“20 minutes with the devil” is a tense and laconic examination of darkness, drugs and justice


PJ Williams as ‘El Ticho’, the drug lord at the center of 20 minutes with the devil. Photo: Supplied.

Two police officers and one of the world’s most notorious narco lords enter a seedy motel room. It’s covered in filth from a daring escape through the sewers. It was ordinary working-class Mexicans who stopped a high-speed car and captured it.

What happens next? And what does that have to do with Canberra?

Staging 20 minutes with the devil, now in rehearsal at the Street Theater, is a one-piece matryoshka doll filled with layers of ideas and sub-texts. The starting point is the almost accidental arrest in 2016 of El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa cartel and one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world.

He had escaped law enforcement several times through a series of tunnels so elaborate they included railroad tracks. The final bust (failure) involved not only a star from the Mexican soap opera, but Hollywood actor Sean Penn as well. But after escaping mass American and Mexican law enforcement, his getaway vehicle was stopped for speeding by a few highway patrol officers.

They are told to wait for reinforcements. Playwrights Luis Gomez Romero, professor of law at the University of Wollongong, and Des Manderson – who in his spare time is the head of the ANU College of Law – believe that the most fascinating (and unknown) part of this story is what could have happened next.

“The police are not the only ones who have requested reinforcements,” Des said. “The story is, what were they talking about in that room, waiting, maybe, for the end of the world?”

“We only know of three lines of actual events, which are in the play – ‘I can mend your life forever’ and, ‘My people are coming, there is going to be a bloodbath.

“Why don’t they take the bribes? Why don’t they take the threat seriously? “

Two policemen and 'El Ticho' from the production '20 minutes with the devil '

Two policemen hold drug lord ‘El Ticho’ captive pending their return 20 minutes with the devil. Photo: Supplied.

Luis, who left Mexico with his family due to escalating violence and lawlessness, says this remarkable moment is contextualized by a long history of tensions between Mexico and its northern neighbors, the States United, whose insatiable demand fuels drug trafficking and divide between law and justice.

Conflict is intrinsically linked to inequality, he says.

“Unleashed capitalism is what the drug traffickers stand for,” Luis says. “They want to be rich and prosperous capitalists, and unfettered capitalism has these results. Everything is fine.

“In response, the Mexican and American markets are controlled by violence that breeds even more violence. Meanwhile, conservative estimates indicate that over the past 15 years, 75,000 Mexicans have disappeared as a result. “

But Luis says that 20 minutes with the devil is absolutely not another breaking Bad or Traffic, which he describes as stereotypical “narco-tales” where “mad, fanciful, irrational” Latin Americans are evil caricatures, ultimately contained by the American hero.

Instead, he and Des, who describe themselves as the storyteller and the poet, wanted to start a much deeper conversation about justice and the use of the arts to explore the origins of conflict and violence.

Des, who wrote his first drama at the age of nine and was a concert pianist and actor before becoming an academic, immediately visualized the play.

“I saw three people, one room, and this tremendous pressure build up and build up,” he says.

Caroline Stacey of the Street Theater was won over by the duo’s vision and worked “tirelessly” with them to turn their great idea into real drama. A three-week residency with actors and playwrights developed the work collaboratively, as Luis and Des reduced their drafts so that no tight words were wasted.

Veteran Canberra actor PJ Williams took the lead, joined by Joanna Richards and Raoul Craemer. Promotional photos were taken at the Lyneham Motor Inn, a substitute for the proper atmosphere of the original “love hotel” where El Chapo was being held.

And why should we care in Canberra, several thousand miles from the cartels?

Des, who recently testified as an expert at the ACT Legislative Assembly inquiry into the decriminalization of drugs in ACT, says we are all complicit in the war on drugs.

“There are costs here, but a lot of them are borne in places like Mexico,” he says.

The other reason he gives is even more important.

“In the modern world, we face huge issues such as climate change and political disengagement,” says Des. “Our ability to do anything is more and more difficult.

“It’s a play about time running out for huge issues. He asks, how do you go about making a difference?”

20 Minutes With the Devil is at the Street Theater August 21-29, 2021. Reservations and further information are available from the Street Theater.

There will be a lively discussion with Des Manderson, Luis Romero and Associate Professor David Caldicott on “The Crisis of Justice in the Modern World” on August 26, 2021, starting at 6:15 pm.

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