When news broke in July that Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán had escaped from a maximum security federal prison in Almoloya de Juárez, Mexicans were barely surprised. In the United States we may expect our captured gang leaders to stay captured, but in Mexico, where an ultra-violent drug war has been raging for years, citizens resigned themselves years ago to government collusion with criminals. They know that drug lords like El Chapo, called the “most powerful drug trafficker in the world” by the U.S. Treasury Department, have teams of police officers and government officials in their pockets. As a result, a deep and profound sense of resignation and sadness seems to have taken up residence there.
It’s the same sadness that permeates Kingdom of Shadows, writer/director Bernardo Ruiz’s excellent new documentary about the devastation wrought by the Mexican drug war. To put a human face on what has become an inhuman tragedy, Ruiz follows three people through the bloody maze: Sister Consuelo Morales, a nun in the ravaged city of Monterrey who has become an advocate for families of civilians disappeared by the cartels and corrupt law enforcement officials; Texas rancher Don Henry Ford Jr., who smuggled marijuana across the border in the 1980s, before the drug trade became an uncontrollable bloodbath; and Oscar Hagelsieb, a Department of Homeland Security anti-narcotics officer (and son of an undocumented Mexican worker living in South Texas) who spent years infiltrating Mexico’s most violent cartels as an undercover agent.
Ford, who watched his children grow up from jail, seems resigned to the futility of the drug war, calling it “an excuse to prosecute people who are undesirable for other reasons.” Morales and Hagelsieb, on the other hand, somehow manage to maintain hope in the face of overwhelming hopelessness. Their stories would probably be inspirational if their efforts didn’t seem so futile. According to Mexican media figures, tens of thousands of people, among them thousands of innocent civilians, have been disappeared by the cartels and the government since 2007, many raped, hanged, beheaded, chopped up and never seen again, not even as corpses. Yet Morales, taking her life into her hands, keeps advocating for their families and demanding answers from officials who have zero interest in digging up mass graves or going in search of “narco-kitchens,” where bodies are burned to prevent discovery and identification, lest their own complicity come to light. Morales is searching for justice in the face of fear, violence, corruption and Mexicans’ complete lack of trust in their leaders and institutions.
Hagelsieb, meanwhile, fights the war with more conventional means — guns and raids and investigations and prosecutions — but his hope doesn’t have the same religious glow as Morales’. It’s still there, but time and overwhelming circumstance have conspired to wipe away some of its luster. When a ranking member of the Department of Homeland Security in El Paso admits on film that he and his department and everyone fighting the drug war are just “pawns in the game,” you know things have reached cataclysmic levels of despair.
And how could they not? We on this side of the border love to fool ourselves into thinking that Mexico’s drug trafficking problems have nothing to do with us. But if Kingdom of Shadows makes anything clear, it’s the pathological delusion fueling that belief. After all, it’s the United States that supplies the greatest demand for Mexico’s cocaine, heroin and marijuana; it’s the United States that floods Mexico with guns (to the tune of 2,000 a day); it’s the United States that insists on treating a public-health crisis like it’s a war, even decades after that approach has been exposed as a tragic failure. It was even the United States that trained the future members of the Zetas, Mexican military soldiers who switched to the side of the cartels in the late 1990s before becoming a cartel themselves — one which, perhaps more than any other, is responsible for Mexico’s current nightmare.
Not for the faint of heart, Kingdom of Shadows, which will be screened over three nights this month in Austin, San Antonio and Dallas, is a disheartening trip down the rabbit hole of a failed state, where money and corruption and terror have joined forces to break the hearts of the Mexican people. Meanwhile, we sit, safe and sound on our side of the border, shaking our heads, wagging our fingers, doing our drugs, and wondering why our neighbors can’t get their act together.