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“White Cactus” and white lies

How the daughter of a former Colombian drug lord reconciles her relationship with her father—meanwhile capturing the whole ordeal on film.
Minneapolis teacher Jen Arzayus, left, and lead editor Zane Spang explain the process of shooting and editing a documentary on Thursday, June 6, 2013, at Arzayuss Minneapolis home. Her documentary White Cactus follows the story of her relationship and reunion with her father, a former Columbian drug lord.
Image by Emily Dunker
Minneapolis teacher Jen Arzayus, left, and lead editor Zane Spang explain the process of shooting and editing a documentary on Thursday, June 6, 2013, at Arzayus’s Minneapolis home. Her documentary “White Cactus” follows the story of her relationship and reunion with her father, a former Columbian drug lord.

Trash bags marked with red tape carried the cocaine. A trucking company would gather the haul like it was garbage at ports, sites where the cruise ships docked. In the 1980s, coke from Colombia poured into American harbors and Jairo Enrique Arzayus knew how to capitalize. His keen business sense allowed him vertical control over his operation.

“Back then, they didn’t have the security like they do now. You could walk on a boat toward the galley on the ships,” said Jen Arzayus, a Minneapolis transplant and filmmaker, looking back on her father’s career in cocaine. “My dad, he knew everybody. He could walk in there and grab the bags in there himself if he had to.”

Later, as a kingpin, her father even met famed drug lord George Jung, the Medellín Cartel smuggler   depicted by Johnny Depp in “Blow.” But where the 2001 biopic stops with Jung in jail for cocaine trafficking, Jen’s new documentary picks up. The impetus for “White Cactus” lies not in a “Goodfellas” glorification, but a family reunion.

Before she would reunite with her father in Colombia, Jen would only wonder about his arrest, 18 years in federal prison and eventual deportation. Revisiting his and her past, as painful the prospect would be, originally fueled “White Cactus,” named after the Arzayus family’s restaurant which served as a front for Jairo’s drug business.

“I never thought this documentary was going to be about me,” she said, sitting in an Uptown coffee shop. “I thought I was just going to be going with a camera and finding about him.”

She started to make sense of the family’s coke business at a young age. In her faux FBI documents, she pretended to gather information about the hidden compartments under floorboards and the counting machines in the basement of her father’s restaurant.

“We knew something was up because we became wealthy really quick,” she said, recalling the family’s move to Hamilton, a suburb of Trenton, N.J. Crystal chandeliers, marble countertops and ’80s proto-video phones lined the house, but the business came crashing down in December of 1991.

An undercover FBI agent arrested Jairo and most of the family, including Jen’s mother and sister. As devastating the incident would be for then-13-year-old Jen, her school’s discovery that her dad was a drug lord proved especially embarrassing in terms of surviving eighth grade.

Eventually the school put the drug lord’s daughter into a drug rehabilitation program, even though she wasn’t even aware of her dad’s business.

“It sort of set me with all the kids who were doing all the drugs at the time — it was this group,” she said. “I ended up starting to get really heavily involved in drugs.”

At 19, she started heroin.

Her life was altered by Jairo, a man she would communicate with through the occasional letter and Sunday visits when he still served in New Jersey. Throughout his prison sentence there she became familiarized — Jen recalls herself as a young girl bringing in food and hundred dollar bills to her dad.

“My mom used to make us smuggle in stuff for him,” she said. “I had to smuggle in a steak — it was wrapped up in cellophane; she made me put it in my bra.”

Later, Jen’s familiarity with incarceration would land her in Minnetonka, Minn., where she briefly worked at the Hennepin County Home School. Overseeing juveniles committed by the court, Jen soon became disenchanted with the correctional system’s philosophy — she wanted to be an art teacher. As she settled in Minneapolis away from her siblings and family, Jen’s memories of her father bubbled to the surface — she started writing a play and eventually became interested in a documentary.

Her dad’s eventual move to federal prison in Louisiana meant that Jen’s last encounter was when she still lived in Trenton with her mother. The United States deported Jairo back to Cali, Colombia. When Jen’s mother became sick in 2009, the up-and-coming filmmaker envisioned the family reuniting one last time.

Visits to her ailing mother revealed new information for Jen. Her mother had helped to launder the dirty money — up to $12 million  from the cocaine in total — in the basement of the White Cactus restaurant in Trenton. The secrets of her family suddenly unraveled and Jen wanted the full picture. Finally she reconnected over the phone with her father, who she hadn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. When her mother died, Jen  knew she’d have to go to Cali.

“When she died, I felt this unfinished story now that I had her side,” she said. “I had pieces of this puzzle and I really wanted to know how it fit.”

With the encouragement of the Independent Filmmaker Project’s Docuclub, Jen hired two videographers and bought tickets to Colombia for a 15-day trip. Watching the footage of her time in Cali and her meeting with her father, Jen still gets choked up. Her adventure to Cali’s slums and Colombia’s rainforest brought back childhood memories of abandonment just as she felt closer to her father, now a balding 56-year-old man who hardly seems capable of multimillion-dollar drug deals.

 The working story of “White Cactus” now represents the parallels of Jen’s personal acceptance of her father instead of a crime investigation or family reunion — her other siblings declined involvement. Also, “White Cactus” may prove the tragic consequences of the War on Drugs.

Sitting in her Uptown apartment, Jen recalls at least one happy memory from her childhood. Her father forgot to pack a can opener on a camping trip, but he fed the family after splitting the cold can of ravioli open with a knife and rock. The rain poured on the entire Arzayus family that night under the stars.

Looking back to her footage, Jen continues to edit.

“That’s the best memory I have of us together is this damn camping trip we took together when I was seven,” she said.


Jen Arzayus is currently funding her first feature length documentary “White Cactus” through Kickstarter and expects to premiere the film at the 2013 Minneapolis-St. Paul Latin Film Festival.

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