Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Kingdom of Shadows: How the Drug War was Lost

We share a very long and largely unenforced border with Mexico. This is a particularly disturbing fact to keep in mind while watching the frequent discovery of mass graves throughout our neighbor to the south. The war on drugs will be blamed, but it is pretty clear that war is over in Mexico and the cartels won. Two former combatants and a courageous nun offer their perspectives on the current state of border anarchy in Bernardo Ruiz’s Kingdom of Shadows (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Sister Consuelo Morales is a woman of great faith and humility, who tirelessly consoles families of the “disappeared” and constantly prods government officials on their behalf. She is the film’s unambiguous moral center, in part because her job is so hard. Frankly, the police in narco hotspots like Monterey are so corrupt, they are often seen as wholly owned subsidiaries of the cartels. Most of the disappearances are probably the work of the cartels, but some wholesale abductions have been traced back to various police forces, which makes absolutely no tactical sense, unless they were trying to get the populace to hate the cops even more, which is a distinct possibility.

Former border patrol officer and undercover agent turned Homeland Security official Oscar Hagelsieb also has a hard job. The narco-terror unfolding in Monterey and spilling over into Texas border towns like Socorro, Texas falls under his jurisdiction. He intercepted a lot of drugs and busted a lot of sinister characters during his undercover days. Ironically, that is one reason he keeps such a high profile now, in the hopes that his past associates will not seek to martyr such a prominent government spokesperson.

Don Henry Ford, Jr. was one of the traffickers Hagelsieb was trying to put away. Someone did indeed bust him and just in the nick of time. If he had been pinched any later, mandatory minimums would have applied. Ford was old school. He dealt with the relatively stable Amado Carrillo. According to Ford, his death left a vacuum that would be filled by a younger generation of sociopaths, an interpretation of history that seems to fit the facts pretty well.

The fact that Kingdom was produced by the highly partisan Participant Media does not inspire confidence, but Ruiz’s brutally honest Reportero earns his follow-up a fair hearing. Fortunately, it is also messily honest, to the point of losing control of its message. Frankly, the Trump campaign ought to bus primary voters to screenings, because it entirely vindicates his border security platform. Sure, there are some tacked-on arguments regarding mandatory drug minimums, but they are overwhelmed and undercut by the images of grisly carnage.

Watching Kingdom (and Reportero before it) gives viewers the impression Mexico is practically a failed state. It is a scary thought, but it certainly makes the paramilitary vigilantes seen in Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land look reasonable. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of answers in Kingdom, besides chastising America for the drug consumption that fuels the drug violence. That is fair enough, but it is worth remembering the media contempt that greeted Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. Evidently, that is now the best strategy we have.

Some of its viewpoints are more insightful than others, but there is still plenty of revealing (and disturbing) stuff in Kingdom. It is uneven, but like Reportero, it is a pretty gutsy film. Recommended for its boots-on-the-ground documentary reporting, Kingdom of Shadows opens this Friday (11/20) in New York, at the Cinema Village.