Notes From the Margins…

Beauty and the beast: Miss Bala and Mexico’s drug war

  • February 26, 2012
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I’ve just watched Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo’s superb thriller Miss Bala: the bullet queen (2011).   It’s the searing and utterly tragic tale of Laura Guerrero, a young woman from a poor family in Baja California, who enters a beauty pageant only to find herself sucked into a terrifying vortex of violence and corruption, when she inadvertently becomes involved with the ruthless narcotrafficante Lino.

Within two days her life is completely destroyed and  she becomes a hapless counter in the brutal struggle between the local narcos and the Mexican police and agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).   In this corrupt world there are no good guys, the police and even the army are often in league with gangsters and drug traffickers, and it’s often impossible to tell who is hunting who or why.

Naranjo tells this bleak and terrible tale with real verve and skill, as the kitsch fakery of beauty pageants alternates with hallucinatory scenes of gun battles and murders, and the constant crackle of walkie talkies provides  a nightmarish soundtrack to the drug-ravaged dystopia that his innocent protagonist blunders into and cannot escape from.

The film was loosely based on the story of Laura Zuniga, a former preschool teacher who won the Miss Sinaloa beauty contest in July 2008.  Zuniga was expected to enter the 2009 Miss International contest.   In December 2008 however, she was arrested with members of a local narcotraffic gang riding in a truck filled with guns and ammunition.    Naranjo also weaves in the story of Enrique ‘kike’ Camarena Salazar, the DEA agent who was murdered by narcotrafficantes in 1985.

Much of the film’s emotional power derives from the terrific performance by Stephanie Sigman as the would-be beauty queen, whose youthful innocence gives way to terror, desperation and ultimately resignation.  To call  Miss Bala  a thriller doesn’t really do it justice.   On one level it’s a story of innocence defiled.  But it’s also a passionate and incisive indictment of the devastating impact of the US/Mexican drug war on Mexican society.

Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on the drug trade in 2005, an  incredible 47, 515 people    have  been killed,  nearly 13,000 of whom died last year alone.  Most of them have been killed in turf wars between rival cartels, competing for the extraordinarily lucrative US market.

But murder has now become such a routine phenomenon that migrant workers trying to cross the US-Mexico border have been massacred  because they refuse to act as smugglers or work for the cartels, teenagers have been shot dead at parties in order to transmit ‘statements’ to the authorities, and drug addicts in the border city of Juarez have been killed for reasons that no one appears able to explain.

Like the Sicilian Mafia wars of the early 80s, these narco-wars are a form of criminal ‘primitive accumulation’ on a massive scale, whose profit margins are magnified by prohibition and defended through violence, killing and all-pervasive corruption, and whose perpetrators can always find willing foot soldiers in an impoverished society where there are often no other ways  to make a living.

In Mexico however, the wartime intensity of the violence is fuelled by the trade in heavy weaponry from the United States.  The result is a symbiotic cross-border trade in which recreational drugs cross the frontier to feed the US market, while guns and ammunition are smuggled into Mexico from the United States to enable the cartels to kill each other – or anyone else they think necessary.

This two-way traffic may be logical from the point of view of the cartels, but it has had catastrophic consequences for Mexican society, which is now trapped in a futile and unwinnable ‘war’ on drugs that was launched largely at the behest of the US governments and which has entirely failed on its own terms.

All these consequences are laid bare in this brilliant and unmissable film.   Where The Wire explored the impact of the drug war on American inner cities, Miss Bala looks at the equally dysfunctional Mexican ‘battlefield’.    And if it doesn’t have a happy ending, that’s probably because Mexico hasn’t had one either.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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