Even as a child, Minneapolis youth worker and artist Jen Arzayus was curious and perceptive. The little girl from Trenton, N.J., also had fantasies of growing up to be an FBI agent. So when her family's secretive and lucrative lifestyle "didn't add up," Arzayus began keeping a make-believe FBI file -- on her father.

By then, Jairo Arzayus was a successful restaurant and nightclub owner in Trenton. His establishment, the White Cactus, was a popular hangout; Arzayus even held class outings there. Not bad for a Colombian immigrant who had met his American wife while he worked in the kitchen of a cruise ship.

As Jen matured, however, she realized she was living in a world unlike her friends in the exclusive suburb. She learned the family mansion had a hidden subbasement, where she was never allowed. She occasionally peeked in on her parents late at night and found them counting money. Lots of money.

When she was in the sixth grade, she sneaked a $100 bill from a suitcase filled with them and took her friends to lunch. When her father found out, he was calm. "Next time you want money, ask," he told her. "That money was counterfeit."

Occasionally in the middle of the night, her father would wake the family and take them to a Days Inn. "There was always this fear, all these family secrets."

Until that day in 1991 when she found out the truth from her classmates, who had seen the news. Her father had been arrested as the "kingpin" of a $12 million cocaine ring, part of the Cali Cartel, that supplied drugs from Trenton to Philadelphia. Arzayus' mother and sister were also charged, though those charges were eventually dropped.

Jairo was sentenced to 20 years in prison and served 15 before being deported to Colombia. Three years ago, Arzayus' mother died. and she began to contemplate reaching out to her father, whom she had not seen in 20 years.

She wrote a play about her family. A friend who had done a documentary saw promise in the story. In January, a small crew flew to Cali, where the reunion of father and daughter was captured on film. Arzayus hopes "White Cactus" will be a film about crime, America's drug habit, justice and, finally, redemption. They have been working on editing at IFP Media Arts in St. Paul.

Today, Arzayus balances emotions ranging from anger and resentment, forgiveness and love toward her father.

She had been vice president of her class, but when her dad was arrested, they put her in a rehab group, even though she'd not done drugs. Surrounded by users, she tried pot. "I started shooting heroin by 17," she said.

She recalls being dragged to visit her dad in prison and sometimes being forced by her mother to strap steaks to her chest to smuggle them to him. She hated it.

Ironically, after she got sober, Arzayus taught art to prisoners. She came to Minnesota to take a job as a juvenile corrections officer. Her upbringing helps her connect with kids, she said.

"At times I have really hated my dad and at times envied him because of his power," Arzayus said. "I liked the way he commanded a room. That's why I can relate to kids. I know what power and money did to my dad and why it's attractive to them."

Arzayus didn't know what she would find in Colombia, but it surprised her. Her dad is working in banking and lives in a poor neighborhood above his wife's convenience store. "He's a lot calmer, more humble." Yet, he still "glorifies the days when he was a big deal."

They traveled around the country, shooting footage as their relationship evolved. It was exhilarating, emotional and occasionally frightening. While filming in her dad's neighborhood, a teen who was not amused rode by on a bicycle and pointed a gun at the photographer, which she captured.

For the first time, Jairo told her how he was drawn to the trade after coming to the United States and how he smuggled drugs using his friends from the cruise ship's kitchen.

Arzayus wants to go back to Colombia and to New Jersey to interview former acquaintances, so she held a fundraiser Sunday to help pay for it.

"Everybody is working for free right now," she said.

In Colombia, her father apologized for his life of crime. Arzayus yelled at him, and they both cried. "I said I wanted to start new, and that I needed him."

The former drug kingpin and his artist/corrections officer daughter have agreed to start over.

"I know he loves me," said Arzayus. "I didn't know before, but I know now."

To read more about Arzayus and her documentary, go to www.wix.com/jarzayus/whitecactusmovie.

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702