Let’s be honest, the audience feels sympathy for Pablo Escobar when he is caught by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Netflix’s Narcos. The world-famous series focuses on the drug baron’s struggles on his path to ‘success’, from the gangster’s perspective. It commercializes the harsh reality of one of Latin America’s curses: violence. I, too, am a victim of Narcos‘s addictive storyline. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Netflix docu-series El caso Cassez-Vallarta: Una novela criminal (A Kidnapping Scandal: The Florence Cassez Affair), a much needed counter-narrative. The documentary sheds light on one of Mexico’s most controversial corruption cases without glorifying the horror experienced.
In 2005, Florence Cassez and Israel Vallarta, alleged to be the bosses of a notorious kidnapping gang, were arrested together in a raid which was televised live. The ensuing court case and further investigations are what the documentary details. According to the Mexican security forces at the scene – the now disbanded AFI – the raid served to rescue kidnapped citizens and arrest the gang leaders.
Vallarta turned out to be a member of Los Zodiacos, an active kidnapping gang in Mexico City. Cassez, they soon realized, was a French national with no proven relationship to the gang. This convoluted the case, as the media – who played a vital role influencing public opinion – ended up publicly and unequivocally judging a foreign citizen as a kidnapper before a trial had taken place. Although they were a couple for several months, at the time of the facts they were no longer in touch, which confused Cassez’s involvement as alleged kidnapper even further.
For Journalist Yuli García, alarm bells sounded when she noticed suspicious facts cited in the livestream. She began investigating the mission almost immediately afterwards. García uncovered a whole set of contradictions and irregularities in the raid, including the very real possibility that government corruption had tainted the judicial case from the beginning – even before the media got involved. For the first time in Mexico’s judicial history, the ‘efecto corruptor‘ phenomenon was dubbed. This is where governmental corruption taints a case from the start, making the official facts which follow impossible to judge as real or not. In this case, the efecto corruptor beckons the question: did the Mexican government falsify the arrests as heroic proof that they were fighting (and winning) against organized crime? Gerardo Garcia Luna, the AFI’s director at the time appeared in the media to counter any fraud accusations. Yes, the same García Luna who is facing a scandalous corruption trial on Narco bribes.
The judicial process received international attention following a diplomatic incident with France, since Cassez was held in a Mexican prison for several years without a sentence. The media fanned the flames, knowing their readership was hooked on the story at a time when social tensions were high, and Mexicans were desperate to end the kidnapping crisis. A polarized argument emerged between a part of Mexico’s society that pledged for the couple’s impunity, and another believing in their unproven guilt. French authorities, meanwhile, accused the judicial process itself of being corrupted, claiming an imminent threat to democracy.
The series highlights how Vallarta was left out to dry. Without any endorsement in the press, he was left to the judgment of a society who accused him of one of the worst crimes plaguing the nation, and a corrupted justice system to sentence him. Even with the possibility of being charged on different cases due to his involvement with Los Zodiacos, there seemed to be no intention to even begin a fair legal process for him. And Vallarta is not the only one. Still today, many prisoners in Mexico are forced to wait years in prison before receiving a first sentence.
There is no judgment in the series towards Cassez or Vallarta. Its conclusion: no justice can exist if the process is corrupted. The series does not aim to resolve a cold-case, but to portray its multiple facets and to let the viewer draw their own conclusions.
Away from romanticizing any terror, the series structure is set around several real statements: from journalists covering the case at the time, Florence Cassez herself telling her part of the story, and the family members of kidnapping victims, who play an important role in this documentary.
Between crime-like tension and heart-wrenching testimony, the narrative portrays Mexican society’s relationship with daily violence which is imperative to understanding the whole context of the case and its relevance. The main threads in the series are Mexico’s social reality in the 2000s, the effects of corruption on a democracy, and the power of the media. It is set at a time when social tension peaked, and Mexican society demanded an end to the kidnapping crisis that was ripping families from all social classes apart.
The sensation The Florence Cassez Affair leaves you with is how difficult it can be to find truth within a turmoil of pain. It is a series that takes away the glamorized sheen that Narcos painted on gang violence in Latin America. Even more importantly, it tells the victims’ stories. It shows the suffering of broken families in a country ripped apart by violence, and how the state’s abuse of power can take advantage of these social tensions. There is no sugar-coating. If you are looking for an addictive storyline that aims to show the story as it is, I recommend this one – a case of reality surpassing fiction.