Review of Documentary: Breaking the Taboo, a film produced by Sam Branson Sundog Pictures

Review of Documentary: Breaking the Taboo, a film produced by Sam Branson, Sundog Pictures, 2011, and Narcotráfico para Inocentes: el Narco en México y Quien lo U.S.A. Rafael Barajas. Mexico City: Nostra Ediciones, 2011. ISBN: 9786077972037

This essay is a part of our series, Borders in the Classroom.

For U.S. students, there is no narrative that explains our national complicity in the U.S.-Mexico drug trade or the horrific violence it causes in Mexico. Illicit drugs like marijuana and cocaine are cheap and freely available on U.S. college campuses, but for most of the middle-class white youth that fill lecture halls, the brutal world of the U.S.-Mexico drug trade exists strictly south of the U.S.-Mexico border. And who can blame them? American media, politicians, and even scholars often discuss murder and death in Mexico in ways that scrub it clean of historical and social context that would help explain how U.S. policy and drug demand is linked to beheadings, murders, and kidnappings south of the border. Teaching the U.S.-Mexico drug trade from an interdisciplinary transnational perspective, however, can make U.S. complicity explicit. Instead of a murky trade peopled with unnamed Mexican criminals motivated by greed, racial difference, or ignorance, such an approach will help students identify specific events and actors that will denaturalize Mexican violence, historicize the U.S.-Mexico drug trade, and reveal the ways drug violence has been stimulated by prohibition and fueled by U.S. demand.

For example, I recently gave a guest lecture titled, “Coke, Pot, Smack & Neoliberalism: the U.S. in the World, 1970s and 80s,” to a 300-level world history course. The talk explored how the rise of what activists and scholars have dubbed “neoliberalism” can be used to understand the changes in the global drug trade during the late twentieth century. Through this lecture, I found the transnational drug trade to be an incredibly engaging topic for students, partly because of its taboo nature, but also because students are exposed to little reliable information on the drug trade. Students were highly engaged, and several reported studying the drug trade as a highlight of the course.

But I also observed firsthand what Paul Gootenberg has warned are the pitfalls of “talking like a state,” or approaching the drug trade with language shaped by policing and regulatory agencies. Students in the course consistently adopted a pragmatic perspective that presumed illicit drugs as a natural category in need of control. As an alternative, scholars like Gootenberg, Itty Abraham, and Willem Van Schendel have argued the need to historicize the “thin line” between legal and illegal drugs, as well as the relationship between state interests and the regulation of illicit commodities. Additionally, I found that study of the global drug trade invites the use of non-traditional primary and secondary sources. Two recent examples of such sources are the documentary Breaking the Taboo (Sundog Pictures, 2012) and the graphic book, Narcotráfico para Inocentes: el Narco en México y Quien lo U.S.A. (Nostra Ediciones, 2011).

Breaking the Taboo examines the global nature of the drug trade by visiting Colombia, Afghanistan, Russia, Portugal, Holland, and the U.S. Narrated by Morgan Freeman, the film’s perspective is clear: the U.S.-led “War on Drugs” has failed. The film argues that the failure is characterized by a misguided policy of repression, first articulated by Richard Nixon in 1971, that has defined global drug policy ever since. Prohibition and interdiction have made drugs scarce and lucrative for producers, stimulating production and making drugs cheap and available for buyers. The film also outlines the failures of U.S. international drug policy, including Plan Colombia, Plan Mérida in Mexico, and the U.S. government’s alternating prohibition and permissiveness of poppy production in Afghanistan. Scholars of the drug trade have drawn similar conclusions. The film focuses primarily on members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a group of world leaders that issued a stinging indictment of the global war on drugs in 2011. This message is repeated in interviews with former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, all of who denounce U.S. drug policy. Bill Clinton also admits in the film that the drug war “hasn’t worked.”

At less than one hour, and available in Spanish or English, Breaking the Taboo can provide students in history, Spanish, or international studies courses a perspective that highlights global voices that are normally downplayed in the United States. For example, the film features Jorge Castañeda, an intellectual who served under President Vicente Fox and penned an important book that framed President Felipe Calderón’s war on drug cartels as a war of political legitimacy. Almost unknown in the U.S., this criticism has had lasting explanatory power in Mexico. Available online, the film also provides an alternative to viewing a film in a lecture hall or classroom. This format permits a “flipped classroom” scenario in which students view and reflect on the film outside of class and then return to the classroom to collectively critique it under the instructor’s guidance.

However, instructors using Breaking the Taboo should also prompt students to delve deeper into the history of the drug trade. The film, for example, locates the drug war’s birth in Nixon’s 1971 declaration of a war on drugs, but many scholars have traced the deep origins of the contemporary drug trade to interactions between the U.S., Europe, China, the Andes, and Mexico in the nineteenth century. Also unmentioned are important precursors to Nixon’s global drug policies like Operation Intercept, a 1969 display of U.S. military power which briefly sealed the U.S.-Mexico border to purportedly stop marijuana trafficking.

Narcotráfico para Inocentes: El Narco en México y Quien lo U.S.A. [Narcotrafficking for Dummies: the Narco in Mexico and Those Who Use It] focuses on the U.S.-Mexico drug trade from Mexico’s perspective. Drawn by famed Mexican cartoonist Rafael Barajas with text in rich colloquial Mexican Spanish, Narcotráfico para Inocentes provides a hilarious and macabre accounting of what the Mexican left—and large swaths of the Mexican public—think about U.S. complicity in Mexico’s drug wars. Indeed, Barajas makes U.S. complicity explicit by recounting dirty secrets and naming names. Even the book’s subtitle, which simultaneously gestures at both the United States and its drug use—“Quien lo U.S.A.” rather than “Quien lo Usa” (the latter from the verb usar, “to use”)—signals U.S. drug demand as an engine for violence in Mexico.

Barajas writes under the psuedonym El Fisgón, a word that implies a snooper or spy that delivers wry commentary on the lives of others. His illustrations follow the long tradition of Mexican moneros, satirical political cartoonists whose deep nineteenth-century roots Barajas has documented in several fascinating graphic books. For Barajas, drawing images of hurt with humor is an “intellectual discipline.” Humor, he says, by playing with logic and reason, and laughing at horror and violence, can provide a release from pain.

And there is plenty of pain. Official numbers are disputed, but Mexico has likely seen over 60,000 murders and more than 18,000 levantones (kidnap/murders) since 2006. Barajas notes that almost one-third of the country’s usable land is dedicated to drug production. A 2011 study found that narcotraffickers were Mexico’s largest employer, providing jobs to 600,000 people. To explain this situation, Barajas creates an accessible narrative that outlines relatively complex scholarly concepts in funny and often disturbing drawings.

Echoing observers like Charles Bowden, Barajas argues that economic liberalization, the dismantling of the welfare state, and concurrent cultural changes have made Mexico a neoliberal nation whose raw capitalism provides the perfect breeding ground for the brutal world of drug trafficking. He draws America’s addiction to Mexican drugs as a jittery Uncle Sam snorting cocaine with heroin-filled syringes in his arms. He sketches drug traffickers, with severed heads in hand, reporting for work alongside briefcase-toting businessmen, both ostensibly serving the neoliberal Mexican economy. Barajas also describes the historical origins of drug trading, beginning with the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars. The book makes established scholarship accessible, using the concept of a “state of exception” and providing a nimble summary of the gory details of Alfred McCoy’s Politics of Heroin. Barajas also provides footnotes, citing everything from historical Mexican cartoons to the Kerry Committee Report on the Iran-Contra scandal. As a conclusion, Barajas provides point-by-point recommendations for an alternative approach to drugs and security for the Mexican nation. One could imagine students mining his citations for supplementary readings or preparing a classroom debate on his security proposals. Though Barajas occasionally goes further than his evidence allows—in one case, suggesting that U.S. drug policy fails deliberately or, in another, that full-scale U.S. military intervention in Mexico is a possibility—Narcotráfico para Inocentes is a rigorous and accessible example of a non-traditional secondary source. In fact, both of these two sources do much to help students provincialize normative U.S. perspectives on the drug trade and make U.S. complicity explicit.

Reviewed by Antonio Ramirez, Elgin Community College
Edited by Benita Heiskanen, Andrae M. Marak, and Jeanne E. Grant

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]