Violeta Ayala Is Using “Cocaine Prison” as a Global Cry Against The False Narrative Assigned To “The War on Drugs”
Filmmaker Violeta Ayala is currently promoting her most personal project to date. Along with her collaborator and husband Daniel Fallshaw, Ayala is dedicated to the mission of exposing the truth behind global atrocities — and her method of delivery can be jarringly informative.
Her recent entry — Cocaine Prison — has been enjoying critical acclaim — most notably at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival — it’s also slated to make its European debut at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, (Nov. 15–26 2017) where it will compete in the Best of Fests category.
I was first introduced to both Ayala and Fallshaw back in the spring of 2012 — via a Skype interview that was setup to discuss the ambitiously insightful documentary — Stolen. The riveting story of the long-awaited reunion between a mother and her refugee daughter quickly led to the devastating discovery of a thriving trade in Sub-Saharan Africa — involving human trafficking — while also exposing the blatant ignorance of global entities such as The United Nations — that are meant to intervene when inhumane treatment is assigned to the most vulnerable in our midst.
Ayala’s latest hits very close to home because it is home. The documentarian hails from Cochabamba, Bolivia and Cocaine Prison was filmed at the notorious San Sebastian Prison — which is merely a few blocks from where she grew up.
Ayala developed a fascination with the prison and decided to work as an English tutor in order to gain access. This began the five-year process of establishing rapport with the inmates and eventually honing in on two in particular — Mario and Hernan. Both are serving time for trafficking cocaine across the border shared with Argentina — and the film focuses on the tragedy of their existence through the lens of societal and global injustice as we also witness the legal challenges Hernan’s sister Deisy has to endure on behalf of her brother.
Cocaine Prison shares similar themes with The Bolivian Case — Ayala’s intriguing 2015 film that captures the unfathomable fate of three Norwegian girls who find themselves in a judicial nightmare after they’re caught with 22 kg of cocaine in their luggage at the airport.
Cocaine Prison aims to rip away the veil of distortion that has haunted the drug trade for decades. “The War on Drugs” devours casualties by the numbers — and the ones who pay the highest price are penalized for being poor and desperate for a quick fix.
The low level dealers are tossed away to literally rot in hell — while those that dominate the hierarchy of this international setup — are able to flourish through the greed of governmental forces and the other chains of command that are motivated by the resourcefulness of their prey.
I got the chance to once again engage Ayala on why and how this film’s relevance and industry acceptance could shift the narrative of drug wars away from the stereotypical common thug imagery — to the exposure of an intricate system that is designed for political abuse against the unfortunate.
Q: What drew you to San Sebastian Prison and why did you feel compelled to tell this story in those settings?
A: I went to the prison when I was quite young — maybe I was 16 or 17 — with a program my friend — was involved with — and I’m not religious, but went with her anyway. It was confronting to see and the children were asking us to take them out so they could play. It was hard to see that with my own eyes and I was scared and sad. I remember this little girl that was part of the program who was always sad. One day she asked me if she could go the toilet and I took her and saw that she was bleeding. These kids are living with their parents in the prison. And she’s living with her father who molested her and it was just too much for me — I had to leave.
Then when I decided to do a film about the war on drugs — where else but a prison can I find people to tell me their stories. And San Sebastian was the prison I knew. Back in 2009 I went back and started talking to people. In the national park where the Coca Coca grows is where a big group of indigenous people are — or maybe about 14,000 people live inside so it’s not that big. And it’s in the middle of the Amazon. We went back because that was the prison I was familiar with and I needed to be in a familiar land and that means I know the streets in case something goes wrong. And my family is around for protection. And also, Cochabamba where I’m from is only three hours from where the Coca grows — and that’s the capital of cocaine in Bolivia.
Q: How challenging was the process of filming in a prison and how were you able to secure the trust and access to help add authenticity to the film?
A: It was a lot of patience and work. I wanted to do something for the children and we decided to teach English to the them. I talked to one of the representatives of the prison and he said instead of teaching the kids we need to teach the adults. We developed a curricular and started to go Monday-Friday for a couple of hours. We then started to figure out that the guys that came to class were there for drug-related crimes. But, we also had rapists and offenders with serious crimes that came to class — so I had to be very careful. I learned a lot about humanity. I’ve seen the best and the worse and I had to realize that everyone is a human being and even though it was difficult to be around someone who killed his own mother — I had to be normal around them. And through the process of going everyday we met Hernan. The first day he arrived — he walked into solitary confinement and after that he walked into the prison and straight into the English class. For me it was interesting to meet someone so young, and that I was meeting him the day he arrived. And that was when we started filming him, and then he introduced us to another guy called Mario — and he opened up about how rotten the justice system is. And both Hernan and Mario had great chemistry and little by little they got comfortable with us — and eventually asked us to give them cameras. Mario said there was no way I could capture everything that was happening. And so we gave them both little Sony cameras. We used to watch movies on the weekends and they enjoyed that because it opened their eyes to a different reality.
Q: How broken is the justice system in Bolivia and were you shocked by what you discovered or was it in line with what you imagined?
A: In this case — I believe the film I set out to make — is the film I made. It doesn’t always happen that way, but this time it happened that way. The system is corrupt from the inside to the outside. Everything is rotten, and it’s not just in Bolivia . In regards to drugs — it’s a form of neo-colonialism and a way to suppress and control minorities — the most vulnerable in our society. Until now, everybody talks about the consumer or the big time trafficker — the consumer is important because majority of them are White. Of course there are consumers of every color — but on the bigger scale — the consumer for cocaine (not crack) is White. We never talk about those caught in the middle and I think the humanization of the other side of the border has been so insidious. The idea is that we don’t care about our lives or our children — we just care about drugs. The drugs don’t just arrive in the U.S. — it involves a long process and each little bit is like watching ants. That’s why the film starts off with that scene of the ants. So, nobody is really a criminal. There’s a role for everyone to play. In our film Hernan took the drugs from Cochabamba to the Argentinean border where someone was meant to pick it up and take it to the next route. We basically wanted to give a voice to voiceless. This is a personal film about love, family ties, and the bond between a sister, a brother and a friend who will do anything to help each other. It’s the war on drugs that goes beyond that. We can never have a real democracy until we end the war on drugs. Everything runs on corruption and bribery and the money that is made from this profitable industry is distributed outside of Bolivia. We don’t gain the benefits.
Q: Does Cocaine Prison reveal the true state of affairs in Bolivia when it comes to the political and governmental operations?
A: It’s difficult — like — in the last years of my career — I developed a strong voice and had to be more politically-correct than I’m used to — but I can’t say that everyone is corrupt . I can say a great majority of the people are corrupt. And our president is indigenous and I think he was necessary for Bolivia at the time. I think he’s done a lot of things that are positive — one of them is that he ended the war on farmers in Bolivia. Before Morales took power the DEA was in Bolivia killing the farmers. Morales kicked out the DEA and that was a positive thing for the country. However, he didn’t bring real changes — real fundamental changes. So what he’s done is use his power base to belong to the power he has today. His logic is confusing when it comes to how the indigenous people are unfairly judged and punished. He has shown a lot of weaknesses and he has done an injustice to the people with disabilities and he’s also hurting freedom of expression. The fact that he’s indigenous doesn’t make him good. It’s nice to have someone representing us, but there are a lot of critical voices that are being silenced. But, this is a complex time in Bolivia.
Q: What would you like Cocaine Prison to convey to audiences and how would you describe its overall impact both present and future?
A: I think it’s going to make people talk about the elephant in the room. In Bolivia we all know but we don’t talk about it. So, I think it’s going to maybe open the conversation and make people talk about. The people are the ones paying the price in the war on drugs and maybe we can think about the years of criminalization of the Coca plant and the cocaine — and the idea of attaching cocaine to debt. Cocaine is not the problem — we are the problem. The Coca plant is not cocaine — but it’s also cocaine — but it can also be so many things. So, I think that until we really talk about these issues — we won’t change or move forward as a society — because we need to start examining how we can go further and figure out the solution. I’m not sure how we do that, but I think criminalization and more punishment has proven wrong all over the world. Maybe we can think about policies that are more progressive. Bolivia is in the heart of South America and the majority of the cocaine is not for our consumption. We produce but we don’t benefit — so we need to think about a different way of moving forward. Putting people in prison doesn’t make any difference in the overall system. If we are serious about fighting the war on drugs — then follow the money. Then we might be able to stop glamorizing the war on drugs.