The U.S. hasn ’t cornered the market on firearm homicides. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs & Crime, Honduras and El Salvador have extremely high rates, as do Mexico and Brazil.
But in Latin America, there are key differences in the reaction to such violence. “In Brazil, we’ve never had a mass murderer blaming movies for his actions,” says Sergio Sa Leitao, Rio city hall secretary of state for c ulture and CEO of RioFilme investment fund.
Mexico’s drug war began early in the past decade when local kingpins wrestled control of the main cocaine smuggling route into the U.S. from Colombia’s capos.
Mexico’s government has fought organized crime since 2008. Sparking grotesque turf wars — the Sinaloa mob battling the Juarez mafiosi, the Beltran-Leyva cartel and the Zetas — the conflict has left 80,000 Mexicans dead, says Pablo Cruz at Mexico City and L.A.-based production company Canana, whose 2011 movie “Miss Bala,” showed organized crime’s tentacles reaching deep into Mexican life.
Compared with the U.S., “Mexico has different problems, of inequality, hunger and lack of opportunity, plus a drug business worth trillions of dollars that is very difficult to stop,” Cruz says.
Its toll is tremendous. “I grew up in Iztapalapa, one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in Mexico City,” says film producer Ozcar Ramirez at Arte Mecanica. “Of my friends at kindergarten, some are in jail, others sell drugs and others are just dead.”
Ramirez says the problem — in both the U.S. and Mexico — is sociological: kids’ frustration. “On the streets of Mexico City, you see a man and a beautiful woman in a $300,000 car buying something from street kids,” he says. “Kids want these things, and because they can’t have them, they may use crime as a way to get them.”
Cruz doesn’t discount some of Hollywood influence, but says placing blame is misguided. Smith agrees: “In Haiti, I’ve seen absolute horror, what machine guns can do to people close-up. I’ve never ever seen anything onscreen that remotely resembles that.”
Some kids, he adds, “have seen and been exposed to such violence that they’re desensitized. It’s taken away the sanctity of life.”
Elsewhere in Latin America, observers question if real violence is imitating art, or whether it’s the other way around.
Says Maja Zimmermann, who produced “Jardin de Amapolas,” a coming-of-age tale about a farmer’s son set in Colombia’s high plains, which features a scene in which paramilitaries gun down women and children: “Movies are a way to talk about violence in order to emotionally touch the audience and help them to understand what is going on, including in Latin America.”
Inspired by a newspaper article, “Miss Bala” turns on a beauty contest entrant who survives a bar-room massacre only to be abducted, raped and coopted into arms trading by a local drug baron.
“We made ‘Miss Bala’ out of a sense of mourning for Mexico’s young men and women who are lost — like the rest of our nation — in a war that makes no sense to them and from which there is no escape,” Cruz says.
In Latin America, narcopics — their presence or absence — can even be a bellwether to a country’s evolution. “Rio de Janeiro was once the poster city of Latin American violence,” says Sa Leitao. “Thanks to social, economic development and security measures, such as favela pacification, murders in Rio were the lowest on record in 2012.”
So Brazilian cinema has moved on from “City of God” and “Elite Squad,” covering ever more varied subjects.
How to stop violence is maybe Mexico’s biggest challenge. But Hollywood and vidgames are hardly the problems.