‘World’s Most Wanted’ Spotlights International Corruption in a Fact-Driven Narrative

In some ways, American true crime documentaries are going the way of the zombie. In the horror classic “Dawn of the Dead,” George A. Romero warned when there’s no more room in heaven the dead will walk the earth. Netflix’s documentary series “World’s Most Wanted” shows when we start running out of interesting criminals in America, long-form journalism can always look overseas. 

“If they want you dead, you’re going to be dead, especially if you’re a Mexican journalist,” says Jesus Esquivel, a Mexican journalist, in the first episode. The sentiment is very telling and applies throughout the six episodes, each focusing on the world’s most elusive fugitives from justice. The world’s top villains are a varied lot, and while there is no denying the danger in how they ply their trade, “World’s Most Wanted” also shows how they are embraced by parts of their communities, occasionally by the very people whose job it is to catch them. Criminals often have, if not a Robin Hood reputation, a tradition of giving back to the people around them. This is important for several reasons, as the documentary implies. They have a level of protection from the very people whose lives are the closest to their respective reigns of terror. 

This is very much the case for the subject of the first installment. Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García, 72, has been in the drug trade since the 1980s, according to his own lawyer. García is reputedly one of the leaders of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. He is the apparent heir to Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the internationally infamous drug lord and prison escape artist known as “El Chapo,” who was arrested in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison. García is a far more evasive and careful chief. He knows his environment. The people in his neighborhood are doing well, financially. Even the police and local governments benefit from his largesse. It is part of the cost of doing business.

But so is the heavy-handed way he manages day-to-day business. His crew adheres to a very strict code. The criminal code of silence unto death, and death wears a very familiar face to each of them. García has a reputation for anger, and his own men duck when he’s raging because he often lets his machine guns do the talking for him. This keeps him free to continue conducting business.

Only one of the subjects of “World’s Most Wanted” has been caught, Félicien Kabuga. He was arrested on May 16, 2020 after spending the last 25 years on the lam. Kabuga is reputed to have financed the Rwanda genocide. In 1994, Hutu extremists who were armed by the businessman “with clean fingers” slaughtered more than 800,000 people in 100 days. The documentary features interviews with survivors of ethnic cleansing, as well as the authorities who are trying to tie him to the mass murders. The footage is brutal, and “World’s Most Wanted” does not sugar coat the devastation. Kidnappings, interrogations, and casualties litter the frames as much as the rubble in Tutsi neighborhoods. 

Like “America’s Most Wanted,” each episode is laid out as a cat and mouse game. Kabuga’s brother-in-law, as complicit as Felicien, is chased to Germany. The police arrest the people around Kabuga as they tighten their trap. Each episode ends with the warning that the people in the story have not yet been convicted, and are therefore presumed innocent, but “World’s Most Wanted” has judged them. Unlike “America’s Most Wanted,” this docuseries will not lead to the capture and conviction of the subjects. Most of whom have help from their respective countries’ authorities, some from leading religious organizations.

The third episode, about Samantha Lewthwaite, opens with the 2005 attack of the London subway system. Britain’s first suicide bombing, which killed 56 people, may have been carried out by Germaine Lindsay, but it is thought to have been planned by his “White Widow.” The blue-eyed, British woman wasn’t a suspect in the direct aftermath of the person of interest, but it now appears she may have masterminded it, along with many global militant attacks. She is at large, the documentary explaining her last known whereabouts being in Somalia, where she is held in great regard by al Shabaab extremists. 

Two of the organized crime installments may be some of the most familiar to American audiences, as the Mafia and the Russian mob have been staples of crime entertainment. Semion Mogilevich is reputedly the head of the Russian mob, or Bratva. He’s been tied to countless murders, arms dealing and billions of dollars in international trading scams. This documentary series compares him to the Keyser Söze character from “The Usual Suspects.” Mogilevich says he imports wheat, and when asked why, in an archival interview with the BBC, he has been accused of running prostitution, extortion, hijackings and stock fraud, he says it is because he is a smoker. He smokes Davidoff cigarettes. Living in the mansion next to the head of the Communist Party in Russia, his activities are not only known, but encouraged by the dark side of the State. When asked if Mogilevich will ever be extradited to the United States for his crimes, the FBI agent who has been trailing him says “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Matteo Messina Denaro is the last godfather. Nicknamed Diabolik, he was born to a Sicilian Mafia family, and was the perfect student. He was 14 when he learned how to shoot and got his button by the time he was 18. The episode shows his brutal rise to the head of Cosa Nostra, linking the “boss of bosses” to more than 50 murders, including two top-level judges and a child. Denaro has been a fugitive since a series of bomb attacks in Florence, Milan, Laterano, and Rome in 1993. His current whereabouts are unknown.

We are acclimated to the geography by maps and aerial cityscapes. There are no reenactments. Each episode lays out the suspects’ crimes before shifting focus to the police work. The various directors include archival footage, surveillance and cell phone videos, and face-to-face interviews. Some of these are very rare, like footage of a Russian agent giving tips to visiting law enforcement on how to pursue their prey. As interesting as the subjects are, the format is very familiar in the glut of true crime journalism. The most interesting part of the series is not the police procedural, but the evasion of justice. 

The series moves quickly, but it is well-paced within the format. It has action and a few surprises. Who knew illicit financial schemers had use for anti-aircraft guns? Though, it’s also as dry as the paperwork that agents have to file to get permission to extend their investigative territory. While it is fascinating to see one arm of the law at odds with the grubby fingers of the other hand, it doesn’t distinguish itself as far as style or narrative from the majority of true crime documentary series. The best thing it’s got going for itself is the exotic locales and foreign mayhem. “World’s Most Wanted” is worth the binge for the change of scenery.

World’s Most Wanted” begins streaming Aug. 5 on Netflix.