Monday, January 03, 2011

Catfish (2010)...and narco-chuchos

"There is no secrecy on the Internet," says Cryptome co-founder John Young who, like the altogether more notorious Julian Assange, remains convinced that secrecy is democracy's nemesis.

Guatemala may have had just one paltry little Wikileak associated with it, but the year that's been did bring us those memorable moments of excitement and intrigue generated by the unmasking of local blogger 'Mark Francis' as Federal fugitive Jeff Cassman. (Many thanks to reader Begonia for this updated content.)

How could a husband and serial-father on the run for investment fraud have considered it a good idea to create such a high profile online identity for himself (albeit a bogus one), have bragged about his ability to secure falsified documents, have recruited mulas from back home to bring him and his family American goodies, and have gone out of his way to make his presence felt far and wide in Guatemala, not just amongst the ex-pats in Antigua, most of whom appear to have crossed his path at one time or another?

The Internet is a funny old thing; in order to get much of the upside you have to take on a considerable downside risk. And 'Mark', a regular at poker tables in smoke-filled rooms somewhere in Antigua (we don't have many basements here), had obviously decided he was going to be in the game.

2010 was remarkable in one respect, in that it saw the mass migration of Chapines from regionally-established social networks like Hi5 into the online phenomenon that is Facebook and its complex morass of privacy controls. One has to wonder whether Mark Zuckerberg could ever have foreseen the long-term impact of all these relatively unsophisticated users on his platform as he stitched up the code in his Harvard dorm room.

Just the other morning I was able to explore an entire red of Guatemala-based drug traffickers on Facebook. Cassman was hiding in plain sight, but this is something else. You might think that a fair analogy might be Johnny Jihad posing for his profile pic in a camisa bomba, or exchanging drole, nudge nudge wink wink wall comments about the uses of fertiliser with his mate Ahmed in Tower Hamlets.

Nevertheless, while your run-of-the-mill Islamist cell-member might not have a higher average IQ than the rank and file of Central America's narco-distribution gangs, he has several advantages when it comes to avoiding barefaced-but-unintentional Facebook visibility — that he's almost certainly a genuine no mates outsider like Zuckerberg, and that he has a conspicuous lack of interest in alcohol, slags and showing off in general.

The narco cell on the other hand might have a manipulative sociopath as its nucleus, but all around it gathers the glutinous mass of thick and lazy friends, family members and inveterate lameculos, and most significantly, the materialistic mitochondria of trophy girlfriends.

If you happen to know one of these busconas, chances are you are only a few clicks away from an entire network of shaven-headed twats with diamond earrings and snaps of their automatic weapons collections in their Facebook albums. ("Hasta el chucho se ve narco," said V memorably of one pic we came across.)

And of course no idea how to manage the social network's privacy settings — though one has to wonder if they really care, because their online behaviour invariably mimics the brashness of their offline presence. It was remarkably easy to plot out the political and economic connections enjoyed by these narcs, make an informed guess as to which local businesses had been compromised, identify in-group markers like tattoos and neckware, and establish that most of these dopes are Sinaloans living here in Guatemala with false identities...though many of these have the authentic ring of 'Ford Prefect' from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

If I could do all this with half an hour of idle time on my hands, just imagine what could be achieved by someone paid to act on the belief that the real problem here is the supply end of the equation, as opposed to the end-consumers and their deadly habit. Anyway, as Ken Whitehouse noted with some surprise in his piece about our erstwhile 'Banana Republican', "apparently, there are pretty good Internet connections in Antigua."

All this has been a rather extended preamble to Catfish, a movie which is ultimately about a woman who — to the untrained eye at least — might have come across as a complete saddo, but was actually a sophisticated implementer of online identity stratagems, looking to prey upon the superficially more hip denizens of a distant metropolis.

Now the first question one has to ask of this movie is just how genuine its own identity is. Before viewing it, I listened to Yaniv Schulman, 'the mark' in this tale, insisting earnestly to Jason Solomon on Film Weekly, that it was indeed all kosher and that his interfering brother Ariel had, without any foreknowledge of the eventual outcome, suddenly decided to pick up his camera to make a documentary about online relationships, having delved into Yaniv's correspondence with Megan and her mother.

For about two thirds of the movie I was genuinely prepared to believe him. Even now I would hesitate to suggest that the whole thing was a set-up, but there is definitely something fishy going on here. The temptation to blur the edges of documentary must have been huge: for how marvelously meta it must be to make a movie about questionable identities which itself sports an identity of some dubiousness, and whose 'star' bleats at one crucial moment, that he hadn't been taken in, he'd just failed to ask some rather obvious questions.

For all their insistence that everything happened in real time just as it has been presented to us, I would suggest that the Schulmans and their collaborator Henry Joost, really do want us to ask some pressing questions of their movie. For if the revealed circumstances behind the Facebook trail turn out to be so nuanced and moving by accident, surely their achievement could be considered diminished.

For us it was the husband and the poetic musings he made to camera — one of which was to give the movie its name — which proved to be the clincher.

Feliz año a todos, especially my new 'friends' the narco-chuchos.

Grade: A-


Begonia said...

Alarming about the narcos. My husband is talking about opening a business in Guatemala in the coming years. I think the business has a reasonable chance of success--IF the country is stable. The past few years don't give me a lot of confidence.

Word verification: WINGS

(Coincidentally, the name of a nice little non-profit in Guate where I once did some minor grant-writing work)

Anonymous said...

Thankfully, I haven't run accross any sinaloans during my visit here in Guate. If they are throwing their money around, they have the courtesy to "portarse como la gente" while frolicking with the middle class. I have no doubt that when chapines get tired of mexican/narco terrorism, it will be stopped. Chapines have a dark side, and with our gift for being shutes, no mexican narco will be able to hide anywhere in any established community.

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