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‘The Cartel,’ ‘Escobar: Paradise Lost’ Show Futility of War on Drugs

More than a decade after Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” took on U.S. drug policy, popular culture is once again turning a jaundiced eye toward the government’s failed efforts to stanch the flow of narcotics.

On the bigscreen, the documentary “Cartel Land” and the thriller “Escobar: Paradise Lost” present parallel stories of vigilantism and criminality, all of it fueled by America’s insatiable appetite for marajuana, cocaine, heroin and other illicit pleasures.

In book stores, Don Winslow, the crack novelist behind “Savages,” is criss-crossing the porous border between Mexico and the U.S. to examine the intractable standoff between cops and drug barons in “The Cartel.” The picture that emerges in each of these works is of rampant lawlessness, shocking violence and dysfunctional policies that have done nothing to reduce illegal drug consumption.

“The war on drugs is a disaster,” Winslow told Variety. “For 45 years we’ve been doing the same thing and we’re only making it worse.”

The novelist was so galvanized by the wrong-headedness of the government’s response to the drug trade that he took out a full page ad in the Washington Post this weekend, declaring the War on Drugs a “trillion dollar mistake” that is “unwinnable.”

“How much more money do we have to waste, how many more families have to be destroyed, how many more people have to be killed before [Congress summons] the courage to tell the truth to the American people?” Winslow asks.

America seems to agree. A 2014 Rasmussen poll found that only 3% of people believe the war on drugs is being won, while a whopping 84% think it is being lost. Still, for most Americans, the lives being lost to drugs and crime seem very far away. Films like “Cartel Land” and books like “The Cartel” put a human face on the suffering.

In the coming months, these pessimistic depictions of the political and personal costs of these desperate battles will be explored in the likes of “Sicario,” a thriller about the morally tangled efforts of a a police officer (Emily Blunt) to ensnare a drug lord, and “Narcos,” a 10-episode Netflix miniseries about Pablo Escobar.

The deleterious effects of these policies are being most profoundly felt south of the Rio Grande, “Cartel Land” makes clear. The gripping documentary follows the formation of a citizen task force called the Autodefensas with the goal of cracking down on the cartels that terrorize many Mexican towns and villages. The group may have been launched with the best of intentions, but over time the Audodefensas’ methods become nearly as questionable as those of the drug dealers they are trying to stop. It is a morally ambiguous world that is completely devoid of black hats and white hats.

“Originally, I thought I was telling this simple hero/villain story of guys in white shirts fighting against this evil cartel,” director Matthew Heineman said. “Slowly over time I realized that the story was much more complicated.”

The experience gave him a sense of hopelessness about the entire situation, he admitted. He emerged with more questions than answers.

“The thing that provoked me to make the film was what would I do if violence came to my door?” said Heineman. “What would I do if my sister was raped or my brother was murdered by the cartel or hanged from a bridge? Would I stand up? Would I take up arms? Is vigilantism sustainable? Is it just?”

On the surface, “Escobar: Paradise Lost” is less interested in exploring the gray areas than “The Cartel” or “Cartel Land.” As played by Benicio Del Toro, the Colombian drug kingpin is a larger-than-life villain, with a piranha smile that barely masks his savagery. It’s a David and Goliath story, pitting the charismatic criminal against an American surfer (Josh Hutcherson) who gets pulled in over his head.

The film is mostly concerned with these two clashing figures, but it does illustrate the hold that Escobar’s beneficence had on the impoverished communities around Colombia. Twenty two years after he was gunned down by authorities, putting an end to the Medellín Cartel that was the source of his power, Escobar continues to inspire divided feelings.

On a research trip, director and writer Andrea Di Stefano said that many people still saw Escobar as a Robin Hood-like figure.

“Many houses have his picture besides a cross or a picture of Jesus or the saints,” said Di Stefano. “In the popular culture, he was able to rise from bandit to become a heroic figure.”

In a world without enough good guys, villains can become canonized.

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