The world’s fascination with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is a curious one to say the least. No one has been able to provide us with the exact day he was born. Yet, with the most cursory of Google searches, we have access to details pertaining to his poor, troubled and abusive childhood. According to several online publications, he was often beaten by his father, and as a result, eventually ran off to live with his grandmother. He was introduced to the Mexican cartel when he was 15, before turning it into the incredibly lucrative business it is today.
His financial success is staggering, considering El Chapo is responsible for countless deaths as the largest drug distributor in the United States. In fact, not only does he have a net worth of $1 billion, but Forbes magazine ranked him as one of the most powerful people in the world from 2009 – 2011. He’s been deemed the 10th richest man in Mexico and the 1,140th in the whole world. His organization, Sinaloa Cartel, is responsible for Colombian cocaine, as well as Mexican methamphetamine, marijuana, ecstasy and heroin. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2014, 10,574 people in the United States alone died of an overdose from heroin. Still, that doesn’t stop approximately 208 million people around the globe from willingly consuming illegal drugs.
El Chapo today is either 58 or 61 years old, and has been on the radar for many years, having escaped maximum-security prison three times. Before his January 2016 capture, the bounty on his head was at an implausible $8.8 million.
The movie is thrilling and captivating from the start. Its two hours passed quickly, leaving you anxious, semi-traumatized and wanting more. The crime triller tells the tale of FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt), who is bamboozled into volunteering for a task force that is possibly responsible for an explosion that killed several of her comrades. After the incident, she is called into an office housed inside the CIA to report the happenings. She stands before a roundtable of men, her face plain and hair messy. The men eyeball her until Agent Matt Graver (Brolin) breaks silence.
“Are you married? Husband? Kids?”
Kate Macer’s quiet demeanor collapsed as she awkwardly replied, “No. Are we done?” As the story unfolds, we learned that Agent Graver hadn’t asked her about family so that he could be a chauvinist, but rather, because he needed to know how valuable her life was. Did she have children who loved her, needed her? A husband who would be left alone?
She is inevitably dragged into a war stationed at the Mexico/U.S. border in ways that would prove problematic for anyone that mattered. All of her attempts to find out the truth about her place in the matter are confronted with dead ends. No one was interested in being honest with her. Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) is the evasive Colombian in a suit who ultimately tells her, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” later adding, “in the end you will understand.”
I pick at the unsettling statement, feeling the weight of the words, and thinking they were meant more for me than Macer. I watch as specialized and trained agents in military gear create chaos while they annihilate as many people as possible, innocent ones included. Towards the end of the movie, Gillick arrives at a massive mansion. He walks through–as if he built the floor plan himself– toward the dining area where we see a man eating with his wife and two boys. From here, we do not need any further direction to know where this scene is going. The two men converse in both English and Spanish while the woman and boys shake in terror.
Eyes low, tone void of empathy and face sweaty from the day’s carnage, Alejandro says, “Every night you have families killed and, yet, here you dine.” Any background music playing is hushed and all compassion for drug lord Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo) is diminished, setting the stage for a daunting exchange.
“Do you think the people who sent you are any different?” Fausto Alarcon replies. “Who do you think we learned it from?” In an instant, the kingpin’s wife and two children are cold-bloodedly executed. After being urged to “go ahead and finish your meal,” the drug lord, too, is killed.
This is the way of the life, many would say. He had it coming, others would announce. His children and wife, too, asked for it by association. There is a popular proverb that says, “Live by the sword, die by the sword.” The movie, however, didn’t portray anything new. Films like Sicario have been produced often, ones that are filled with governmental work no one hears of. This particular story is relevant, simply because the tale wasn’t entirely about the men behind the cartel or the drugs they distribute. Rather, we are drawn into the life of the agents backed by the U.S., their involvement and how they navigate throughout the engagements that pertain to the cartel. It shows us how both sides play the same game, even though they’re on opposing teams. They have no rules, there is no one for them to report to and they’re committed to completing the mission–by any means necessary. How do we differentiate the good guys from the bad guys when they participate in the same tactics?
My curiosity then raises a poignant question: What is the difference between El Chapo and, say, Charles Pfizer?
Charles Pfizer was a German chemist who migrated to the United States in the mid 1800s. He developed the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, which has a $67 billion net worth. He, like El Chapo, flourished. He, like El Chapo, is responsible for the distribution of many drugs; Zoloft, Selzentry and Zithromax to name a few. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2014, 25,760 people died from prescription drugs. Details for singular drugs do not come in numbers, instead, they are reported in percentages and verbiage like “one out of seven may result in death.” With a net worth of $67 billion, I can’t help but revise my impression on who the largest drug distributor in the United States truly is.
They chose to take those prescriptions, many would say. No one forced them, others would announce. Doctors, especially, would proclaim that waivers of consent that outline all the risks must be signed in advance. Well, El Chapo isn’t forcing his buyers to consume, either.
I noticed the obvious difference in tone when drugs like heroin and Zoloft were being presented on television. We’ve all seen the commercials about popular medicines, or the movies centered around street narcotics. Both are created in a lab, require knowledgeable chemists and are associated with the possibility of death. However, the distributor of one is criminalized while the other lives a life of liberty and wealth.
Sicario taught me that the “good guys” play the same game as the “bad guys” with little to no consequences. This is not to advocate for the use of drugs (legal or otherwise) or the support of El Chapo’s organization, which may have tortured families and individuals for power. But by the same token, I also can’t support Pfizer, a company that produces expensive drugs like Selzentry to treat HIV, but fails to churn out a cure, even after further advancement in science and technology. Am I a conspiracist? Not really. A skeptic? Sure. After all, the motive for both El Chapo and Pfizer is financial gain. It doesn’t matter whether their respective lab chemists went to college or not. All their consumers represent one thing and one thing only: capital.