supports film. We’re not just a
set. We are a community of people who love film, just like any other
community. We have the talent, resources and desire.