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Visualizing the “War on Drugs”: “Sicario” and “Cartel Land”

By Kenneth MaffittDecember 31, 2015

Visualizing the “War on Drugs”: “Sicario” and “Cartel Land”
THE TRADE in illegal drugs between Latin America and the United States has been a familiar subject in Hollywood film and television for years, dating back to William A. Seiter’s 1950 film Borderline, which stars Fred MacMurray and Claire Trevor as undercover police officers who infiltrate a narcotics ring in Mexico. As global dealing and consumption have evolved and spawned the modern “war on drugs,” certain films and programs can be seen as cultural markers of important developments in the Western Hemisphere’s drug wars. After the Caribbean emerged as the dominant transfer point for drugs arriving in the United States from Latin America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brian De Palma’s stylish 1983 remake of Scarface transformed the original 1932 film’s story of a Chicago mobster into a tale of a Cuban kingpin in Miami. The heyday of the Caribbean drug trade also made it almost inevitable that television’s most iconic drug-busting cop show of the 1980s would not showcase police in Chicago or New York but the officers of Miami Vice.

The rise of Colombian cartels as the preeminent supplier of drugs was less visible to American movie audiences until the assassination of Medellín Cartel boss Pablo Escobar in 1993. The most notable American films dealing with Colombian cartels reflected growing cynicism about the “war on drugs,” displaying fascination with and even empathy for people involved in the drug business. In Clear and Present Danger (1994), the US president, a corrupt and hypocritical politician, uses the “war on drugs” as a pretext to carry out an unauthorized paramilitary operation in Colombia. Blow (2001) shines a sympathetic light on one of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most wanted dealers in the 1970s and 1980s — the Medellín Cartel’s main American connection, George Jung. Finally, Maria Full of Grace (2004) tells a moving story of Colombian working-class immigrants who first arrive in New York as low-level drug smugglers.

The most recent historical shift observed by American movies and TV has been, of course, the emergence of Mexican drug cartels as the hemisphere’s most powerful, and the consolidation of the US-Mexican border as the most important transshipment point. Much like illegal drugs themselves have continued to penetrate virtually all types of locales, Mexican drug cartels have appeared in every corner of popular culture in the United States and Mexico, including film, TV, music, pulp novels, and video games. American feature film treatments have ranged from prestigious A-level pictures like Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) to less ambitious action films such as the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand (2013). The Mexican drug wars have also been the subject of fine documentary films such as Narco Cultura and Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty; English-language cable series such as Breaking Bad and Weeds; narconovelas, or Spanish-language soap operas chronicling the lives of fictional drug kingpins; and reality TV shows like Border Wars and Drugs, Inc., which have enabled viewers to see the Mexican drug wars from the perspective of law enforcement investigators and their cars, trucks, planes, infrared cameras, drug-sniffing police dogs, computer programs, forensic teams, and so on. While simple chase-the-bad-guys films like The Last Stand and embed-yourself-with-the-DEA shows on National Geographic are not designed to present thoughtful accounts of the drug wars, the more prestigious films and TV series tend to mirror the public opinion polls that show disillusionment with US drug policy. More often than not, these productions tend to present a more complex, skeptical, or satirical perspective on the war on drugs.

Mexican film and TV productions concerning drug cartels feature a similar thematic and tonal range. Among the most important studio pictures are the gloomy Miss Bala (Miss Bullet), the country’s 2012 submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, in which a beauty pageant contestant becomes embroiled in cartel violence, and El Infierno (Hell) (2010), a darkly comedic send-up of visual and musical genres that tend to glamorize the life of drug dealers. Narconovela productions from Mexico, Colombia, and the United States remain popular, as do B-movie productions known as “narco cinema.” These low-budget, straight-to-video films, which number in the thousands and are viewed avidly by both American and Mexican audiences and are churned out almost as frequently as drug-related assassinations and coups occur. As is the case in the United States, then, Mexican popular culture views the drug wars from countless angles. The principal difference is that Mexican productions seem to accept, begrudgingly or readily, drug traffickers’ outsized role in Mexican culture, and they seem more interested in exploring questions of honor and integrity among local law enforcement officials and traffickers than in dramatizing the wider “war on drugs.”

Mexican drug cartels, then, have been critically examined, satirized, mass-rendered, and in general taken apart by popular culture on both sides of the border, so it is rather striking that this fall’s highly acclaimed cartel pictures, the feature film Sicario and the documentary Cartel Land, both come across as strangely unaware of and unconcerned with this cultural environment as well as with the actual historical context of the drug wars. The two films have garnered widespread praise: Sicario and Cartel Land score, as of this writing, a 93 percent and 92 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively. Although the films are skillfully shot — Sicario features some arresting cinematography while Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman displays a knack for gaining intimate access to his subjects and to key events — both seem averse to complexity or nuance. Neither film provides much context or background for their respective stories, and both rely on stock depictions of Mexico as timelessly, darkly mysterious, inherently lawless, and chaotic. Audiences will not learn much from either picture other than that Mexico and its government have been lost to the forces of darkness, and that only tough-minded, “gloves off” security measures and extralegal action will work to restore order. In other words, the historical development signaled by Sicario and Cartel Land is the tendency after 9/11 to view all instability, including that stemming from drug cartel activity, through the lens of the war on terror.


Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is the most widely lauded major Hollywood film dealing with drugs in the US-Mexico relationship since Traffic. While the latter is an earnest, sociologically and historically informed attempt to depict interconnections between supply, demand, and enforcement on both sides of the border, the heavy-handed Sicario is meant to be an exercise in hard-headed realism directed at what it condescendingly sees as unaware American viewers. The story, written by first-time screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who told Variety he researched the script with, among others, “a contractor with a defense intelligence agency that I spent quite a bit of time with,” centers on FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who, after leading an FBI SWAT team raid on a house owned by the fictitious Sonora Cartel in suburban Phoenix, is invited to join a special operations task force to pursue the cartel’s leaders. At first she comes across as principled, curious, and anxious to make a difference, but ultimately she is exposed as a naive young woman who is not qualified for the job, not strong or savvy enough to accept the covert, extrajudicial actions — performed by a team that, besides her, is all men — necessary to bring down the cartels.

Sicario’s grisly opening scene of the SWAT team raid establishes the film’s view of Americans as innocents in a war conducted by extremists. When the team discovers a collection of bodies in the house, the camera lingers on the corpses and then cuts to shots of SWAT officers vomiting. Then, as if the droning cellos in the score and decomposing bodies are not enough to certify the movie’s grim seriousness, a bomb explodes in a shed, killing an unknown number of officers, while Kate and other survivors stumble around in a haze of smoke. Villeneuve thus introduces two visual tropes of the war on terror into an already macabre scene: the detonation of an IED, the kind that has all-too-often victimized troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dazed survivors covered in dust, which calls to mind the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. The next scene is a local television news report that draws on the language of the war on terror. As the title “Chandler AZ House of Horrors” fills the bottom of the screen, the reporter emphasizes the seriousness of “this kind of body count so deep into the American homeland.”

Sicario depicts the US side of the border as a collection of vulnerable homes on the fringes of exurbia, beyond which lie military bases needed to protect them, and Mexico as hopelessly gripped by cartel violence and drug-money-fueled corruption. For years it has been common to speak of the US-Mexican border not just as a dividing line between two fundamentally different societies, but also of a hybrid “borderland” produced by mutual influence and interaction between the two neighboring countries. Sicario, however, clumsily represents the division as one between civilization and savagery. The film’s first Mexico scene is introduced again by the ominous thrumming cellos and by an aerial shot of a military helicopter crossing over sagebrush-covered mountains and approaching Ciudad Juarez. The implication is clear: Mexico is a war zone, and one that looks a bit like Afghanistan. “The beast, Juarez,” a CIA agent intones to Kate as their convoy drives into the city. He then tells her that President William H. Taft once canceled a trip to Juarez because of an assassination plan, despite the presence of thousands of US troops. Shortly thereafter the convoy passes several headless bodies hanging from a bridge. This excessive introduction to Mexico is not just an uncomfortably chauvinist caricature; it also comes at a time when Juarez has seen a significant decline in violence in recent years.

Such ebbs and flows of the past decade of Mexican drug cartel activity are of no concern to Sicario, which instead places its tale in history by drawing a contrast between its facile version of 21st-century Mexico and the late 20th century, when Colombian cartels prevailed. This period is viewed wistfully in the film by CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who claims, in a dubious argument designed to come across as rational and realistic, that it was “a time when one group (the Medellín Cartel) controlled every aspect of the drug trade, and provided a measure of order that we can control … and now order is the best we can hope for.” Sicario’s historical “lesson” is thus also derived from the US national security state’s all-encompassing, pessimistic narrative of the “war on terror”: even cartel wars were more orderly before the world went to hell on 9/11.

Brolin plays Graver with a self-satisfied smirk, except when it is his job to lecture Kate about the necessity of the task force’s unscrupulous actions. In Sicario, fighting the drug cartels is the work of male military and intelligence operatives who know what unsavory things have to be done and are comfortable with that knowledge. It is not surprising, then, that Sicario’s portrayal of a weak, naive Kate is so deeply misogynistic — though it is rather startling in a movie year featuring the likes of Mad Max’s physically and mentally formidable Furiosa and a fall TV season that prompted TV Guide to recently highlight “television’s kickass women.”

Emily Blunt is an appealing performer and a rising star, but in Sicario it seems she has been instructed to wear the same pursed-lip frown on her face for the entire movie as a counterpart to Brolin’s smirk. Kate has no backstory other than the fact that she has had a successful career and has no husband or children. Despite her success at the FBI, once she is on the task force serving the role as audience surrogate, she is treated like a child. As gunshots ring out in Juarez, a CIA agent explains to her, “You hear that, those aren’t firecrackers.” He continues, as if speaking to a third-grader: “Keep an eye on the state police, they’re not always the good guys.” Then, when she participates in a military operation in a smuggling tunnel, as the men ably run and handle their weapons, she ducks, flinches, trips, and falls. Villeneuve tends to shoot Blunt in profile, focusing on her exposed neck — which the director seems to find more interesting than her face — while distant shots tend to emphasize her petite frame. The director’s preoccupation with her neck is further emphasized when Blunt’s one sexual flirtation in the film is revealed to be a foolish decision that results in an attempted strangling by her partner. By the end, Kate appears less and less like a genuine character and instead a stand-in for what the film seems to see as a feminized American people who need masculine, militarized leadership. Supporters of a military coup in the United States would love Sicario, as would politicians who grandstand about the need to close the US-Mexican border.


Also opening to critical acclaim this fall is Cartel Land, a Matthew Heineman documentary focusing on two vigilantes, one American and one Mexican, trying to do something on either side of the border about Mexican drug cartels. Many of the scenes shot in Mexico are riveting; however, Heineman’s failure to contextualize his images, provide essential information for the audience, or develop a point of view are serious problems that will result in many viewers drawing some of the same conclusions they are likely to draw from Sicario about limitless Mexican corruption and anarchy, American innocence, and the nobility of masculine, violent resistance against the cartels.

The American half of Cartel Land concerns border vigilantes, a group that has already been overexposed, not only by the mainstream media but also by documentaries such as Crossing Arizona (2006) and The Minutemen Movie (2010). It focuses on just one border watcher, Tim “Nailer” Foley. Foley, whose Arizona Border Recon organization is identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, perpetrates false claims that go unchecked, and is not an especially interesting subject on his own. In allowing Foley and sensationalistic TV news reports to narrate its US segments, Cartel Land conflates two issues at the border — illegal immigration and the drug trade — without specifying any connection or separation between the two, and thus it remains unclear whether Foley’s cause is really comparable to that of the Mexican vigilantes in the first place.

Cartel Land’s Mexico segments are much more worthwhile. In 2013, in the west central Mexican state of Michoacán, residents frustrated by the government’s inability to combat the most powerful regional drug trafficking organization, the Knights Templar Cartel, formed an autodefensa, or self-defense group independent of official law enforcement. The documentary focuses on autodefensa founder and leader José Manuel Mireles, a tall, wiry, mustachioed doctor. Cartel Land’s best scenes include a confrontation between the autodefensa and Templar Cartel members, and interrogation sessions that show that autodefensas may have the tendency to become as oppressive to the population as the cartels. In other key segments, relations between Mireles’s group and the government are intimately captured. The Mexican Army at first attempts to disarm the vigilante organization, but ultimately the government incorporates several members of the autodefensas into the rural police force. Mireles was not among them; in fact, the film concludes with his arrest — not recorded on camera — for possessing unregistered weapons.

Although the Mexican footage is well edited, Heineman almost entirely avoids comment throughout, and the film ends up implying, with limited coherence, that the autodefensas have been co-opted by an inept, corrupt government and that Mireles, one of the good guys, has been detained. The reality is more complicated. According to a Wilson Center report by Dudley Althaus and Steven Dudley, the relation between the autodefensas and the government, rather than one of citizen subservience to a fundamentally corrupt state, has been fluid and often tense — and at times highly functional. Althaus and Dudley argue that the partnership made significant gains against the Templar Cartel in late 2014 and early 2015. Mireles is still in prison as of this writing, but is expected to be released by the end of the year.

Heineman has told interviewers that he “did not want to do a policy film,” and that he wanted to tell the story directly from the point of view of his subjects. This is an understandable artistic choice, but the approach works only if the story told is complete and coherent, especially when the topic is sensational, complex, and subject to culturally biased interpretation. And would an investigative print journalist be able to do the equivalent — present a serious article with a series of fascinating quotes but with little or no framework?

In addition to emphasizing immediacy over intelligibility, Cartel Land presents itself as a squarely apolitical film. Yet in its implicit blanket critique of the Mexican government and its sympathetic treatment of border vigilantes, like Sicario it endorses — if less explicitly — the punitive philosophy and militarized border of the US national security state. It comes as no surprise that Cartel Land’s executive producer is Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty director whose oeuvre is built on this approach, which appears politically neutral but in reality provides subtle, uncritical support for interventionist US foreign policy.

The complex structure of the hemispheric drug trade, based on a symbiotic relationship between the primarily supply-oriented countries of Latin America and the country of highest demand, the United States, has served as a necessary point of departure for academic, policy-focused, popular, and artistic examinations of the drug issue for years. In today’s world, as marijuana shops open, governments throughout the hemisphere explore drug legalization, cartel bosses are as admired as they are reviled, and how-to-cook-meth videos appear on YouTube, polls show that clear majorities feel that the “war on drugs” has been a failure. Meanwhile, as middle-class revelers dance to narcocorridos in clubs on both sides of the border and narconovelas achieve high ratings from Mexico City to Los Angeles, more and more people are beginning to recognize and appreciate that the United States and Mexico are as interconnected as they are separate. In this regard, Sicario and Cartel Land seem way behind the cultural curve and tremendously out of step with the times, evincing as they do a simple nostalgia for an imagined less chaotic time.


Kenneth Maffitt is a writer, editor, and translator who has taught US and Latin American history at Duke University, Oregon State University, and other schools.

LARB Contributor

Kenneth Maffitt is a writer, editor, and translator who has taught US and Latin American history at Duke University, Oregon State University, and other schools.


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