Traffic & Sicario: Reevaluating America’s War on Drugs
Cultural landscapes and the media they produce are self-perpetuating forces; media is used to depict and reinforce elements of American society with the resulting product acting as a cultural artifact for future generations to inform themselves upon. The American War on Drugs is one such recent event that shaped its representative media to conform to the American status quo, whether through coercion or in a natural process. Former drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, even made it his mission to sign off on only the prime time content that reinforced this hegemonic, anti-drug view, going so far as to grant networks a deal on ad time as long as they pushed anti-drug narratives.
Now, approximately ten years after what has been deemed the war’s failure, scholars and filmmakers alike can approach the event with fresh eyes, with the cultural artifacts of these border films made during the war acting as reminders of American mentalities. 2000’s Traffic, while unconventional in some ways for its depiction of Mexicans in the conflict, repeats many of the popular consensus’s talking points depicting the conflict as a noble crusade. 2015’s Sicario offers a far different take, rife with moral ambiguity and inversions of archetypes.
Traffic uses multiple storylines to depict the actors in the War on Drugs in a variety of settings; officer Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) attempts to fight corruption on Mexican soil, drug czar, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), works with Mexican officials and struggles with a heroin-addicted daughter, and DEA agent Gordon (Don Cheadle), fights cartels directly. This allows a wider breadth of perspectives on the conflict not afforded by prior American-made media, namely through the story of the Mexican Javier. This storyline’s dialogue is spoken solely in Spanish and prompts a Mexican perspective that is not antagonistic as before.
However, the character of Javier embodies the same narc cop tendencies most prior anti-drug media has portrayed. Camilla Fojas describes his character as resembling “the righteous hero alone in a sea of NAFTA-esque corruption [which] derives from a U.S.-based cowboy mythos, but in this case it masquerades as Mexican to fulfill the larger political agenda of expressing the need for better cooperation of Latin American governments in U.S.-backed and based drug control programs”. 1 Indeed, Javier is dramatically pitted in a fight to do the right thing when it turns out practically all of Mexico is in league with the cartels. The lone, morally-determined wolf in the war on drugs is an American trope transplanted onto a Mexican character, which also reduces any of America’s complicity in the process.
Mexico itself is depicted as a near-dystopian wasteland shot in an acrid yellow filter, rife with corruption and in desperate need of salvation. Javier’s choice to testify to the DEA about Salazar is not only morally just (done in exchange for electricity in his neighborhood so children can play baseball at night), but framed as the only reasonable decision for any audience member to make circumstantially. However, this premise restates the erred beliefs that kickstarted the War on Drugs in the first place, 2 that there is a clear enemy in Mexican drug cartels and the corrupt government that supports them. This generalization continues in the following storyline, which proposes a solution to the drug trafficking problem in the form of U.S.-Mexican cooperation.
Douglas’s Wakefield is an Ohioan drug czar whose anti-addict approach strongly resembles that of former drug czar, General McCaffrey, except the character is humanized by having a heroin-addicted daughter. His press conference illuminates the hypocrisy of the 10-point plan which labels potential family members as the “enemy”, a realization the real McCaffrey did not come to. This still comes at the cost of indirectly labeling Mexican drug traffickers (and perhaps the government, too) as the bad faith actors, saying “68 million children have been targeted by those who perpetuate this war, and protecting those children must be priority number-1”. His language and seeing the effects of addiction on his daughter, Caroline, are vehicles of pathos that help further shift the blame onto Mexico, implying the country is not only solely responsible, but dragging on the conflict.
Furthermore, Douglas’s casting is rooted in his epochal castings of the ‘80s, the start of the Reagan-era, anti-drug wave. Here he is the neoconservative figurehead many likely identified with, his harsh policies a result of (in this case) direct victimization from the drug trade in the form of an addicted daughter. The premise is the worst fear of every father of the early 2000’s, but Wakefield’s position as drug czar empowers him to do something about it.
While Traffic takes the then-popular stance towards the War on Drugs and its causes (chief among them, blaming Mexico), Sicario is far enough removed from the conflict to offer different explanations. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan envisioned this film as the start to a trilogy dealing with themes related to the modern American frontier. And despite it’s modern furnishings, there are several traits inherent to westerns and border films, namely in the protagonist, FBI Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt).
A semi-reluctant lead, she agrees to join the DOD-CIA task force under the condition of bringing those responsible for two officer deaths to justice. Already she resembles the “narc” cop concept described by Fojas as a “good but maverick cop, the “narc” stand-in who works alone on a moral mission against a Latin-o American drug empire deemed a nightmarish system of late capitalism”. 3 Only in this film, her powerlessness to bring about justice is compounded by her outsider status and the true nature of the War on Drugs being a lawless and immoral free-for-all.
The title alludes to the character, Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), “sicario” being Spanish for the word “assassin”. The film suggests that morally-determined officials like Mercer cannot cut it in this conflict, leaving only professional killers like Alejandro, to get things done. This further implicates the U.S. in the conflict as they utilize assassins to do their dirty work, use Kate purely for the legal jurisdiction her role provides, and consistently engage in murder and torture for their gains.
The post-drug war Mexico in Sicario represents a vacuous heart of darkness that swallows up those who dare to step foot within it, Alejandro explains how out of place Kate’s sense of right and wrong is here with the film’s last lines; “You should move to a small town where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. And this is the land of wolves now”. This implies that law does not exist on the border, neither on the Mexican nor the American side. The revelation that American police officer Ted (Jon Bernthal) works for the cartels is proof of this. The Mexico of Traffic is certainly comparable, but not because of American involvement as in Sicario.
The moralistic pursuits of Traffic cannot be explained in Sicario; there is no Caroline character for the audience to see the long-standing effects of the drug trade within American borders, and whilst the Sonora Cartel is vile, the U.S. task force rivals them at times. All this takes the issue of the War on Drugs out of the hands of civilians and onto bureaucrats and operators whose political motives rival the moral pursuits of McCaffrey’s vision for America.
The actions of lead characters in Traffic were always done for the greater good of the innocent, while in Sicario this concept of a noble crusade is highly questionable. Each side of the conflict have significant flaws; the Sonora Cartel kills judiciously to send a message, but the task-force frequently engage in extrajudicial killings and torture just as much. In the case of the crooked Mexican cop, Silvio, the audience is allowed to emotionally bond with his family before he is surreptitiously executed at the film’s end by Alejandro, all this before killing the innocent family members of Alarcon before him. For the two officers killed by an explosion in the film’s opening, the task force ends up killing scores of cartel members, some of which are like Silvio, family men caught in a land of wolves. The majority of Sicario’s Americans are not Traffic’s narc cops and politicians, but rather career soldiers and bureaucrats who, more importantly, are uninterested in the moral ends this war would bring.
Sicario also illustrates the retaliatory method by which the U.S. operated in the War on Drugs; rather than curtailing incoming supply and incorporating drug treatment programs, the American way is in militarization and an attack on foreign soil. According to the conflict’s actors, the ends justify the means; Matt tells Kate “until somebody finds a way to convince 20% of the population to stop snorting and smoking that shit, order’s the best we can hope for. And what you saw up there was Alejandro working toward returning that order”. At least in Traffic characters like Wakefield have a change of heart upon realizing the antithetical nature of the war. The aggressors of Sicario not only are aware of the violence they perpetuate, but are complacent in it, and offer lackluster explanations for why it continues instead of taking any part of the blame. In other words, the motivation for fighting is clear and moralistic in Traffic, but it is difficult to even discern why the task force in Sicario (and America in commentary) continues to engage in this conflict.
Much like how 1968’s Green Berets and 1979’s Apocalypse Now offer startlingly different takes on the Vietnam War, the time between the release of Traffic and Sicario has allowed reflection on the War on Drugs. In the former, a more neoconservative approach is retained, encouraging Mexican cooperation with the U.S. and using Mexican characters to embody the narc cop ethos from the start of the war (in the form of Javier). Sicario, however, reasons that America isn’t faultless in their pursuit of this conflict, and that any moral motivation for doing so has been lost in a tangled web of bureaucracy and politics. In another ten years, there may be another film released that defies both these works’ conclusions. Thus the creation of media to reflect real-world events, often as they unfold, perpetuate a self-sustaining cycle of conclusions and reevaluations.
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