“Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded” (2014): Reversing Empire and the 1980s’ Drug War

Miami, and what became a Miami aesthetic, was probably one of the most distinctive and memorable features of the 1980s in North America. Hit shows like Miami Vice and the music of Jan Hammer; movies like Scarface; and, new fashions like white cotton or linen jackets and pastel-coloured t-shirts, plus a revival of art deco and neon, all gave the 1980s their distinctive feel. In recent years there has been a mini-revival of the products of the times. Miami Vice was turned into a movie, while the series seemed to have a successor with CSI: Miami, just as Scarface has been succeeded by two Sicario movies that are just as brutal and remain focused on the Drug War of today. Video games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City offered an almost nostalgic revival of the music, fashions, and crime themes of the 1980s. Hollywood movies about Pablo Escobar have come out only recently (such as Escobar: Paradise Lost and Loving Pablo), and Barry Seal was most recently played by Tom Cruise in American Made. The fashion, music, the styles and themes were all outgrowths of the drug boom, and the Drug War that surrounded it. (The field of studies which I entered in the mid-1980s, Latin American & Caribbean Studies, probably made me even more sensitive to the Miami–Cuban–Colombian–Central American–Caribbean connections that become prominent in the media at the time.) The 1980s and the “War on Drugs” have become so intertwined that one cannot remember one without remembering the other. Some of the key political and media actors of the time are still around making noise today, as the US’ Drug Wars continue (people such as then Senator Joe Biden, chairman of the task force on crime; Rudy Giuliani; Katie Couric, shown reporting on crime in Miami, Dan Rather, and others). More important than everything else, however, are the precedents set in this period that have continued to shape and inform the present, and what we can learn from this history.

cocainecowboys_poster2Cocaine Cowboys: Reloaded, a film running for 2 hours and 32 minutes, is a fascinating documentary, which could have offered even more if properly framed and rebalanced. Cocaine Cowboys originally came out in 2006, with a sequel in 2008, and was “reloaded” in 2014. It was directed by Billy Corben, and produced by Billy Corben along with Alfred Spellman. This documentary’s particular strong points are that it features some of the key actors on the ground: American pilots who brought in cocaine; assassins (now in prison); key gang members; policemen; and, journalists. It also encompasses a huge amount of historical footage. The thematic coverage was fairly comprehensive, although it struck me as being lopsided, with an excessive focus on the lives and stories of select smugglers and assassins and the details of the hits they carried out. What was largely understated as a result were the novel geopolitical characteristics of the time—to summarize it bluntly: some of what the West had done to China during the Opium Wars, was now being done to the US by South America, and what outraged American authorities the most was the loss of capital to the South, somewhat mitigated by Miami being transformed into a financial capital in its own right, yet under the thumb of Latin American drug barons. Also marginalized in the film, even if present, were the important political, financial, and even moral precedents set in the US during the onset of the Drug War in the 1970s and 1980s, and some of the key shifts that were encapsulated by that period, such as the Mariel Boatlift from Cuba. In this review I want to focus more on these sidelined aspects in the film, and much less on the biographies of individual killers and drug smugglers—the latter being where the documentary almost merges with shows like Miami Vice (with Jan Hammer providing the music for this documentary as well). The phrase “cocaine cowboy,” which came into usage during the early years of the Drug War in Miami, is emblematic of the kind of new “Wild West” that Miami became, a now classic profile of a place in the process of extreme disruption and destabilization.

The Transformation of Miami and South Florida

“South Florida was vulnerable to penetration by drug suppliers,” as stated in the documentary. Various drug smugglers featured in the film describe it as being “wide open” and a kind of “virgin” territory. The film briefly describes the region’s geography, with many remote and uninhabited stretches of a 1,200 mile coast, countless small islands, and its history: visited by pirates in the 1700s, gun runners operating around the Union blockade during the Civil War importing guns from the Bahamas, the same technique used by rum runners. “This city has always had something coming in,” notes one of the documentary’s key speakers speaking of Miami.

There is “something” about the location, at the bottom of the map of the continental US, says Edna Buchanan (a Miami Herald crime reporter), that makes it an almost inevitable stop for people fleeing problems, “people who are running away from each other, or the law, or from their own personal demons—eventually if they run long enough, they come here”. Up until the end of the 1960s, as different people in the film attest, Miami was essentially a backwater, something “like Alabama,” a place that attracted little money but many elderly people nearing the end of their lives.

South Florida has seemingly always been outward-oriented. Added to the various gun and rum runners, the film notes how the area was used as a jumping off point for commando raids on Cuba. Raul Diaz, a retired lieutenant of the Miami-Dade Police Department, recounts how some Cuban immigrants had been trained by the CIA, then went into the fishing industry focusing on catching a particular lobster, the spiny lobster. A change occurred in 1975: a law was passed in the Bahamas barring Cuban exiles from fishing in their waters. Many of the Cuban exiles were now out of work. With their training and their boats, the Cuban fishermen turned to importing marijuana via the Bahamas. South Florida soon became the drug smuggling capital of America. The business expanded with air traffic importing marijuana from Colombia and Jamaica. So much marijuana came in, that its price dropped, and it became too cheap to sustain business operations. The same amount of money (or more) that one could make from importing 40,000 pounds of marijuana, could be made by bringing in 1,000 pounds of cocaine.

The Drug War

The local drug trade was first controlled by Miami Cubans, and initially Colombian drug cartels used the Cubans as intermediaries—until they realized that they did not need any intermediaries. It was the Colombian influx that transformed Miami in the 1980s into what it came to be known, as a glitzy if shady capital. The film dates the start of the Drug War to July 20, 1979, with the mass shooting at the busy Dadeland mall, when Colombian assassins opened fire on a local narcotics dealer. The war escalated into something qualitatively different, and substantially larger, when it become an armed conflict between various levels of US government, allied with the Colombian government operating under US pressure, against the Colombian drug cartels. From 1986 onward, the tide began to turn against the Colombian drug barons—key operatives were killed or arrested, others turned into state informants, and a massive amount of firepower had its effect as well. By the end of this documentary, one gets the impression that the Drug War ended by the close of the 1980s. However, as we know, the Drug War simply changed shape and location, with new barons and new cartels in alternate locations, with various entry points into the US, and not just dealing in cocaine anymore.

Reversing Empire?

Medellín, Colombia, was the home base for the major drug cartel that came to dominate Miami. In the 1980s Medellín was essentially a large town of just about 50,000 inhabitants: this was the periphery of the periphery, which then came to exercise such a disproportionate influence on the periphery of the centre. It was as if the usual relations of imperial dominance had been thrown in reverse, and that was probably the biggest threat posed by the Medellín cartel. Indeed one of the leading drug barons, Carlos Lehder, once declared from his refuge in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas: “Cocaine is the Latin American atomic bomb against the United States”. Lehder, leader of the National Latin Movement (a party that he created), embraced anti-imperialism, criticized the US for its interventions in Latin America, and posited cocaine as a means of liberation. (His program has been described by liberal opponents as “fascist-populist” and he was accused of being a neo-Nazi.) The relationship with the Sandinistas was brief and instrumental and, according to Lehder himself, the Colombians paid $10 million to the anti-government Contra rebels who also worked with them. The fact is that drug money was so pervasive, it reached into the operations of the State Department and the CIA.

It’s not a few people who have argued that the real impetus for the US’ “Drug War” was to prevent the drain of capital from the US to South America, a reversal of the extractive relationship to which American leaders had become accustomed. As one insider reported, Carlos Lehder’s personal pilot, Fernando Arenas:

“Nothing happened until we start taking the money out of the United States. One concept was expressed by Carlos [Lehder] and Pablo [Escobar], asking, ‘Who is using that cocaine? We are not using that cocaine. It is the States.’… And the alcohol thing and Prohibition and all of that stuff for 12 years….They said that they could live with the entire Mafia, because the Mafia invests the money back into the United States again. That was okay. But when we, Colombians, part of a Third World, we that are nobodies in this world are taking millions and millions and millions out of the United States, that’s when the United States started thinking about the war on drugs. They were okay until the money started getting out….”

For Colombia, cocaine amounted to its gold rush, one that the US was clearly not going to allow it to enjoy. It’s not surprising then that so many of the arguments advanced by figures like Escobar and Lehder, in their political roles in Colombia, emphasized themes of sovereignty, national independence, and anti-imperialism. Coca cultivation was a boon to peasants, affording them a chance to survive, while the industry that grew around it involved local technological know-how. The drug barons’ vast network of patron-client relationships substituted for the state in the field of social welfare, which was always sorely under funded if not absent. No wonder then that some of the drug barons became popular figures with large followings of supporters.

In reversing empire, the Colombian drug lords effectively mirrored the basic infrastructure of capital extraction. They had their own bridgeheads—American smugglers who operated boats and planes, plus Miami bankers, and the judges and police whose collaboration they bought. They developed a centre in what had now become their periphery: the economy of Miami skyrocketed rapidly due to the influx of Colombian cocaine dollars. Where commercial strips once were dominated by cheap t-shirt stores, now the most expensive jewellers opened up shops; a huge nightlife industry was spawned, with nightclubs, bars, restaurants, hotels, and prostitutes; then there were the car dealerships selling the most expensive luxury vehicles; retailers of private jets made a fortune; yachts sold as fast as they could be supplied; plus high-fashion outlets selling the fanciest dresses and furs; drug smugglers bought race horses, ranches, resorts and spas, and employed many thousands to serve them; not to mention the booming real estate market. Miami, specifically Brickell Avenue, became a sort of financial capital parallel to Wall Street, with all sorts of banks sprouting overnight. Journalists in archival footage in the film refer to Miami as “the Wall Street of the cocaine trade”. As one of the smugglers in the documentary, Jon Roberts, exclaims: “Have you ever seen a city with so many banks? You’re going to tell me there’s that kind of industry and business in this city? Please. Come on”. (One of the law enforcers in the film claims that the practice of US banks charging a fee for cash deposits dates to this time and place, as part of the routine money laundering that occurred.)

Overall about $80 billion each year was entering the economy of Miami—and most of this escaped the grasp of the Internal Revenue Service. The surplus cash in South Florida at one point was estimated to constitute half of all the surplus cash available in the US. Colombia made Miami, pure and simple, and it made it for Colombians and those who served them.

When the tide turned against the Colombian cartels by the end of the 1980s, the whole range of businesses that served them in Miami began to shut down or leave, creating a massive hole in the local economy. What helped to revive Miami’s economy were two trends: (a) those who made a fortune from selling goods and services to the Colombians, turned their fortunes over to speculation; and, (b) about 92 US transnational corporations moved the South American headquarters of their companies to Miami, trusting the US banking system more, and this move helped to turn Miami into the de facto financial capital of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cocaine money established the foundation for this later growth. Speakers in the film attest to how the drug trade changed the Miami skyline with a construction boom; how the city had become “the new Casablanca,” something perhaps like Chicago during the “Roaring 1920s”—“the drug trade saved Miami,” says one of the film’s key speakers. Miami Vice itself, coming after the worst had transpired, helped to glorify Miami and turned the city into a huge tourist attraction. The US was thus able to eventually arrest the loss of capital, and turn its direction around. If empire had been reversed, it was for a mere moment, and if anything US empire came out stronger as a result (or at least richer).

McDuffie and Mariel: War, Crisis, and Sovereignty

{click to enlarge}

If South Florida became a new “Wild West,” it also meant that it began to take on at least some of the outward signs of what US officials routinely call “failed states” when speaking of other countries. A medical examiner in this film, speaking in the 1980s, compared Miami to a “domestic Vietnam”. The breakdown of law enforcement, where “you have no law” in effect, as speakers in the film describe, is also indicative of this reverse empire. What it means is that US sovereignty was eroded; the very ability of the state to exist as such, controlling its own territory, was undermined. Miami experienced a level of violence it had never seen before, as the Drug War was very much a real war, with numerous innocent civilians killed in the many shootouts that occurred day and night in public places. The concern about illegal immigration, which certainly predated the Drug War, took on a new sense of urgency with the influx of unidentifiable assassins. As one police detective says, whereas the classic police mystery is the “who dunnit,” what Miami police now faced was the “who is it” with reference to the unknowable identities of the bodies they found riddled with bullets, bearing fake IDs. Not knowing who was killed made it harder to find out who killed them.

The sovereignty issue comes up again later in the documentary—archival footage shows a local news anchor condemning how Florida was left to its own resources to deal with the influx of Cuban refugees (more on this below). He states:

“The State of Florida has no navy, no air force, no immigration service, no customs unit, no radar, no CIA, no foreign service to deal with foreign countries. The State has no way to prevent such new arrivals, nor a way of returning them from whence they came”.

Another local news anchor complains,

“Jimmy Carter has six more weeks to serve as president. He has been big on ‘human rights’. To protect the human rights of the people in Miami, he still has time to arrange an exodus, back to Cuba, for these undesirable Cubans. Airlift them to our naval base in Guantanamo, open the gate, and let these Cubans be returned to their sender”.

However, it’s also amazing to see how feckless and hapless the Reagan–Bush administration appeared in the face of such challenges, at least initially. Early champions of neoliberal globalization, they looked gob smacked to be reaping the unexpected fruits of an “order” they helped to build. With time, the US responded like any state would try to respond: through forceful defensive measures. Yet, with a crackdown in South Florida, the cocaine trade spread to other parts of the US, such as Los Angeles.

Miami and South Florida more generally suffered two simultaneous crises: one involved the Miami race riots of May 1980, known as the “McDuffie riots,” resulting in a dusk-to-dawn curfew, deployment of the National Guard, 18 killed, hundreds arrested, and over $100 million in property damage. This crisis was internal to the US, but it accelerated the breakdown of legitimacy for police forces who were now seen by many as purveyors of crime and brutality in their own right.

State of Florida archives

State of Florida archives

The second crisis, occurring at the same time, was the Mariel boatlift, where Cuba disgorged criminals from its prisons and included them in the mass migration of over 125,000 Cubans to the US. A speaker in the film quotes Fidel Castro as saying, “I have flushed the toilets of Cuba on the United States”. Rudy Giuliani appears in the film, declaring: “There are, among those people, murderers, rapists, child molesters, dangerous individuals”—almost four decades later, Donald Trump opened his presidential campaign with nearly identical words, this time spoken about Mexican migrants.

Nor was it a lot of myth-making: Miami’s crime rate soared by 89% in the months immediately following the Mariel boatlift, including crimes of violent abduction leading to rape. The leading cause of death among Mariel refugees themselves was murder. There were so many murders in a shot stretch of time, that a local hospital rented a refrigerated trailer truck from Burger King, to house the overflow of corpses from the morgue. Gun ownership soared, as Floridians sought to protect themselves. Florida’s now famous “stand your ground” law originated in this period. One archived news report in the film states that civilians, not police, killed 30 of the 43 persons involved in the act of committing a felony. Miami became defined as the most violent city in the US. Several speakers in the film, including media and law enforcement figures, refer to the TIME magazine cover of November 23, 1981, “Paradise Lost,” as being emblematic of this transformation. Local businesses, especially those catering to tourists, suffered and many shut down or left. We might call this Act I in the loss of capital; Act II was paying for the refugee influx; and, Act III was the outflow of capital from imported cocaine. (Act IV was the decline of Colombian capital extraction, and Act V was the reversal of the flow of capital back to the US—as discussed above.

Still from Cocaine Cowboys showing the interior of the Burger King truck.

One point to realize is that the aftermath of the first crisis, McDuffie, would make it that much harder to deal with the aftermath of the second, Mariel. The second is that this period was critical for establishing lasting precedents. The third is that it teaches something about how imperial relations form and change.

Aside from changes to banking regulations and gun ownership rights, other important precedents were set in this period that still reverberate today, not least in the speeches of one ardent South Florida resident: Donald Trump, and in the speeches of his opponents. This was when the idea that criminal aliens were posing as refugees reached its first zenith. It was at the same time when US President Jimmy Carter said the US would welcome the refugees and “provide an open heart and open arms” (May 5, 1980)—preceding the same act by Canada’s Justin Trudeau by nearly four decades. One scholar, writing in the journal Diplomatic History, characterized Carter’s policy as a case of the US “hiding behind a humanitarian label”. Those who spent some time revisiting history might not attempt anything like a “migrant caravan”. Another feature of this period was the kind of austerity that would be imposed on Floridians, who were in effect called upon to pay the cost of social services for Cuban refugees welcomed by the Federal government. A woman on the street speaking in an interview, in archival news footage in the documentary, asked: “Why should one community in the entire country pay for the Federal government’s error in judgment?” These are some of the questions coming back to life today, as is the excessive reaction which involves demonizing and dehumanizing all of the migrants. People not willing to create such outcomes, should not be willing to reproduce the conditions that lead to them.

An Aside: Insights on Exceptional vs. Reverse vs. Everyday vs. Likewise Empire

In both crises—and this gives some insight for revising theories of how imperial relations are actually made—the US was largely creating its own crises, making matters worse for itself, and laying itself bare. Colombia did not invent McDuffie, and it did not push the US to accept Cubans, nor did Colombians teach Americans to become addicted to cocaine. Foreign troops storming in, demolishing local government, and planting a new order—this is exceptional empire, what some might call the “classic,” almost caricatured, idea of imperialism. The more common everyday empire involves processes happening locally that then intersect with the ambitions of foreign actors. Reverse empire could be either a reversal (not the undoing) of what is described above as exceptional empire, where somehow the periphery manages to conquer the centre, and becomes the new centre; or, it can also coexist with everyday empire, as in the case of Miami in the hands of Colombian drug lords.

What complicates the picture of “reverse empire” considerably, is that often what was happening in Miami mirrored what was happening in Colombia, and specifically Medellín which in one period was seeing as many as a dozen murder victims per day. The “reverse empire” picture might be more convincing if the Colombian state was taking the lead in breaking down the state of Florida—however, this was the case of two states both being undermined by the same forces, what international relations scholars call “non-state actors”. Yes, there was a net transfer of capital from the US to Colombia in the cocaine trade, and certainly a good part of that capital was entering the Colombian economy and fortifying elements associated with this or that government, but the impetus was clearly in the hands of those outside of the state, from the periphery of Colombia itself. These were actors that, when organized and in possession of a unique commodity, backed by the means to enforce their preferences and impose value, were able to reproduce some forms of imperial dominance. They may have been a different sort of actor, but operated in a manner similar to states—hence, likewise empire. In more romantic terms, the cocaine trade was the revenge of the periphery.

One of the distinctive features of “globalization” is that the international drug trade, both in the 1980s and today, is one of the top revenue generators. Along with the illicit arms trade and human trafficking, it remains one of the top three most profitable global enterprises. Drug barons formed what was basically the flipside of the transnational capitalist class of the kind that gathers at Davos—they were transnational capitalists from below, operating largely underground, and from the global periphery. So if the picture of empire is complicated, so is the picture of transnational capitalism.

Key Actors on the Ground

Jon Roberts

The documentary opens with the story of Jon Roberts, from New York. Roberts is an immediately likeable individual, without airs, and his manner of presenting his story is engaging. Orphaned at a young age, he first worked with the mafia, then after an arrest he went to Vietnam as an alternative to doing time in prison. He liked it. Roberts extended his tour in Vietnam from one to four years, enamoured with the advanced training he received for service in the 101st Airborne, and all the “crazy things” he got to do in Vietnam. As he explains, “I liked it…I had a bad mentality”. Eventually he found himself back in the US with all sorts of skills gained during his military service, and nothing to do. At first he joined his uncle in New York, taking over restaurants and night clubs, until that fell apart after the violent murder of his uncle’s partner. Roberts moved to Miami, “to escape the heat,” and joined the cocaine business. He first hooked up with a Cuban, Alberto San Pedro, who boasted of controlling the mayor of Miami, the city council, and several key judges. Roberts ended up distributing over $2 billion worth of cocaine for the Medellín cartel.

Roberts’ personal account of how everything came undone in the end is very fascinating, even gripping. He carefully and engagingly details his struggle with the authorities, various plots of his to fake cooperation, followed by his fleeing to Colombia and Mexico only to be captured and returned to the US, and then serving a 15-year prison sentence—released in October of 2000. By the time this documentary was first made, he was already a free man, and judging from the film, living comfortably, back in Miami, and in very good shape. Unfortunately he died from cancer in 2011.

Toni Mooney

Roberts’ former girlfriend, Toni Mooney, was a model who also appeared in an unaccredited role on a Miami Vice episode (“Whatever Works,” season 2, 1985). Mooney first became involved with a “photographer” who was in fact tied to the South American drug cartels. The same photographer connected Roberts with Colombian dealers, one of whom was married to a cousin of Pablo Escobar. In the process of developing a business relationship with them, Roberts was eventually introduced to Mickey Munday, below.

Mickey Munday

Another very amiable individual featured in the film is Mickey Munday, also a drug smuggler, born and raised in South Florida. He tells us at the start that he was in the import business, with some exporting, but mostly importing, with a funny glint in his eyes. Munday transported over 38 tons of cocaine from Colombia to the US. In the end, he was a fugitive for over six years until his capture in 1992. He was released from prison in 1999, and appears to be in very good shape.

Roberts and Munday both traveled to Colombia where they met some of the leading drug barons, including Fabio Ochoa Restrepo (“Don Fabio”), Pablo Escobar, and Carlos Lehder among others.

The late Barry Seal also appears in this documentary, from archival footage, and is discussed by figures like Jon Roberts above. Seal, a former drug smuggler of legendary proportions, worked with the Federal government, and helped to reveal that, at least for a while, the revolutionary Sandinista government was providing refuge for the Medellín cartel. Photos taken from inside of Seal’s cargo plane, then featured in an address to the nation by then President Reagan, showed Sandinista government officials alongside top members of the drug cartel, loading the cargo plane, including Pablo Escobar and Carlos Lehder. (It’s a mystery to me why Nicaragua lacked more ordinary cargo handlers.)

Other key actors appearing in the film are a range of now retired police officers who attest to the level of corruption in their departments. Numerous top detectives, and dozens of policemen, were charged and often convicted. From about the one hour mark, the film detours into an extended review of law enforcers, new police units that were formed, and their procedures. What becomes evident is that the police appeared to be fighting a losing battle. The number of murders piling up, and the insufficient staffing levels, generated a high degree of burnout with many policemen quitting the force. This created a high demand for new recruits, and in the aftermath of the McDuffie riots, there was a demand for more “diversity” among recruits, thus a push for more minority applicants. Top detectives of the time make it clear in the film that this opened the door wide to penetration by the very same drug cartels that the police were confronting, and now more crimes began to be committed by what witnesses said were men in police uniforms. Police corruption skyrocketed.

Jorge Ayala {click to enlarge}

Accompanied by persistent music from Jan Hammer, from the midway point the film starts to resemble a kind of Miami Vice overview. Accompanying that is what I thought was an excessive amount of time spent hearing from hit men like Jorge Ayala (as personable as he is), now serving time, reviewing the details of their assassinations. Almost amusing is how Ayala seemed to have a hard time saying no to any hit, no matter how ludicrous and extreme—he would ask those calling the hit “Is that how you’re going to do it? No, now this is how we’ll do it,” after having first declined the offer. Such a perfectionist, he had to get involved just to make sure it was done correctly.

Griselda Blanco {click to enlarge}

Most notable of the criminals discussed was Griselda Blanco, a.k.a. Queen of Cocaine, a.k.a. the Black Widow, a.k.a. La Madrina—a rare female leader who distinguished herself with exceptional brutality. She killed her way to the top of the cocaine trade in the early years of the Drug War, from 1979 to 1982, including the Dadeland killings mentioned above. It was widely reported that she was responsible for as many as 200 murders. Deported back to Colombia in 2004, she was eventually gunned down in Medellín on September 4, 2012.

Not for the Do-Gooders: Some “Helpful Tips”

One of the amusing features of this documentary is the range of “helpful tips” it provides to anyone interested in defying law enforcement. For example, if meeting with people and being worried about the conversations being recorded, then meet in a bowling alley—the noise tends to produce useful interference. What to do about those drug-sniffing canines visiting your property? Mix marijuana or cocaine (whatever is meant to be masked) in a blender with alcohol for one hour, then with some kerosene added pour it into a weed sprayer. Then spray everything, everywhere you can, since this will cause the dogs to go alert for obviously innocuous objects and lead their handlers to believe that the dogs are unreliable since they only seem to give wrong signals (as they often do). This means any evidence “reported” by the dogs gets tossed out as useless, or at least it sends investigators off on the wrong track.

Conclusion

Obviously this was a very thought provoking film. Anyone who sees this will become aware of the painstaking research that went into putting it all together, especially assembling many of the key historical actors for extended interviews. A team of 14 researchers was involved. Contributors to the film were several from the FBI, DEA, and the police departments of Miami, Miami-Dade County, and the Broward Sheriff’s Office. Historical and news footage came from 25 different archives. Archival photographs came from 28 different sources. Visually, it’s an arresting film—especially the animated archival photos, the camera roaming over key details of crime scene locations as those involved narrate what happened, how, and where. It is easy to take it all for granted, but it involved meticulous sourcing, analysis, editing and effects. Given that it is meant to only contextualize what appears intended as a human-interest approach to the Drug War, focusing on specific individuals and their stories, some of the broader geopolitical issues are left understated, or are not stated at all. One of the definite flaws of the film is the irregular and infrequent captioning of speakers—so we do not know the identity, position, or role of a particular speaker, only that they speak authoritatively, and for those who are named if you miss the name by blinking it will never appear again. That is why in this review I sometimes wrote ambiguously, “one of the film’s key speakers”. It is difficult for me to imagine the sorts of courses in which this documentary might be useful to show to students, outside of History, so readers will need to make their own determination. Overall this was an excellent film, I highly recommend it, and I am thus giving it a score of 9/10.

Trailer

(This documentary review forms part of the war and geopolitics series on Zero Anthropology. Each documentary is viewed at least four times before a written review is published, as was the case here.)

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