HomeNewsAnalysis'Sicario' Presents Dramatized Yet Refreshing Drug Critique

'Sicario' Presents Dramatized Yet Refreshing Drug Critique


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.)

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.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

MEXICO / 29 JAN 2013

A new report by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) examines migration and security trends in the easternmost sector…


Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala delivered a landmark declaration to the United Nations Secretary General calling on the organization to lead…

EL CHANGO / 30 MAY 2011

With Mexican security forces' arrest of 36 alleged members of the Familia Michoacana drug trafficking organization, and the…

About InSight Crime


Guatemala Social Insecurity Investigation Makes Front Page News

10 DEC 2021

InSight Crime’s latest investigation into a case of corruption within Guatemala's social security agency linked to the deaths of patients with kidney disease made waves in…


Venezuela El Dorado Investigation Makes Headlines

3 DEC 2021

InSight Crime's investigation into the trafficking of illegal gold in Venezuela's Amazon region generated impact on both social media and in the press. Besides being republished and mentioned by several…


Gender and Investigative Techniques Focus of Workshops

26 NOV 2021

On November 23-24, InSight Crime conducted a workshop called “How to Cover Organized Crime: Investigation Techniques and A Focus on Gender.” The session convened reporters and investigators from a dozen…


InSight Crime Names Two New Board Members

19 NOV 2021

In recent weeks, InSight Crime added two new members to its board. Joy Olson is the former executive director of the Washington Office on Latin America…


Senate Commission in Paraguay Cites InSight Crime

12 NOV 2021

InSight Crime’s reporting and investigations often reach the desks of diplomats, security officials and politicians. The latest example occurred in late October during a commission of Paraguay's Senate that tackled…