Bernardo Ruiz’s 2012 documentary Reportero centers on the independent Mexican investigative news magazine Zeta, whose reporters were increasingly the targets of violent attacks from the cartels. Shortly before the documentary began shooting, two of Zeta’sreporters had been murdered. The film portrays the difficulty and profound risk involved in trying to do standard investigative journalism in present-day Mexico. Ruiz’s latest feature documentary, Kingdom of Shadows, examines the consequences of the U.S.-Mexico “drug war” on a larger scale, through the three interweaving stories of a U.S. drug-enforcement agent on the border, an activist nun in the embattled state of Monterrey, and a former Texas smuggler. Ruiz and I got together together to discuss recent portrayals of the narco story—from glossy Hollywood productions like Sicario to journalists and writers like Diego Enrique Osorno, Anabel Hernández, John Gibler, and Francisco Goldman, whose work links the many levels on which the narco state functions.
Rachael Rakes (Rail): You first reached out to me about having a conversation after you had finished your documentary Kingdom of Shadows, and were thinking about how it came out amid a landscape of other nonfictional and fictional depictions of the border and the drug war and narco-politics in general. Let’s start by expanding on that a bit.
Bernardo Ruiz: We are at a moment in which there is a kind of glut of media around the narco story. All over New York are billboards for Narcos, the Netflix series; Don Winslow just came out with his big book, The Cartel. There’s a clear interest in that story, and there’s also an exploitation of that material right now. So for those of us who’ve been working in this space for some time, it becomes interesting to look at what people are saying and what they’re not saying, and how our work fits into that space.
There’s an interesting term that people are using in Mexico now that I think gets at the heart of what I think is largely missing from the kind of commercial fare is “necropolítica,”or death politics. And for me, that’s the more important part of this—the politics around the narco state, and the politics around death and disappearance.
Rail: On top of what’s lacking, there continues to be this weird celebration of narco culture as, like, badassery, or, with the El Chapo escape, like, “He fucking got out! That’s so cool!” Or the popularization of all of the symbols—the weed and the girls and all that.
Ruiz: —yeah exactly. The narco parties.
Rail: And that, of course, resonates with an American aspirational lifestyle. So I’m seeing, culturally, this interest in one of the most critical and horrible things happening in the world right now.
Ruiz: Exactly, we’re in a moment when there is an exotification, or a prurient celebration of narco-chic—and other films have touched on that too, like Narco Cultura. A lot of the media that’s celebrating this kind of narco-chic has very skillfully removed the human rights story, because it’s a serious bummer: over 125,000 people murdered, somewhere between 23 and 25,000 people missing, officially—of course many people believe that number to be much higher.
The weird celebration of the violent parts of it is pretty fascinating. In the press materials for Don Winslow’s book, The Cartel, the Los Angeles Times ran a photo of him out on a hillside where he’s holding a copy of his book; the book has been wrapped with duct tape, which is a kind of standard practice in abductions in Mexico, or sometimes hanging, when people are hung from bridges, and he—or the production assistant who had to do the photos—basically made a noose out of this duct tape. And, of course, it evokes lynching, and the executions that have been rampant in multiple regions in Mexico, and it’s just a bizarre, kind of gleeful showcasing of a specific type of violence for an audience that’s largely disconnected to that kind of political and human rights story. Forget even making the bigger connections about U.S. complicity and U.S. responsibility. It’s just the turning of that tragedy into entertainment that is a deeply troubling phenomenon.
Rail: This is what popular culture has long done with the Italian mafia, for instance. But this somehow strikes me as even more hugely problematic, in that this isn’t a renegade element that functions within the state, this actually is the state. And so, even if you wanted to think about this as some people operating peripherally, being able to siphon money to have the rich life—it’s actually not even that. Which makes it that much more ineffable, and that much more impenetrable. Kingdom of Shadows drives home the immediacy, and the presence of all this.
Ruiz: Yeah, my film is an attempt to get at that political story. It’s an attempt to look at the narco state. You know, a true narco story that really deals with politics is like looking at the sun—you can’t look at it directly. You can look at its impact and you can look at what it does. But one of the reasons why it was important to me to tell the story that we have in Monterrey, was because it very clearly evokes the stories of state repression in Chile, and Argentina, in the southern cone, in the ’70s and ’80s. And we even say that explicitly in the film. Exactly to your point—it’s an ongoing story of state repression. We see it in Ayotzinapa with the murder of the forty-three students, and the human rights activist Nadia Vera, and two other women in Mexico City just a month ago. It’s hard not to discern a kind of chaotic pattern—but a pattern nonetheless—of repression by the narco state. And so, to not include that political story seems to me to kind of miss a central component of the narco story. So I think of making those links and parallels to other state-sponsored acts of repression and terrorism against civil society—to not make those links is to be missing a kind of core part of the story.
Rail: Something that was interesting to me, maybe despite itself, about Cartel Land—which, in a sense, pairs really interestingly with Kingdom of Shadows—is the primary difference between the militia in Michoacán and the American border militia. The militia in Michoacán actually seems to understand who they’re fighting against, and the militia on the border in Texas sort of doesn’t get it. They don’t understand the politics—they don’t understand who they’re protecting, or how the U.S. profits from this, or how the U.S. is complicit—they think they’re just filling a missing hole in policing.
Ruiz: Cartel Land has framed this portrait of these two groups in classic vigilante terms. Obviously if you study the situation in Mexico, vigilante is not a terribly nuanced term—accurate in some cases, wholly inaccurate in others. The self-defense groups, the Autodefensas, can be many things, as you see in the film. But the Arizona group is really chasing ghosts—the only people that they’re fighting are migrants. They’re not going after organized crime groups and they’re not going after the state.
Rail: To hear the statistics of the disappearances and killings in Argentina’s Dirty War or with Pinochet in Chile they often seem like unfortunate histories, from a different time: things that won’t happen again. But seen up against 125,000 murdered right now, you have to look at this differently. This is so deeply urgent, it has to stop. And yet there’s this sense of ineffectuality and inevitability even as it’s happening right now, that there are these evil forces that can’t be stopped.
Ruiz: A lot of the journalism and a lot of the media around the so-called Drug War centers around the kind of figure of the bad actor: the narco, the shadowy, exotic figure, as if they were somehow apart from the state, as if they were acting out of a deep malevolence, as opposed to the figure that is deeply incorporated and integrated into the state and is in fact acting on behalf of the state. If you look at the disappearance of the forty-three students in Ayotzinapa—whoever was responsible for that act is essentially doing the work of the state, of state repression. Those students in school, they have a history of being repressed by the state. So that whole idea—that the narco is so deeply embedded in the state—is one that I think anyone who studied Colombia is aware of, certainly anybody who studied Italy and organized crime in Italy understands, and that’s some of my concern, not just as a filmmaker but as a media-watcher: that so much of the work around the narco centers on skirmishes, or the more gripping aspects, the shoot-’em-up stuff, as opposed to analysis..
Public officials, both in the U.S. and in Mexico, have talked in the last decade about waging a war against organized crime groups or these bad actors. They frequently employ the metaphor of cancer—that the organized crime groups are a cancer that needs to be extracted or excised. This really evokes the illness as metaphor, this idea that it’s this sickness that we can radiate our way out of it, as opposed to it being an integral component of the whole. At the same time that it is so deeply embedded, we’re in a really interesting moment. The Guatemalan president just stepped down, forced out of office by a very emboldened civil society. And the question, I think, on the tongues of Mexico journalists is: is there a kind of comparable movement in Mexico from the different corners of civil society that would be willing to press the state government, or press the federal government? Here we are on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa, a month after the murder of this young journalist and activist and two others in Mexico City, and you have a civil society that seems to be hitting a limit. One thing that was kind of apparent to me in making this film was that, anybody whose life has been touched by the narcos, it’s almost like they are residents of a third country. And so whether you are living in the United States in Texas, or you’re living in Northern Mexico in Monterrey, everyone whose life has been covered by the shadow of organized crime or the narco state have become a resident of this other country.
Rail: It strikes me that it might become a lot clearer to people here if the story were examined as an investigation of the U.S. side of the drug trade and war, or even through another place where most of the drugs that provide the most money to cartels are consumed, it could be the U.K. or in Canada.
Ruiz: The real flaw in a lot of the U.S.-based media around the narco story is that absence of an examination of U.S. interests in particular, and how there’s so much silence. Even when you talk about the human rights crisis—we have, for good or for bad, a much greater awareness, even though it’s a pathetically limited one, of human rights issues happening in the Middle East and in Europe, but there’s a seeming blindness, when it comes to south of the Rio Grande. This continues in American journalism: take Frontline, which is I think a gold standard of broadcast journalism. They recently acquired the El Chapo film, The Hunt For El Chapo, and they just aired it a few months ago. But previous to that, the last time they devoted a broadcast hour to Mexico was in 1997—eighteen years ago. So, I think that covering Mexico from the U.S. has always been fraught with all kinds of blind spots and prejudices and biases, and so much of it is wrapped up in the immigration story.
Rail: It seems that the culture surrounding immigration always end up infecting the coverage of the drug war, or of other kinds of trafficking, and the politics of trade. There are of course areas in which these issues intersect—in terms of the actual technicalities of migration and the coyote system for instance—but there are plenty of ways in which they’re not at all. Yet they’re discussed as these parallel issues or facts, but not unpacked—let alone all the ways in which U.S. consumption supports the cartels via legal trade, in agriculture, for instance.
Ruiz: There has been a willful blindness when it comes to honestly examining the demographic, the economic, and the cultural links between the U.S. and Mexico—it’s such a fraught relationship for a variety of reasons. I mean, the two countries can’t even agree about the name of the river that divides them. There’s this love/hate relationship that’s always been there. And I think that’s at the heart of the narco story as well.
RACHAEL RAKES is co-editor of the Film Section of the Brooklyn Rail, a collaborator at Heliopolis Project Space, and an independent curator and programmer.