Protests at Sicario’s portrayal of drug war

Endangered: Emily Blunt stars as FBI agent Kate Macy in Sicario. © Black Label Media

A Mexican mayor has joined protesters in condemning a new blockbuster which shows his city as a violent, dangerous place. What responsibilities do film-makers have to the places they depict?

Headless corpses hang from a bridge. Gunfights break out spontaneously on the streets. Blood, grit and tears stain the faces of onlookers. This is what the troubled Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez looks like – according to a new Hollywood thriller, at least.

In Sicario an FBI agent heads to Juárez, which lies on the border with the United States, to try to bring the escalating war between drug cartels under control. The film has been praised for its gripping action set-pieces – but its portrayal of the city has been denounced by locals, who feel misrepresented.

Five years ago, when the filmmakers first came up with the story, Juárez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. It was in the throes of a turf war between the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels: murder and kidnapping were common, and police corruption was endemic. But since 2012, the city has turned itself around. Its streets throng with American tourists, nightlife is thriving, and crime has plummeted. The reasons for this change are unclear: some cite better police training and harsher prison sentences, while others claim that the cartels have reached a settlement.

The film is ‘out of date’, says Enrique Serrano Escobar, the city’s mayor. He has complained that its release comes ‘just as we are turning in another direction,’ and threatened to sue the filmmakers for defamation. Serrano’s opinions are echoed by many citizens, including the protesters who stood at the US-Mexico border last week, holding signs saying ‘We are not hit men’ – a reference to the film’s title, which means ‘hit man’ in Spanish.

This is not the first time Hollywood has come under fire for caricaturing foreign societies. In 2012, the Oscar-winning Argo infuriated Iranians, who took issue with being depicted as murderous fanatics; six years earlier, Blood Diamond was criticised for suggesting that Africa is doomed to eternal civil war.

It’s only a movie

How much damage can one film do? Some point out that as long as the US economy is growing, tourism in the city will continue to increase regardless. And in any case, by foregrounding Mexico’s drug-related violence, Sicario encourages serious discussion of a conflict that continues to grip many parts of the country.

But Serrano’s objection has clearly struck a chord with many citizens, who resent the arrogance of a film industry that treats real places as backdrops for entertainment. Others argue that the film could at least have been shot in Juárez (for security reasons it was filmed in Mexico City and the USA), as this would have brought much-needed investment to the city.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to see a Hollywood blockbuster made in your town?
  2. How far do films shape our views of current affairs?


  1. Create an advert for a film based on the town you live in. What might Hollywood producers find deserving of their attention? Would the resulting movie be worth watching?
  2. Choose a different film which was based in a real place, and prepare a presentation on the way its setting was depicted. Was it controversial? Do you think the producers were fair, and does it matter if they weren’t?

Some People Say...

“Creators of fiction have a duty not to misrepresent reality.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this drugs war affect anyone outside Mexico?
Yes. Mexicans consume relatively few narcotics, but 70% of all drugs in the USA have come through Mexico and the cartels are increasing exports to Africa and Europe, where cocaine fetches twice its price in the USA. Global demand fuels the trade, and therefore the war — so people who buy drugs around the world are helping to cause the misery in central America.
Why is there a drug war in Mexico?
Mexico is a major producer of heroin and cannabis, and a staging post for cocaine shipments from Latin America to the USA. For decades, the country’s narcotics trade has been controlled by a few criminal organisations, which are engaged in a constant power struggle. Since 2006, the Mexican government has stepped up efforts to disband these groups.

Word Watch

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is a branch of the US federal (i.e. central) government. It specialises in maintaining the law, investigating criminals and foiling spies and terrorists across the nation. It cooperates with the Mexican government in the fight against drug cartels.
This is an economic term that describes an association of businesses working together to fix prices and restrict competition in their field. Drug cartels are labelled as such because, in many cases, they are loose coalitions of drug-trafficking groups.
When somebody says, prints or otherwise communicates information that unfairly harms the reputation of an individual or an organisation, they are said to commit defamation of character. The harmed party can then sue that person. This is a civil offence, meaning you cannot go to prison for committing it — but you may have to pay damages. It is also usually referred to as libel.

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