by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine and moviemagg.blogspot.com • All rights reserved
Erin Tsurumoto Grassi
Promotional image from Kingdom of Shadows
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They’re sending us not the right people.”
— Presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, June 15, 2015
The issues of immigration and drug smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border got blended together in an unusual way September 12, when the San Diego Public Library gave a preview screening of Bernardo Ruiz’s 2015 documentary Kingdom of Shadows, about the Mexican drug cartels and their lethal attacks on innocent civilians in the border town of Monterrey. The film, which airs locally as part of the P.O.V. (“Point of View”) documentary series on KPBS-TV (channel 15, cable 11) Monday, September 19 from 11 p.m. to 12:15 a.m., dealt specifically with the drug wars — both the military-style operations of Mexico’s drug cartels and the punitive anti-drug policies of both the U.S. and Mexican governments.
But the main expertise of the speaker the library lined up to lead a question-and-answer session afterwards, Erin Tsurumoto Grassi of Alliance San Diego, is on immigration issues. And the audience members who asked questions and made comments were clearly more interested in immigration — particularly whether the “border wall” between the countries proposed by presidential candidate Donald Trump could ever be built, and whether it would help or hurt U.S. workers and the U.S. economy if it were — than in the issues raised by the movie.
Kingdom of Shadows is a grim, tragic tale of the death toll the Mexican drug cartels — particularly the warring Juárez and Sinaloa cartels as well as the Zetas, a group of military men from Mexico’s version of the Special Forces who were trained at the notorious U.S.-led School of the Americas to combat the drug gangs and instead became a drug gang themselves — are inflicting on ordinary Mexicans and the sheer wantonness of their crimes. It’s also about the attempts of local Mexican activists, including families of los desparacidos (“The Disappeared,” as the people kidnapped, tortured and usually killed by the cartels are called because they often vanish without a trace) as well as nuns and activists, to stop the violence by getting the drug lords and their hired killers prosecuted.
That’s a tall order, mainly because the drug lords have so much money they can easily bribe virtually anyone with the legal or political authority to stop them — and to kill anyone they can’t bribe. “Mexico has a very weak judicial system where 93 percent of all major crimes are never prosecuted,” director Ruiz says in the PBS press release for the film. The Mexican police are so notoriously corrupt — and have been for decades — the term la mordida (literally “the little death”) has long since entered Mexican Spanish as slang for the bribes criminals routinely pay police to evade arrest. With the huge amounts of money the drug cartels have to bribe people — and the enormous military power (most of which, the film explains briefly, comes from the U.S., where the cartels buy military-grade weapons because they’re illegal in Mexico but legal here) at their disposal to kill those they can’t bribe, the cartels have basically become untouchable. “Stepping out of the shadows to say, ‘We want justice,’ is a big deal,” Ruiz says.
At some times the efforts of Sister Morales, Sister Consuelo and the other activists profiled in Ruiz’s film seem reminiscent of the 1970’s efforts of Northern Irish women Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire to start a peace movement in the middle of war-torn Northern Ireland and put an end to the escalating violence between the British colonial government and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). But the Mexican nuns and other civil society activists face a situation in which, instead of fighting over the future of their country like the IRA and the pro-British Irish Unionists were, the cartels are just in it to make money — and, increasingly, to take joy in the sheer act of mass killing.
Kingdom of Shadows is built around the stories of three people. One is Sister Morales, who works out of Monterrey with relatives of los desparacidos and stages protest marches and rallies with them to demand an end to the chronic corruption of Mexican law enforcement and the impunity with which the cartels and their hired assassins commit their brutal crimes. “Sister Morales is really the heart of the film,” Ruiz says. “She’s this extraordinary person who helps families whose loved ones have gone missing. She pushes the state government to actually do something and get some kind of justice” — though, alas, there’s scant evidence in the film that her efforts have resulted in prosecutions.
Another of Ruiz’s subjects is Don Henry Ford, Jr., a small farmer in Texas who casually turned to marijuana smuggling because he wanted to get out from under the debt he was under and the control seed and chemical suppliers and bankers wield over U.S. farmers. In the movie he recalls how he took his first shipment of clandestine pot over the border in the bed of his pickup truck and how he worked his way up to larger quantities while still remaining a small cog in the drug operation. He also says he was lucky he was caught when he was — in 1995, one year before tough anti-drug laws passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton ramped up the sentences for drug smuggling and took away the discretion of judges to sentence according to the fact of the case. Because he got in under the wire, Ford says, he got a five-year sentence instead of the 20 years or more that became mandatory just a year later.
Ruiz’ third major character is Oscar Hagelsieb, the son of immigrants who became a U.S. Border Patrol agent. He said his father endorsed his choice of career but told him to be respectful of the undocumented immigrants who were just crossing the border to get jobs and a better life. However, Hagelsieb said, his dad told him to go after the drug criminals with everything he had and see they were punished to the maximum extent possible. Hagelsieb’s dedication to his job comes through strongly in the film, but so does his discontent with how little he’s actually been able to accomplish. In his most rueful moment on screen, he confesses that he would not want his son to follow him into the Border Patrol as a career.
One of the movie’s unlikeliest heroes is Amado Carrillo Fuentes, described on his Wikipedia page as “a Mexican drug lord who seized control of the Juárez Cartel after assassinating his boss Rafael Aguilar Guajardo.” He got the nickname “El Señor de los Cielos” — “Lord of the Skies” — because he pioneered the use of private airplanes to smuggle drugs. He was also instrumental in making sure that after the cartels in Medellín and Calí, Colombia were brought down by prosecutions and assassinations, Juárez and other Mexican cartels picked up the slack and essentially took over the international cocaine business. Carrillo Fuentes was pursued by both U.S. and Mexican authorities, and died in July 1997 from complications from a botched plastic surgery operation — and, in a typical example of cartel revenge violence, his doctors were themselves assassinated four months later.
He’s considered a hero in the movie, however, because while he was alive he managed to maintain peace between the various cartels much the way the formation of “La Cosa Nostra,” an alliance between Italian-American criminals from Naples (the Camorra) and Sicily (the Mafia), largely put an end to the street violence, drive-by shootings and killings of civilians that had characterized American gangsterism in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Indeed, Ruiz talked to many residents of Monterrey who admired Carrillo Fuentes for being able to broker peace between the various cartels, and said that while he was alive people in Monterrey were relatively safe from the cross-fire between cartels that has taken the lives of so many since.
Kingdom of Shadows is a darkly moving film, full of ironies, and if it has a flaw it’s that its 75-minute running time is hardly enough to tackle the issues it raises and then sometimes suddenly drops. One of these is the formation of a new Mexican police force, the Fuerza Civil (“Civil Force”), in 2011, which by recruiting people from outside traditional law enforcement aimed at creating a new agency whose members would receive military-style training as well as psychometric tests to determine whether or not they could be corrupted. The film includes a recruiting video for the Fuerza Civil in which the star is a woman member — itself an indication of how the force is challenging Mexico’s norms. The Fuerza Civil is funded not only by the Mexican government but also by some of the private companies that have located in Monterrey and have — along with the drug cartels — helped make it Mexico’s wealthiest city.
Another comment that’s made briefly is the possibility that the U.S. could put the cartels out of business by ending its reliance on prohibition as its front-line strategy against drug use. There’s a precedent in American history, too: the repeal of alcohol prohibition in 1933 and the plummeting of the U.S. crime rate that resulted, as people who wanted to drink could obtain it legally and people who wanted to make and sell alcoholic beverages could do so in above-ground companies and settle their differences in court with lawyers instead of in the streets with guns. One person in the film says that, as more U.S. states consider legalizing marijuana, the Mexican cartels are seeing the market for it dry up and are planning for the future by diversifying into methamphetamine.
Overall, though, Kingdom of Shadows is a tragic film, with the efforts of the nuns and the relatives of the desparecidos coming off as incredibly noble, courageous and futile. A January 20, 2012 report by Ashley Fantz on the CNN Web site, http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/15/world/mexico-drug-war-essay/, says, “[T]he Mexican drug war, at its core, is about two numbers: 48,000 and 39 billion.” The 48,000 refers to the number of people estimated to have been killed by the cartels in 2011, and $39 billion is the authorities’ estimate of the profit the various cartels make in a year.
The Q&A: What About the Wall?
Though Kingdom of Shadows focused on the Mexican drug cartels and how they’ve affected life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, the post-film discussion led by Erin Tsurumoto Grassi focused largely on immigration and what she called the “increased militarization” of the border. “A lot of us are aware of the rhetoric about the border,” Tsurumoto Grassi said. “We hear it’s unenforced and we need a wall.” Hosting an event held the day after the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Tsurumoto Grassi acknowledged that — even though the attacks had nothing to do with Mexico — they helped bring about more militarization of the border and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which among other things took over all the U.S. agencies charged with immigration and border security.
Thanks to the vast increase in the size of the Border Patrol since 9/11 and, some argue, the hiring of agents without adequate pre-employment vetting or training, the number of abuses of immigrants and their families has increased, Tsurumoto Grassi argued. “Since 2010, nearly 50 people have been killed in Southern California by Border Patrol agents,” she said. She also saw ties between the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the growing use of military tactics and equipment by police in the U.S. itself — and the growing numbers of police killings of African-Americans and other people of color that sparked the creation of movements like Black Lives Matter. Tsurumoto Grassi also said that in Tucson, Arizona and other locations, “Border Patrol agents have themselves been caught smuggling drugs.”
Tsurumoto Grassi, who in addition to Alliance San Diego also identified herself as part of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Coalition and a dizzying array of other coalitions that work together on border issues, explained, “A lot of our work has been to push back against the abuses.” She stressed that one major campaign of her organization is to require Border Patrol agents to wear body cameras, the way increasing numbers of U.S. domestic police are being made to do, so any abuses they commit will be documented. But one audience member was skeptical, saying that police wearing body cameras often say they didn’t work because the officer didn’t turn it on, it was “dropped” or “broken,” and even when video from body cameras exists the police and local governments often fight tooth-and-nail in the courts to prevent the footage from being released to the public.
Because Tsurumoto Grassi works for a group organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501 ( c) (3), which prohibits it from endorsing candidates or making statements that could be construed as endorsements for or against candidates, she was a bit skittish when asked point-blank what she thought of Trump’s proposal for a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border. She first asked the questioner whether she was asking about Trump’s plan or the partial border fencing that exists now. Then she said, “100,000 people cross the border every day. Our region is economically dependent on cross-border traffic.”
Tsurumoto Grassi then went on to talk about “Operation Gatekeeper” and similar anti-immigration operations in the early 1990’s, which actually increased the numbers of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Before “Gatekeeper,” she said, undocumented immigrants freely crossed the border, spending time in the U.S. when farm labor or other jobs were available, then returning to Mexico and their families when harvest season was over. After “Gatekeeper,” said Tsurumoto Grassi, “people who crossed to work got stuck.” They couldn’t go back to Mexico because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to get back in the U.S. when work was available again, so they stayed here. As a result, she said, “you have a lot of families [headed by undocumented immigrants] with U.S.-born children.”
“Gatekeeper” and similar operations also forced would-be immigrants to take more dangerous routes through the desert instead of coming through major urban centers, said Tsurumoto Grassi — and as a result, the crossing became more dangerous and more immigrants died.
Two African-American women dominated the early part of the questioning. One wondered how the U.S. government could spend billions on border walls and continue to neglect the rebuilding of New Orleans and other areas decimated by Hurricane Katrina over a decade ago. Tsurumoto Grassi sympathized and said, “As we militarize the border it takes away resources from other communities that desperately need them.”
The other woman said, “I totally believe in the border as protection against other people who don’t like the United States.” She echoed one of Trump’s talking points, which is that one reason the border wall is needed is to keep out would-be terrorists from “certain” countries — by which he apparently means countries in the Middle East and other places with majority Muslim populations. Actually, most terror attacks in the U.S. by Muslims claiming affiliation with extremist organizations like al-Qaeda or Islamic State have been committed either by U.S.-born citizens (the Orlando massacre), naturalized citizens (the Boston Massacre bombing, the San Bernardino killings), or people who legally entered the U.S. and then overstayed their visas (9/11).
“The whole situation of 9/11 started things going in a really bad direction,” said a man in the audience at the screening. “Before that, people would complain about Mexicans taking jobs from American workers. Now one Presidential candidate is talking about fear of Mexicans and Muslims. He wants not to let anyone in, and if other countries start doing that it could be detrimental to us.” He asked Tsurumoto Grassi if she thought Trump’s rhetoric was based on fear, and she agreed.
“The enormous problem in Mexico seems to be impunity, and especially after 9/11 we’ve seen a lot more impunity in the U.S.,” said Charles Nelson from the audience. “There’s no sense of responsibility [among law enforcement and security people]. We tell people to take off their belts and shoes at airports, and we’re listening to your phone calls. Militarizing law enforcement is not the answer.”
Tsurumoto Grassi agreed. “A lot of the problem is we need to hold law enforcement accountable,” she stated. Asked what else, besides body cameras, her agency is doing to bring that about, she said, “Attempting to get the Border Patrol agents prosecuted for their crimes.” To another questioner who tied the killings by Border Patrol agents to the killings of people of color by local police that inspired the Black Lives Matter protests, she added, “As citizens, we have a responsibility to continue constant vigilance.” She said body cameras will only serve their purpose if citizens keep pressure on local police departments and city governments to release the tapes.
“The reality is we have to change the culture within law enforcement, so police who see something wrong will feel free to report it,” Tsurumoto Grassi said in answer to a question about the so-called “thin blue line” that discourages police officers and other law enforcement personnel from “ratting” on colleagues’ bad behavior. “We may never reach a stage when 100 percent of incidents are reported. We may never end impunity. But there are things we can do.”
About the only response Tsurumoto Grassi gave to an issue about drug policy was in reference to this reporter’s question, which seized on the hint in the film about how the cartels were shifting from marijuana to meth as more U.S. states consider making marijuana legal. Asked if the U.S. should consider legalizing drugs as a way to put the cartels out of business, Tsurumoto Grassi said, “There are other countries that approach drug use from a different standpoint, but focused more on addressing it as an illness and re-integrating [drug users] into society.”