The U.S.-Mexico drug war continues to rage, engulfing not only the border states of both countries but also entire regions of southern Mexico. It has claimed thousands of lives—27,000 people have disappeared since 2007—and devastated countless families.
Bernardo Ruiz’s Kingdom of Shadows illuminates and humanizes the conflict by following the lives of three people—a U.S. drug enforcement agent on the border, an activist nun in violence-scarred Monterrey, Mexico, and a former Texas smuggler—who provide distinct but interlocking views of the crisis. Ruiz’s unflinching, unsettling and ultimately inspiring documentary has its national broadcast premiere Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 at 10 p.m. (check local listings) on PBS’s POV (Point of View), following its domestic release by Participant Media, which handled theatrical and digital on demand distribution in North America. Now in its 29th season, POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series.
Kingdom of Shadows will air with Theo Rigby and Kate McLean’s short film Marathon, about Julio Sauce, an undocumented immigrant who competes in the New York City Marathon. The film is part of Immigrant Nation, an interactive storytelling project designed to collect immigrant narratives and share them with the world.
In Kingdom of Shadows, Ruiz focuses on the lives of Sister Consuelo Morales, who advocates on behalf of families who have lost loved ones to dealers or security forces; Don Henry Ford Jr., a former smuggler; and undercover agent-turned-senior Homeland Security drug enforcement officer Oscar Hagelsieb, who grew up in a drug-ravaged borderlands neighborhood.
The film opens with a newscaster announcing the grim discovery of “49 mutilated bodies,” and that is soon followed by reports of a mass grave holding 6,000 remains of drug-war victims. The stage is set for the introduction of Sister Morales, who is based in the devastated city of Monterrey.
Stoic and unflappable, she is a tireless advocate for the families of people kidnapped—or “disappeared”—by drug cartels or the security forces that are often in collusion with the cartels. “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.”
This is dangerous work for both Sister Morales and the families who come forward to report missing relatives. Filing a report sometimes leads to the reporting parties being kidnapped. Few perpetrators are brought to justice. “Mexico has a very weak judicial system where 93 percent of all major crimes are never prosecuted,” Ruiz says.
No one knows that better than Hagelsieb, who rides into the film on a Harley-Davidson. The heavily tattooed Homeland Security officer operating out of El Paso, Texas, knows first-hand the temptations presented by the drug cartels. Many young men in the borderlands, he says, have few opportunities. The prospect of quick money often proves irresistible. Peer pressure also plays a part.
Former smuggler Ford was one person who found the lure of drug money irresistible in the 1980s. “I jumped in head first,” he says, though he adds that he usually restricted himself to smuggling loads of marijuana in the 200-pound range. Yet he was eventually arrested and did five years in prison. “He started smuggling before widespread electronic surveillance,” Ruiz explains, “sometimes just transporting marijuana on the back of a mule. Of course it was dangerous, but by comparison it was a less violent and different type of trade back then.”
The trade, and violence, exploded with the emergence of the cartels, including Los Zetas, founded by an elite group of soldiers who defected from the Mexican military. Corrupt officials are also in on the action. “Today you have paramilitary groups and widespread collusion with the government,” says Ruiz.
Yet there is hope. “Probably the most important point that we make in the film is that there are people like Sister Consuelo who labor invisibly in corners of Mexico, doing their work and pushing for reforms,” Ruiz says. Both Ruiz and Hagelsieb say America’s appetite for drugs fuels the crisis. Ford laments mandatory minimum sentences that fill federal prisons with nonviolent drug offenders. Drug legalization in some U.S. states lessens demand for Mexican marijuana, though the market for methamphetamine remains large.
One of the most profoundly moving segments in the film is a series of close-ups of women and men who have lost family members to kidnapping and murder. “The thing that hit me the hardest was when we filmed these women looking straight at the camera,” Ruiz says. “Those moments were heartbreaking, because you could see the pain written on their faces. But it’s also hopeful, because you sensed this defiance and pride and dignity. These women were willing to share their stories because they’re hoping for some kind of change.”