When the new thriller Sicario opened in US cinemas last month, it was met with near-unanimous acclaim. Across the border in Mexico, however, it has attracted at least one prominent critic. Enrique Serrano, the mayor of Juarez, where the film’s most violent scenes are set, has called on his city’s residents to boycott the film on its Mexican release in December.
The mayor took out ads in US newspapers and even threatened to sue the film-makers over the depiction of Juarez, claiming it could damage the city’s tourism and investment prospects, although he has not watched the film himself. “It hurts the image of Juarez, and for that reason I invite people not to see it,” he told reporters.
Hollywood and the US entertainment industry in general is presently swirling in one of those curious cultural eddies that, as if by accident, creates a rush of content on the same subject. In this case, the long-running war on drugs.
As Sicario plays in cinemas, novelist Don Winslow’s drug-war epic The Cartel is on the fiction bestseller list. The latest hit series on the Netflix streaming service is Narcos, a 10-parter about late Colombian cartel boss Pablo Escobar.
The genre can be traced back at least as far as Scarface in 1983 and the television series Miami Vice, which debuted a year later. Another burst came with Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic in 2000 and 2001’s Blow, the latter with Johnny Depp as cocaine dealer George Jung. Breaking Bad and the US version of The Bridge (set in Juarez and El Paso) recently tackled the topic on the small screen. Benicio Del Toro – the star of Traffic and Sicario – also played Escobar in his pomp in last year’s little-seen thriller Paradise Lost.
Escobar industrialised the large-scale shipment of cocaine from Latin America to the US, which made him one of the world’s richest men before his death in 1993. The Medellin cartel boss also caused something close to civil war in Colombia with a campaign of assassinations against his enemies in the drug trade, the government and the judiciary.
Yet the historical conflicts depicted in Narcos and Paradise Lost seem almost gentlemanly compared with those of the contemporary Sicario, which piles its victims’ bodies behind drywalls and hangs them headless from motorway overpasses.
Winslow’s The Power of the Dog and its sequel The Cartel constitute a fictionalised history of the Mexican drug trade from the mid-1970s to 2012. Though Mexico has nominally been battling the cartels for decades, the novels reflect how the violence plumbed new depths once government troops officially began fighting a war on drugs in 2006. Some of that grim reality is simply too unspeakable to capture in fiction.
Yet as The Cartel notes, and Sicario apparently ignores, violence in Juarez has decreased significantly, thanks to high-profile arrests and a reported truce between cartels. In 2010, when Sicario was conceived, 3,000 people were murdered in the city, making it more dangerous than Baghdad. Last year the total was 538. The film is “out of date”, Mr Serrano told The New York Times.
The war on drugs remains bloody, as the recent Oscar-tipped documentary Cartel Land demonstrated. In a stroke of good (or bad) fortune, The Cartel happened to be published in the same month that Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a maximum-security Mexican jail.
Ridley Scott has signed on to direct a film version of The Cartel, with Leonardo DiCaprio said to be circling the role of Keller, its battle-scarred DEA agent antihero. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise recently finished Mena, a biopic of US pilot Barry Seal, who smuggled drugs for the Medellin cartel in the 1980s and then became a DEA informant.
These films, novels and television series all share a US point of view and, by and large, are sceptical of the efficacy of the US war on drugs. Sicario is positively nihilistic in its portrayal of futility, with a CIA agent played by Josh Brolin harking back to the days when Escobar and the Medellin cartel controlled the cocaine trade, providing a stability that was at least tolerable. It’s a nostalgia the entertainment industry appears to share.
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