Anarchy in paradise: how a fringe community descended into darkness

The new HBO docuseries The Anarchists follows the journeys of several anarcho-capitalists attempting statelessness in Acapulco with deadly results

The Anarchists, a new six-part documentary series from HBO about a fringe political community in the Mexican resort city of Acapulco, opens with a strange, atmospheric provocation: a book burning on the beach, children tossing law books on the spectacularly orange fire, eagerly shouting: “Fuck the state!” The scene is not about bloodlust so much as frustration and weird, futile rebellion. It’s 2019, several years into the Acapulco anarchist movement, and as the series explores over six detailed hours, the community is falling apart.

That community would be the full-time residents and yearly attendees of Anarchapulco, a conference created by the Canadian entrepreneur, podcaster and cryptocurrency millionaire Jeff Berwick in 2015. Berwick, who made his first fortune in the dotcom boom and moved to Acapulco, began the event as a loosely organized call for people who wished for a stateless existence with the freedom to do as they pleased – party, not pay taxes, homeschool their children. The Anarchists, filmed over six years by Todd Schramke, isn’t about the philosophy of anarchism at large, which is opposed to all hierarchical structures and thus, according to many, inherently anti-capitalist. Anarchapulco, and by extension the series, focuses on a small subset known as anarcho-capitalism, which believes in governance by the free market of unfettered capitalism. Anarcho-capitalists, known as “ancaps”, overlap significantly with libertarianism; they support the privatization of public institutions (courts, roads, police), the mass legalization of drugs and cryptocurrency.

Schramke was first drawn to anarchism, and then anarcho-capitalism, as a punk rock-enthused teenager. “It was sort of a phase but I took out of it what I liked and left the pieces I didn’t like,” he told the Guardian. Years later, in 2015, while working as a musician, commercial videographer and part-time Lyft driver in the Bay Area, Schramke saw that some of his former connections were traveling to Acapulco and promoting Berwick’s conference on Facebook. His old philosophical interest morphed into voyeuristic curiosity, “wondering what is going to happen when this ideology that was in the abstract – something that people were talking about on the internet – was going to be put into practice,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, given the characters drawn to statelessness, the philosophical divisions within anarcho-capitalism, the quicksilver fortunes of bitcoin investments, and the general messiness of human relationships, the answer was drama and chaos. The series traces irrevocable divisions between prominent figures within the Anarchapulco community, along philosophical and, more often, seriously personal lines, and the devolvement of the conference (which still exists under different leadership, and is now primarily focused on an anti-vax agenda).

The series dives deep into the personal motivations and complications for several members. Namely, Berwick; former Anarchapulco event organizers Nathan and Lisa Freeman, who moved to Mexico with their two young children in 2016 (a third was born in Acapulco) and are eventually pushed out by Berwick; John Galton and Lily Forester, a pseudonymous couple on the run from marijuana charges in Ohio who, disgruntled with the celebrification of Anarchapulco under Berwick, formed their own splinter conference, Anarchaforko; and Jason Henza, a friend of Galton and Forester’s who was injured when gunmen stormed into the couple’s home in February 2019, killing Galton.

The murder, which made international headlines at the time, was blamed on cartel violence (Galton and Forester, who used marijuana for chronic pain, grew their own weed.) Forester blamed Galton’s death on Paul Propert, an unstable figure among the Anarchapulco set who sold drugs to attendees and who threatened violence against the couple in numerous Facebook posts. (Propert, an Iraq war military vet with PTSD and a history of violent outbursts, killed himself in 2019; he appears in the series through erratic, deeply concerning social media posts read in voiceover.)

Acapulco, Mexico.
Acapulco, Mexico. Photograph: HBO

Rather than the philosophical roots of anarchism, or the political context of anarcho-capitalism, the bulk of The Anarchists is just that: a few anarchists’ intensely emotional, contradictory, often uncomfortable personal journeys. “The beauty of ideologies is not so much in what they prescribe but what you can learn from the people who are drawn to them,” Schramke said of the decision to stay on the level of the individual. “I think ideologies are kinda terrible at telling us what to do with our society,” he added, but “what ideologies are great for are highlighting and showing the issues that are going on beneath the surface. When you look to the people who are drawn to them, you can start to realize the valid criticisms that are there.” Forester, for example, grew up in a family wracked by both addiction and punitive, cruel interventions by law enforcement, and was facing over 20 years in prison.

Given Anarchapulco’s skepticism of the state (several participants utter the word “statist” with palpable disgust), I asked Schramke if he was worried about giving a platform to conspiratorial thinking at large, and in particular the strain of institutional distrust which leads to, say, non-existent claims of voter fraud. (Notably, Donald Trump only comes up maybe twice over six hours; the group is not so much partisan as deeply checked out.) “I really believe, especially working with HBO, that the audience is intelligent enough to make up their own mind about what this ideology means,” he answered. “And I really think people will, and that’s the important thing about the approach: I’m not trying to inject my opinion, I’m just trying to let these people speak for themselves.

“It’s really the least threatening political group,” he added. “They are not politically active, they’re philosophically opposed to even voting, and all they really want is peace and non-violence. I suppose they promote certain acts of civil disobedience, tax protesting. And I guess if it did catch on, if a lot of people took it on and ran with it, it would have an impact on the world. But in the end I think the core of it is not really that scary or dangerous.”

The message of the series has “more to do with adhering to an ideology in itself, and what that means”, he said. “When you’re forgoing your ability to think for yourself, and you’re hoping that an ideology and the leaders behind it will give you all of the answers.”

Contradictions abound, as do questionable statements – Berwick’s soliloquies about “freedom” from his glass penthouse in Mexico, Nathan Freeman saying he’d rather send his young kids to a porn set than to public school. As an observer, did Schramke ever feel any need to push back in the moment? “To some extent, but also I was never really trying to make a show about the ideology,” he said. “It was always meant to be about the people and why they were drawn to it, not so much about the ideology itself, or trying to promote or take down anarchism or anarcho-capitalism.”

Beach in Acapulco, Mexico.

The Anarchapulco crowd frequently invoke the beauty of Acapulco, the serenity they have found there, their safety as tourists (in a police-run state) until Galton’s murder shattered that illusion. The series briefly touches on the history of the city – a longtime tourist destination whose reputation suffered in recent decades due to cartel violence – but otherwise sticks to the ancap outpost scattered in homes around the city. Other than Gustavo Sartorius and Amparo Manzanarez, owners of a local vegan restaurant which for a time housed an Anarchapulco bitcoin ATM (which turned out to be stolen, and was confiscated by Interpol), we don’t hear from any residents.

“One regret that I have about the series is not really having the time to tell more of the history of Acapulco, because the city is such an amazing, beautiful, rich and complicated story in itself,” said Schramke, when I asked if he got a sense how locals felt about the handful of overwhelmingly white, frequently crypto-enthused anarchists setting up shop. “Because Acapulco has been so damaged by violence in the last couple decades and it has such a terrible reputation in the media … for the most part the locals who are working there are just happy to have people coming back down and spending money.”

To skeptics of a series delving into the lives of those who have left the idea of contributing to a state behind, Schramke proposed the chance to ruminate on one’s own deeply held beliefs. “Even though this is a community of radical ideological thinkers, I think following their journey as they completely devoted their lives to this, listening along to the lessons they learned about thinking [in] black and white” will allow viewers to “question themselves a little bit more”, he said. “And also if you’re thinking of getting into cryptocurrency, just have some caution.”

  • The Anarchists airs on HBO on Sundays and is available on HBO Max after with a UK date to be announced


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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