Portraits of a Search – review

A woman traipses through scrubland, brushing aside dusty bushes with a stick, looking for a piece of clothing, a shoe; anything that may give her a clue as to her son’s whereabouts.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search) follows three mothers whose children’s names have sadly been added to the growing list of ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. The documentary tells a familiar story but tries to do so differently from similar films.

The director, Alicia Calderón, explained at a screening this blog attended that she wanted to shy away from a simple portrayal of the women as listless and unorganised mothers. Instead, she preferred to focus on their resilience and resolve; the lengths they will go to exhaust every avenue that could aid them in their search.

One of the mothers enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests on the alleged body of her daughter. Another cradles a notepad full of names and numbers as she tries yet another call to yet another unhelpful person in the authorities.

Towards the end, we see all three women endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the local government offices.

Some of the scenes are heart-breaking. One of the mothers plays hide-and-seek with her grandson, who is happy in his innocence as he runs outside to feed the chickens. His missing parents have “gone to the United States”, he tells us, but his grandma worries over how and when to tell him the truth: they have disappeared and are likely dead.

A documentary like this, with the subject matter as it is, will always have parts that are particularly harrowing.

One of the women shows remarkable strength to recount the story of extreme violence and depravity that her daughter suffered. Detail by disturbing detail, she documents the violations of her child while she was alive and then the violations of her body after she had been killed. It is uncomfortable to watch and creates a confusing human picture: that this barbarity continues to plague Mexico; how the simple design of family life has been ruptured in so many complex ways.

So what can be done – what policy changes are needed?

I wondered if there was any hope for answers from the highest level of government, with a presidential election due next year. Alicia Calderón replied that the “justice system has collapsed” and the only light at the end of the tunnel would come from the pressure groups established by members of the public.

Consecutive presidents have tried differing but unsuccessful methods to combat the kidnappings, extortions and killings.  The day before this film was screened, the attorney-general in the state of Guerrero admitted that his office did not have the “capacity to confront organised crime”.

What Portraits of a Search shows us is that these mothers certainly do have the capacity to confront the disappearance of a loved-one with dignity, determination and a drive for answers.

The wars on what?

The similarities between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’

A commentator writing in The Daily Telegraph, a British conservative newspaper, simply said that ‘a man has died in a war’. The truth is that Osama bin Laden was often considered, by both supporters and opponents, as more than just a man. Some have seen him as a mysterious sage who loved honey and the BBC World Service at the same time as being a scourge of mighty Western powers. And the circumstances both preceding and following his demise are certainly more than just a war.

It is hard to define the limits of the ‘war on terror’. Far from the traditional battlefield scrap, this challenge has relied heavily on intelligence gathering, multi-national cooperation against a moveable enemy, pre-emptive drone strikes, increased border security and the launching of two military interventions in Muslim countries.

There are similarities between the fight against terrorism and another ‘war’ which only loosely fits the customary definition of belligerence. The ‘war on drugs’ is much closer to home for the US and this blog first looked at possible links between al-Qaeda and the Mexican drugs gangs in February 2011 (see ‘Jihad in Juarez‘ – 20/02/11) .

This other ‘war’ has also required more cross-border teamwork, the need to adapt to a changeable and, at times, faceless enemy. It too has called for the use of drones, although at the moment the unmanned aircraft have been surveying Mexico for gang hideouts and signs of activity rather than taking out human targets, as they have been directed to do in Pakistan. The use of drones against the gangsters in the future cannot be ruled out.

There is another similarity between the two ‘wars’: the culture of celebrity. In Mexico, the aura of myth and legend surrounds many key gangsters as it did around bin Laden, and none more so than Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He is rumoured to eat regularly amongst normal diners in Sinaloa, picking up the tab for everyone in the chosen restaurante and in 1993 he was smuggled out of jail in a laundry basket. Huge multi-million dollar bounties have been placed on his head, along with other main celebrity criminals like Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva gang), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez organisation) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Los Zetas).

But although ‘the head of the al-Qaeda snake has been cut off’, the organisation is, as the UK Defence Secretary said recently, still “alive and well”. The same can be said for the gangsters in Mexico. For as more and more are either captured or killed by the police and military, more and more are ready to fill empty shoes and continue their lucrative and violent trade. As Mexico is starting to discover and as the US has realised, these new ‘wars’ with the new type of assailants are long-term struggles against mobile enemies who, as bin Laden had said in the past, ‘love death as much as Americans love life’.

All drugged up

Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is not best pleased with the US at the moment. He has accused the States of ‘attempted defamation’ during his ongoing battle with Washington to save his country’s beloved coca from renewed international prohibition.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, chewing a coca leaf at at UN Convention (from 0:50)

Source: unitednations, YouTube, 16/03/11

What has rankled with Mr Morales is criticism of the way his government is tackling drug production. He believes the US wants to destabilise him by linking his administration to drug traffickers. But there is no smoke without fire. Last week, Rene Sanabria, Bolivia’s anti-drugs chief was arrested in Panama on charges of running a cocaine-smuggling gang at the same time as heading an 15-person anti-narcotics intelligence unit for Mr Morales.

Whilst this was a frustrating setback for Evo, he needs to cool his temper if he is to achieve an end to the global moratorium on coca leaves, in place since it was condemned by the UN in its 1961 Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Coca has been chewed for thousands of years across Bolivia and also in the highlands of Peru to combat altitude sickness, or soroche, along with other ailments and also for recreational purposes. Morales himself had a chew at a UN Drugs Convention in Vienna in 2009 (see video above).

It is a traditional pastime but a hobby that does involve the mastication of the rawest form of cocaine. And this is where the US gets nervous.

Washington wants to sort out cocaine production, the heartlands of which are in Bolivia. If it hits the war on drugs from inception point, it can get a grip on the other parts of the chain, notably Mexican trafficking and US domestic demand. But it is not convinced that Mr Morales is doing enough to cut cocaine farming. And these current problems will probably have kept La Paz off US President Obama’s schedule during his present trip to Latin America, which comes to an end on Wednesday 23 March.

Last week, the UN International Narcotics Control Board criticised the Morales government for allowing Bolivia’s coca crop to increase to 119 square miles, the largest amount of land dedicated to coca cultivation for 13 years.

But Morales maintains that he too wants to stop cocaine production and the close links to coca farming mean the line between the two is often blurred. Morales is angered by what he sees as the US-sponsored embargo of his cultural heritage and he knows that his firebrand socialism, which reaches out to Iran and Cuba, is a thorn in the side of the US.