The Latin word sicarius means “assassin.” Probing more deeply, we note that its root is the noun sica, which means “dagger.” It is from this grim etymology that the modern Spanish word sicario originates. When I first heard the title of this excellent 2015 film, I thought at once of daggers and assassins. The film did not disappoint. It is a harrowing tale that centers around the drug war along the US-Mexico border, and how hopeless it ultimately all seems.

The story could be taken right from today’s headlines. We, the viewers, are put in the unsuspecting shoes of an FBI agent named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). After leading a raid on an Arizona house that hides dozens of corpses, Macer volunteers to serve in a joint task-force which promises to track down the people responsible for the murders.

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Brolin: Just your friendly neighborhood agent

We immediately sense that not is all as it seems: Macer’s duties are not explicitly stated, and the man in charge, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), seems to work for some unnamed intelligence agency. Inspiring more unease is the shadowy figure of Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who says little; and when he does speak, he speaks in riddles. The significance of all these details does not become apparent until much later.

We are thus thrown headlong into a world where no one can be trusted, where the good guys and the bad guys are indistinguishable, and behind every turn of the maze lies another tortuous turn. “In Mexico, nothing will make sense to you at first. But in the end, you will know,” says Benicio del Toro to the bewildered Macer.

And how true that little prophecy turns out to be. For Macer gets much, much more than she bargained for. This is a first-rate thriller, and one that should not be missed. For once, law enforcement and the military behave as they do in real life, not as some Hollywood producer imagines they behave. And refreshingly, no concessions are made to political correctness.

The impression one is left with, after seeing this movie, is no hope of doing anything about the drug cartels except managing them. The statistics are incredible, and speak for themselves. While American politicians posture and grandstand about ISIS, an all-out war is raging right under their noses.

From 2006 to 2012, Mexican drug cartels killed about 60,000. In 2013, another 16,000 were added to this tally. We should keep in mind that these figures are those provided by the Mexican government, which commonly understates the real numbers. It is almost certainly half again as much, making them closer to 100,000. Many of these killings are gruesome in a way that only ISIS could appreciate: beheadings, burnings, and dismemberings are the rule, not the exception.

The cartels use child “soldiers” as couriers and for suicide missions, sometimes even harvesting their organs for sale on the black market. In the town of Iguala, the local police apparently cooperated with drug gangs in kidnapping and killing 43 students who had dared to protest against the violence.

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Between 2006 and 2012, it is likely that over 6,000 Americans were killed in the US as a result of cartel-inspired violence, a number that dwarfs the number of US citizens killed by ISIS. Yet hardly any American can give the name of even one Mexican cartel, or even one cartel leader.

Cartel culture has become so embedded in the border regions that it has even begun to adopt quasi-religious overtones. Many of the killings have a ritualistic tone. Jesús Malverde is venerated in some circles as the “patron saint” of organized crime, and shrines to Santa Muerte (Saint Death) can be found in northern Mexico. To put it mildly, the atmosphere of violence and terror has generated a morbid preoccupation with death.

There seems to be little that can be done except to try to “control” the industry. This seems to be the US government’s strategy, according to a recent article in Time online. According to the article, the US actually helped the rise of the Sinaloa cartel, and assisted it in destroying its rivals.

Those who think that legalizing drugs might solve the problem overlook the fact that even if drugs were legalized, there would still be a black market for drugs and contraband. The battle would then be over pricing and getting around drug distribution regulations. The only way to stop the cartels would seem to be going after their money. But US banks operating in Mexico have not properly enforced money-laundering laws or monitored deposits with the same vigor as such things are done in the US, ensuring that the flow of cash continues unimpeded.

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Del Toro: a man with a dark past

There is more than a touch of irony when one of the characters (a cartel boss) in Sicaro notes, as he talks to a US agent, “Where do you think we learned this from? We learned it from your employers.” This may be an exaggeration, but another quote from the movie is not.

“Until we can convince twenty percent of the US population to stop using drugs,” says the Josh Brolin character to Emily Blunt, “the best we can hope for is to control the trade, rather than stop it.”

It certainly seems so. With popular attention fixated on the comparatively minor and distant threat of ISIS, there seems to be little concern in the US that the very authority of the Mexican state itself is in danger of breaking down.  Film viewers can’t change political realities outside their control, but they can enjoy a well-made, intelligent cinematic production. Sicario delivers on all counts, and is not to be missed.

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