To help tell the story of this year’s Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, Ubisoft commissioned a feature-length documentary to shed some light on the real-world events that inspired the game’s setting. The documentary is called Wildlands, and – after a few months delay to add some extra pieces to the puzzle – this fascinating film is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video (free for Prime members,) or to buy on iTunes.
Earlier this year, I met with the film’s producer and director Colin Offland, the man behind cult documentary ‘Dennis Rodman’s Big Bang in PyongYang,’ along with a swathe of well-known music videos and commercials.
I began by asking Offland how the project came about. “I got a call indirectly from Ubisoft,” he explains, “asking if I’d be interested in making a documentary as a companion piece to Ghost Recon Wildlands. I wasn’t familiar with the franchise at that point, so I started looking into what the game was about, and I thought OK, somehow I’ve got to embed myself in the war on drugs.”
“One of the first conversations was, ‘have you read the book Marching Powder?’ and funnily enough I just had. I mean the book’s been around for ages, but I’d literally just read it. So that was the starting point – it’s quite amazing how that one tiny seed has grown into this documentary, with its wide perspective of the war on drugs in Central and South America.”
The trafficker turned tour guide
Rusty Young, the author ‘Marching Powder’ and narrator and co-writer of Wildlands, later filled me in on the origins of the book and his relationship with its subject Thomas McFadden (who appears in the documentary.)
“When I was 24 years old,” began the wild-eyed Australian, “I’d just graduated from a commerce law degree in Sydney, and I thought I’d spend six months backpacking around South America as a reward. We’d heard other backpackers talking about this prison in Bolivia – but we thought, why would anyone want to go to a prison? It seems like a strange and dangerous thing to do. Then, on our very last day in Bolivia, we met some people and they just said, ‘look, it’s in the Lonely Planet guidebook’ – and that convinced me that it couldn’t actually be that dangerous.”
So it was that Rusty and his girlfriend found themselves at the entrance to San Pedro Prison in Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. “You had to leave your passports with the guards. They open the gate, they say ‘in you go,’ then the gate clangs shut behind you.”
“There, standing in front of us was Thomas McFadden with a big smile on his face. He said, ‘Hi, I’m Thomas the tour guide’ – and he was just the nicest friendliest smiliest guy. He instantly puts you at ease – shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, remembers everyone’s name. He was not at all what I was expecting from a convicted drug trafficker.”
McFadden spent his early years in Liverpool before running away to India and getting involved in the drug trade. He’d been a resident at San Pedro since he was detained at La Paz airport in 1996 with five kilos of cocaine in his suitcase.
“He took us on a tour around the prison for an hour or so, to look at the different sections. Each one had a hotel style rating: the rich politicians lived in the six-star section, which was completely separate. Then there was five, four, three, two, one, and a zero-star section where the really poor people lived – stacked one on top of the other in small rooms they called coffins. There were restaurants and there were children and there were women in brightly coloured skirts, there are dogs and cats, Coca-Cola signs … and I was just like ‘this is surreal.’”
The two hit it off immediately and, when the rest of the fifteen-strong tour party left, McFadden invited Young and his girlfriend to stay at the prison for a few days. McFadden told them incredible stories about life in San Pedro, and Young felt they deserved a wider audience. Together they agreed that Young would write a book based on McFadden’s life – and bribed prison guards to let him stay inside for a few months so he could get all the details. As the documentary explains, that agreement changed the direction of both of their lives, and the resulting book – Marching Powder – became an International best seller.
It has been 16 years since Young used his wits and law degree to help extricate McFadden from San Pedro and Bolivia. Wildlands marks the first time the ex-trafficker has been back – with his emotional return providing the starting point for Wildland’s journey.
Piecing it together
“So, we had Thomas,” recaps Offland, “but we knew we needed more perspectives than just his. We made a decision that we were going look at people who’d ‘been there, seen it, done it.’ We weren’t going to start trying to uncover cocaine laboratories, we weren’t going to do something undercover.”
Instead, the film tells the hair-raising story of how the drugs trade operated in 70s and 80s Central and South America through the eyes of some key players. A story that shows how the desire for drugs in the developed world has the ability to change the path of poorer countries, as they come under the control of drugs cartels determined to profit from the demand.
“When we decided we were going to start looking at the bigger picture of the drugs trade, we thought – well who should we speak to? We started to find people like George Jung [subject of the 2001 Johnny Depp biopic ‘Blow’] – there is no one else to speak to as a massive drug smuggler other than George Jung. Amazingly he agreed to do it.”
“You start piecing it together,” continues Offland, “we need this perspective, that perspective … we knew we needed a cartel member, and an assassin – because the industry is so brutal, the whole part of being a cartel is the control and the brutality that they use to control countries. Amazingly everyone agreed to speak to us.”
Aside from McFadden and Jung, the documentary showcases stories from key players on both sides of the law. Young meets ex-Medellin members including facilitator Carlos Toro, money-launderer Pilar Angel, and brutal assassin John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez, whilst, from the opposite side of the fence, ex-DEA agents Mike McManus and Mike Vigil and retired Navy SEAL Adam Newbold discuss their experiences fighting the war on drugs. All speak very openly about their experiences.
Top row: Rusty Young, Thomas McFadden, George Jung, Carlos Toro, Popeye.
Second row: Pilar Angel, Mike Vigil, Mike McManus, Adam Newbold.
I asked Offland why he thought people had been so willing to discuss their involvement in events that – even years later – could put them in danger. He thought for a moment, “I think part of it was the way we went about the interviews. We said, ‘we want to chat about your life’ – we weren’t there to pry. We wanted to ask questions about their experiences and their knowledge – we weren’t going to be judgemental. That allowed people to open up more than they would’ve expected, perhaps. More than if we’d gone in and tried to be confrontational in any manner. I think that’s also something about people who are at the end of their careers looking back; they’re quite keen to talk about their lives and what they’ve learned. A lot of these people have looked death in the face already – so they don’t see the risk anymore.”
Despite the retrospective nature of the interviews in the film, some subjects were still a little raw. An uncomfortable interview between Young and ex-cartel hitman John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez (or ‘Popeye’) on his home turf of Medellin, Columbia, is a good example. Popeye has confessed to more than 250 killings and is suspected of having taken part in a staggering 3,000. At one point in their interview, Rusty takes the bold step of asking why the assassin is still alive when so many of the Medellin cartel and those he was tasked with protecting (such as Pablo Escobar) are dead. I wondered if Offland felt that he or his crew were ever in danger during the filming – particularly at that moment.
“Luckily my Spanish isn’t very good,” he recalls, “so during that interview, I knew Rusty was going to ask the question – but I didn’t know at what point he was going to do it.”
“But being around Popeye, there was always a nervousness. We had our security, he had security with guns, your mind can run away with you; are we going to get caught in some kind of firefight? But, really, it’s a risk assessment, isn’t it?” he shrugs. “You worry about those things, you manage that risk – but being with Popeye was a concern. There are so many people who’d like revenge on him, and what better time than when he’s with a film crew? I mean, I wasn’t overly worried, but I was looking forward to leaving Medellin and not being in his company.”
For a number of those featured in the documentary, both those who lived on the wrong side of the law – including McFadden, Jung and Popeye – and those responsible for enforcing it – including retired DEA operatives McManus and Vigil – a common theme seemed seems to be addiction. The DEA agents were hooked on their James Bond-like undercover lifestyles, while traffickers like McFadden and Jung were addicted to the ‘game’ (as McFadden puts it), the thrill of ‘getting away with it.’ I asked Offland if he noticed any other common threads.
“I think they were all adventurers,” he says. “Other than Popeye; he just got a thrill from killing people, I can’t even begin to fathom what goes on in his head. But everyone else was adventurous. Those were – I hate to say it – the ‘glory days’ of drug trafficking. In those days I don’t think anyone knew the impact of what they were doing. George [Jung] says, ‘we created a monster,’ but I think back then he just thought ‘we’re all having a good time’ and didn’t ever think about the consequences of his actions.”
“Looking back, they all know it’s a dreadful thing – but at the time they were adventurers. Jung, you know, he didn’t even have a pilot’s license – he just got in a plane and thought, yeah, I’ll do this. He didn’t have an instrument rating [a relatively basic qualification for the type of flights he performed], and he would go and fly to Mexico and pick up drugs. There must be adrenaline associated with that.”
The more things change
As my time with Offland wraps up, I mention an article I’d read about Marching Powder. When the book released, the article claimed, the International attention it drew to San Pedro Prison led to many positive changes. I asked Offland if he thought Wildlands could change anything. “You know, I hope so,” he ponders slowly, “but I might be really naive.”
“When I was trying to put my heart and soul into this project, I could only do it once I felt that there was a message. Unfortunately, when you start to examine the war on drugs and the cocaine trade, it’s just such a horrible, hard-to-unravel mess. The Americans have spent trillions of dollars trying to fight the war on drugs – and, really, the only answer anyone gave to us was that at the end of the day it boils down to education.”
“Educating people to think twice about the far-reaching consequences of using drugs. I’m being a bit Grange Hill here, but ‘just say no.’ I think we get some fascinating stories and insights – but you can really see the misery in all of these characters. I didn’t know going into this film – but the most apparent thing was that every single person we met was full of regret. They may have lived the high life at some point, but they’ve also felt the emptiness of where that left them. People might take drugs and have a high, but there’s a massive low at the end. And – ultimately – the biggest part of drugs is the low. If that comes across, maybe it could have an effect.”
Offland pauses for a moment, before adding “wishful thinking.“
Wildlands is available now on Amazon Prime Video (free for Prime members,) and iTunes. Ghost Recon Wildlands is also available now on PS4, Xbox One and PC. For more on the game, check out our previous coverage.