The recently released movie “Sicario,” while at times presenting an exaggerated depiction of Mexico’s drug violence and US counter-cartel strategy, offers a harsh but refreshing critique of regional anti-drug efforts.  

Released in October, Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” is about “an idealistic FBI agent” who is “enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs” at the US-Mexico border.

Kate Macer, the “idealistic FBI agent” (played by Emily Blunt), gets recruited for a mission to dismantle the network of fictional Mexican drug kingpin Manuel Diaz. Diaz is responsible for a booby trap that kills members of Macer’s team during the movie’s gruesome opening sequence. This drives her to accept the opportunity to help take down his criminal group, despite initial misgivings.

Leading this mission is the enigmatic US agent Matt Graver, who is accompanied by the equally mysterious Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro.

This is the second article of a three-part series where InSight Crime reviews recent depictions of narcoculture and history in popular films and TV shows. See here for Part One and Part Three

The basic strategy to get to Manuel Diaz is to “shake the tree” by visibly and antagonistically disrupting Mexican criminal networks. By doing so, the law enforcement team hopes to prompt Diaz to summon his key contact in the United States back to Mexico, thereby revealing Diaz’s location.

To begin this process, Macer flies to El Paso, Texas, where she joins a composite team that includes a Special Forces squad, Texas law enforcement, and other persons whose exact affiliation is unclear. Despite being given scant details, she is immediately included in a dramatic (and, in reality, improbable) operation into Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez. (We learn the mission’s objective is to retrieve a prisoner — a cartel boss — and bring him back across the border.)

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The team’s journey into Ciudad Juarez makes for suspenseful viewing, yet presents several dubious and fanciful ideas about the nature of US-Mexico joint drug operations. Namely, that US security forces would be allowed to launch such a bold and conspicuous foray into Mexico during broad daylight, or that US officials would do so with such poor planning (they get stuck in traffic on the Bridge of the Americas when returning to the United States).

Regardless, the Juarez operation takes the viewer on a condensed tour of Mexico’s drug violence that is filled with unease and tension: we hear gunfire in the background, and see several decapitated and mutilated bodies hanging from a bridge.

For a period of time, Ciudad Juarez was indeed synonymous with Mexico’s “drug wars,” as rival groups battling for control over trafficking routes into the United States turned the city into the world’s most violent. Yet this has largely passed, and a degree of calm has been restored. (The mayor of Ciudad Juarez called for a boycott of the film, making the warranted claim its depiction of drug violence in the city was outdated.)

However unbelievable or misleading, the operation leads to a post-mission scene that subtly illustrates one of the effects of the so-called “Kingpin Strategy” — a tactic in which Mexican and US law enforcement focuses on taking out cartel leaders. 

Beyond all the drama and exaggerated plot points, “Sicario’s” blunt message is one to be taken seriously.

Post-mission, as Macer and the team relax, one of the Special Ops soldiers invites her up to the roof of a building. With dusk approaching, they use binoculars to look across into Juarez. We see an explosion, tracer rounds being fired, and security forces frantically driving through the streets. “That’s what happens when you cut the head off a chicken,” the soldier remarks.

Again, a bit dramatic. But the vision of Ciudad Juarez descending into further chaos following the day’s mission is an illustration of a side effect of the Kingpin Strategy. That is, removing key leaders of criminal organizations frequently results in increased violence and mayhem. This is something Mexico did witness under the administration of President Felipe Calderon, which focused on eliminating high-value drug targets. This led to the fragmentation of criminal organizations. And, as succession struggles between mid-level operatives seeking to consolidate their power in Mexico’s evolving criminal landscape played out, bloodshed escalated.

Such a phenomenon directly connects to the core message of “Sicario.”

As the plot unfolds, Macer becomes ever more alarmed and disillusioned with the tactics being used to catch Diaz. During the movie’s climatic sequence, she confronts Graver about this, and receives a dose of harsh reality: the war on drugs is unwinnable; as long as a US drug market exists there will be groups working to supply and profit from that demand. At best, Graver explains, governments can only hope to control and influence the structure of those criminal organizations supplying the drugs — hence the mission to locate Diaz. The goal is not to eliminate drug groups — a Sisyphean task — but achieve a modicum of stability and order. As Graver implies, having one or two groups dominate the drug trade and impose this order harkens back to the “golden era” of drug trafficking under Colombia’s cartels, who were less wanton and indiscriminate in their use of violence than their modern Mexican heirs.

It may be government officials have already adopted this logic in formulating anti-drug strategy, although do not publicly acknowledge doing so, owing to various political considerations. For instance, in the past, the Mexican government has been accused of favoring the Sinaloa Cartel by focusing anti-drug efforts on their more violent competitors, such as the Zetas.

When confronted with this concept, Macer seems perturbed. Yet, moral and ethical questions aside, it reflects a pragmatic logic that is difficult to argue with. Indeed, beyond all the drama and exaggerated plot points, “Sicario’s” blunt message is one to be taken seriously, and perhaps reflects a wider shift in consciousness regarding the cost/benefit calculus of perpetuating the war on drugs.

In this way, the bleak and merciless picture painted by “Sicario” is also a refreshing one. It does not sugarcoat the difficult truths of the drug trade, nor shy away from depicting the harsh realities of how this world functions.