Moral Ambiguity and the Mexican Drug War
A review of 'Dreamland' and 'Cartel Land'
When Purdue Pharma began heavily marketing OxyContin as a non-addictive solution to chronic pain in the 1990s, many thousands of Americans got hooked. In some parts of the Midwest pill economies developed, fueled by cheap Medicare prescriptions and exploitative pill mill doctors. When pills were no longer a viable or affordable way for them get a fix, many opiate addicts switched to heroin. At the same time, farmers in Xalisco, a small county in Mexico’s Nayarit state, began growing poppies and producing black tar heroin.
The sticky, black substance was purer and of better quality than the white powder varieties imported from Asia that most American addicts were accustomed to. Xalisco’s main export to the United States, besides heroin, became heroin dealers. The sons of poor farmers headed north in droves to become distributors in a sophisticated heroin dealing industry that thrived in communities across the country while avoiding the violence, seedy back alley deals, and prosecution that dogged so many other illegal drug enterprises.
When Xaliscan dealers were arrested or deported, there were always more men willing to take their places. The American addicts, meanwhile, came from all walks of life: poor and rural, middle-class and suburban, even rich and famous. They died with needles in their arms, in fast food restaurant bathrooms, in gutters, in their bedrooms with the door locked.
Despite the consequences of their trade, Dreamland doesn’t emphatically condemn the Mexican heroin dealers, perhaps to intentionally complicate the narrative of good versus evil or to humanize both sides of the story. At times Quinones is sympathetic, painting the dealers as hard workers, out to earn money for their struggling families, but he also describes how once they started dealing, money ceased to satisfy.
The dealers built big houses, leaving rebar exposed to send a message that more was on the way. They treated the town to bands in the plaza and bankrolled the liquor that flowed in the streets. They went back north again and again, not solely to support their family, but to send a message to the rest of town. To get a fix. Is the harm that these dealers wreak on American society justified by their economic want or by Mexico’s economic position relative to America’s? Is dealing heroin morally vacuous no matter who’s doing it?
Stories of Mexico’s drug war are rife with moral ambiguity nearly impossible to resolve. Cartel Land, a recent documentary shot and produced by Matthew Heineman, starts out, in his words, like a classic American Western: a tale of good guys and bad guys. The movie follows two vigilante groups. One, a band of armed American citizens, patrols the border, aiding border patrol officials and hoping to confine Mexico’s cartel violence (and citizens) to one side of the fence.
The other, a Mexican group known as a Grupo de Autodefensa Comunitaria, arose out of a desire to defend the state of Michoacán from the brutal Knights Templar cartel. The Mexican vigilantes, called autodefensas, run the cartels out of town after town and capture cartel bosses who oversaw vicious murders and the mutilation of citizens. In one confrontation, a vigilante screams, over and over, at a pair of captured Knights Templar bosses, “You killed my uncles! You killed my uncles!”
And then what? What do you do when you suddenly find in your hands the fate of individuals who burned your relatives alive and chopped them into bits? Men who destroyed the hope of peace in your town and robbed you and your family, probably forever, of a sense of security? At first, the autodefensas turn the criminals over to the police, but they soon become disillusioned with the rampant corruption among state officials and their collusion with the cartels. Then they begin killing cartel members and torturing suspects.
Eventually, in a bid to control Michoacán’s unsanctioned and extrajudicial violence, the state appoints the autodefensas as members of a government backed Rural Defense Corps. In the striking scenes that open and close the film, members of this Rural Defense Corps, clad in their official, black logo polos, are framed in smoke, with handkerchiefs across their faces. They’re cooking meth.
The viewer is left looking from pig to man and man to pig, unable to distinguish the two. The only person left to root for is the man who stands in a crowd yelling, “We must respect the rule of law!” He seems to yell into a void. In the closing shots, the meth cookers explain that as long as there is demand in the United States, there will be drug production and cartel violence in Mexico. It’s an assertion borne out by data. “We are the lucky ones,” he says, “for now.”
Cartel Land does a masterful job illuminating a few strands of the Gordian knot that is strangling Mexico. As the smoke dissipates into the Mexican night and the final scene fades to credits, the casual viewer is left not with a sense of closure, but despair. Where does one begin thinking about, let alone solving, the complex maze of problems that face modern Mexico?
In the past year, Mexico’s civil society has been making a concerted push to close the legal gaps that make corruption so pervasive and impossible to punish. In 2015, the Mexican government approved a measure, championed by the people, to create a corruption-fighting entity. The second part of the effort is to pass a bill delineating standard punishments for certain categories of corruption.
Viridiana Rios describes in more detail these efforts and the groundswell of support that they’ve seen in a report published recently for the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute. These drives by the people, talked about on the radio and in the streets, inspire hope and demonstrate that the lone voice heard yelling in defense of the rule of law in Cartel Land is in fact a chorus.