AUSTIN, TEXAS— Drug-related violence in Mexico has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years as rival gangs compete for the millions of dollars they can make smuggling marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs across the U.S. border.
But the violence and turmoil have also taken a toll on society, especially in northern Mexico where drug cartels are also involved in kidnapping, extortion and other crimes.
A new documentary film examines the situation through the eyes of three people with different perspectives.
The film Kingdom of Shadows, which premiered at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, takes a hard look at violence and lawlessness in northern Mexico. It was directed by Bernardo Ruiz, a dual U.S.-Mexican citizen.
“In the film we see Sister Consuelo Morales, she is a Catholic nun and a human rights defender in the city of Monterey, Mexico, and what she does and continues to do every day, is work with families whose loved ones have disappeared,” he said.
“One of the worst tragedies is to have a loved one disappear," Morales said in the film. "Although we may not know the total truth right now, we are on the path to finding it.”
But Ruiz says human rights activists like her are up against corruption and a dysfunctional judicial system in Mexico.
“It is a very small percentage of crimes that are successfully prosecuted when you are talking about homicide, you are talking about kidnapping, so the real problem is in the judicial system," he said. "Whatever is happening is aided and abetted by this culture of impunity.”
U.S. government agent, Oscar Hagelsieb, who has worked undercover in Mexico, provides a different view. He blames much of the violence on the rise of the Zetas, a former Mexican army unit that turned into a drug trafficking organization.
“In the military you learn that if someone attacks you, takes something from you, you attack them back," he said. "So, definitely the fact that the Zetas came into the drug game spiked up the violence considerably.”
The third point of view in the film comes from Texas rancher Don Henry Ford, who was involved in drug smuggling a couple of decades ago, when violence was not as widespread.
“I decided to go to Mexico and buy some marijuana and I successfully smuggled my first load. It was terribly amateurish, but I got away with it,” he said.
Eventually, he was caught and served time in a U.S. federal prison. He says the violence in Mexico was far less when larger criminal organizations controlled the border area.
“They had territories assigned and there wasn’t near as much conflict,” Ford said.
Ford credits the film for showing the tragedy of innocent people, who are trapped in a world of violence and crime.
“My wife would be the better judge because she is impartial and she was moved by it, moved to tears by it,” he said.
Director Bernardo Ruiz hopes his film will give the people in Mexico's violence-racked communities a voice on the world stage.