Monday, May 23, 2011

Chameleon: Going Undercover

This is the story of two E:60 producers – one who conceived and plotted “Cockfighting Undercover” and one who shot it. Their names are changed here to safeguard their identities.
The lead producer, Claude, had read about illegal underground cockfighting in Texas. The ‘sport’ features duels to the death, with rooster claws outfitted in three-inch blades that produce a bloody and gruesome result within a few minutes. Up to 20 matches take place, before crowds of 200 to 300, who wager on the outcomes.
Claude reached out to the Humane Society, which investigates and exposes cockfighting. The Humane Society agreed to take an E:60 producer undercover to shoot an underground cockfight. But the Humane Society did not want the typical producer type - urbane and sophisticated.
“Since cockfighting in Texas is largely Hispanic and rural they needed someone who kind of fits the bill,” said Claude.
That’s where Earl came in – he had The Look. Claude asked Earl if he were game, so to speak.
“I’d like to be part of it,” Earl said.
Earl’s photo was sent to the Humane Society and he was approved.
Claude and Earl met with Humane Society officials in Texas and agreed on a plan. Earl would accompany an undercover informant for the Humane Society, as well as the informant’s undercover informant. They would attend an illegal cockfight just outside Gunter, Texas, (population 1,100), about an hour north of Dallas, on the morning of April 16. Both Earl and the informant for the Humane Society would be fitted with hidden cameras.
Dangers were discussed. Cockfights attract a rough crowd.
If the hidden cameras were exposed anything might happen.
Earl had a moment of reckoning.
“If you get caught doing something like this at the very least you are going to get the crap kicked out of you,” he told himself. “Who knows what else could happen.”
Details were ironed out. Earl would be outfitted with a buttonhole camera connected to a wire that ran down his leg to a receiver strapped inside one of his boots. Prior to the cockfight he practiced with the buttonhole camera – to learn its range. He practiced natural movement.
Claude told him, “Be comfortable with the equipment.”
Earl also watched footage of previous undercover forays, in order to dress to blend with the crowd.
Early on April 16 Earl met with Claude.
“If you don’t feel safe you don’t have to go through with this,” Claude said. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
Earl nodded – this was his Rambo moment.
Soon he joined the two informants at a parking lot in Gunter and met with a surprise. Earl had expected to be driven to the cockfight in a vehicle owned by one of the informants. Instead, a fourth man pulled up, with roosters in his car.
“Right then you realize that going undercover things can change in a heartbeat and you have to react,” Earl recalled.
Without his own vehicle, Earl knew, there would be no getaway if something went wrong. He considered aborting the mission, and then climbed into the vehicle.
“Now we were all in,” Earl recalled.
The car with Earl and the informants made its way over flat country roads. Claude and his crew followed at a distance, guided by text messages from Earl. When Earl’s car turned onto a dirt road he sensed it was near to the ‘arena’. He texted Claude: “Don’t come down this dirt road – I think we’re close.”
Indeed, Earl’s car was the first to arrive, and each passenger paid $20 for admission. Soon other customers filed in and circled the ring, a 15x35 rectangle covered in plywood.
As a new face, Earl felt eyes upon him, and his stomach knotted in tension. Worse, the receiver tucked inside his boot dug into his foot, but he dared not stoop down to adjust it, and he dared not limp.
The promoter came through the crowd and introduced himself. Again, Earl tensed, because if the promoter had patted down his boot he would have discovered the receiver.
The promoter spoke in Spanish to Earl, who does not speak Spanish.
“I just shook his hand, gave him a nod and smile, and didn’t say anything,” Earl said.
The others passed a few words with the promoter, and he moved on to the next group.
“Did I just pass the test?” Earl asked himself. “I hope I did.”
Just before the cockfights began Earl found a quiet spot and turned on his camera.
“I let it go from that point until it was full,” he said. “I was already not part of this so I didn’t want to stick out anymore by constantly going behind trees or trucks to check the device so I just let it go.”
Earl went to work.
“You find a spot and stand there and make sure nothing is obstructing you and you stand there for the entire fight,” he said.
“I just tried to fit in by seeming enthusiastic. The whole thing is to fit in like a chameleon.”
During the fights, with attention on the birds, Earl found that his tension subsided. Between fights Earl moved through the crowd. He was approached by beer and food vendors, and by rooster owners who showed off their vanquished combatants, with blood dripping from slit necks.
“Sorry, sorry – too bad,” Earl said, and hoped that he had positioned his camera to capture the scene. He also hoped that his face did not reveal his revulsion.
“One thing that struck me was when a bird got sliced and was dying fairly quickly, the owner took almost as much pride as when they won,” Earl recalled. “They were showing that off. That was disturbing. Be disappointed. Be upset. But don’t be showing it off.”
His hidden receiver had about two hours capacity. But the fights went on for six hours, during which 15 roosters died. At one point four toughs dressed like “Latino gang bangers” arrived.
“I made sure never to make eye contact with them,” Earl said.
After the last bout Earl and his group filed out with the crowd and drove off the property.
“That’s when I took a deep breath,” Earl recalled. “My next deep breath didn’t come until I was out of that vehicle and back with my crew and lead producer.”

posted by Steve Marantz, May 23, 2011

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