Globalization promised to make us “postnational” and render obsolete such arbitrary lines as borders. But since 1994’s North American Free Trade Agreement, boundaries—particularly the one between the U.S. and Mexico—have never been more contentious. On either side of the “weed meridian” that hugs the Rio Grande lurk transgressive border towns and perpetual conflict, sometimes ridiculous and sometimes appallingly gruesome. After all the smoke clears, where is the line separating paranoia from the giggles?
Showtime’s Weeds and Oliver Stone’s Savages share a basic premise: middle-class suburban Californians going into the marijuana business. For Weeds heroine Nancy Botwin, it’s a matter of making ends meet after her engineer husband dies of a heart attack and she’s left to raise two sons alone. The resourceful Botwin marshals a team to develop a signature strain of pot, which they name MILF after the kind of sexually attractive mother Botwin exemplifies. Similarly, the protagonists in Savages, Chon and Ben, an ex–Navy SEAL and an eco-idealist, market an imported strain they claim is the best weed in the world.
One could say Savages picks up where Weeds stops short, crossing into the more violent territory of dealing with the Baja drug cartel. But Weeds after all is a comedy—albeit a dark one. For example, Nancy’s first major encounter with Mexicans involves smuggling asthma inhalers; in Savages the cartel’s calling card is a video containing the sound of chainsaw revving and images of severed heads. How far people are willing to go in order to survive lies at the heart of both portrayals, but survival exacts a far greater toll in Savages.
The theme song from Weeds, Malvina Reynolds’s 1962 ballad “Little Boxes,” sets the tone for the show. Made of “ticky-tacky,” the rows of tract housing appear to be identical. But what does this conformity conceal? Suburbs are often associated with postwar “white flight” from the cities, which during the McCarthy era were thought to be dens of drugs and vice. Weeds reverses this notion with “MILF weed,” which, as rapper Snoop Dogg points out, “you can’t get in the hood.” MILF-weed seekers have to score in Agrestic, the show’s fictional California suburb.
Incidentally, Snoop also wants to “tap” the MILF’s “white ass,” the MILF in question being Nancy Botwin, the marijuana proprietor played by Mary-Louise Parker. Will Snoop’s advances corrupt the “pure” white woman? Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic has been criticized for its earnest portrayal of this same racist equation. In the film, the Wakefield family, which hails from Indian Hill (an affluent Cincinnati suburb), is threatened with social excommunication when the daughter uses drugs and has sex with black and Latino men from the city. The white suburban woman, it seems, is often cast as the moral center—then set up for the ultimate fall from grace.
The relationship between barbarism and civilization is intrinsic to Savages, the Oliver Stone film based on Don Winslow’s 2010 novel of the same title. Actors John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro and even Stone himself confess on camera to being “savages.” As Stone sees it, savagery is part of the overall human makeup regardless of race or nationality.
Traffic has been criticized for portraying Mexico as “other”—a dirty, washed-out, yellow wasteland. The Tijuana section of the film, shot using gritty vérité techniques and handheld cameras, suggests that police south of the Rio Grande are all on the take, with the exception of Del Toro’s character, Javier, who resists such temptations. In another of the film’s story lines, drug lords commit increasingly barbaric acts to save their own skins. Then there’s Robert Wakefield, the suburban character played by Michael Douglas, who is essentially good, however misguided he initially is about the War on Drugs. Unlike in Savages, the barbarism in Traffic is not innate and inescapable. Rather, it’s the unintended consequence of a system that’s doomed to fail.
Steven Soderbergh’s film Traffic is based on the 1989 BBC series Traffik, which chronicles the world drug trade through the perspectives of British addicts, Pakistani poppy growers and German middlemen. Soderbergh likewise employs three story lines to make his case for the futility of the War on Drugs. One follows the Tijuana drug cartel and the corrupt Mexican police force; another follows the DEA prosecution of a drug lord. The third revolves around “drug czar” Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) and is an overt critique of American drug policy. To wit: A Republican politician appointed head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy winds up doing an about-face on the War on Drugs as a result of his daughter’s arrest and heroin addiction. At the close of the film, Wakefield stands behind a lectern and says, “If there is a War on Drugs, then many of our family members are the enemy. And I don’t know how you wage war on your own family.”
In a moment of Hollywood life imitating Hollywood art, Douglas’s own son Cameron—arguably another victim of the war—has been arrested three times for using and selling cocaine and methamphetamine.
Although the War on Drugs essentially began with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act back in 1914, its militaristic nomenclature comes from Richard Nixon, who in 1971 declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” By that time, Tricky Dick had made it clear that the enemy was rearming south of the Rio Grande and that the United States–Mexico border would be the target of new paramilitary efforts to keep American families safe from drugs.
Nixon’s bellicose rhetoric and drug war–related executive orders elicited ridicule and satire, most notably from comedians Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, whose film Up in Smoke features two stoners trying to maintain their high while evading enforcers of the drug laws. Fortunately, the police and border guards are even more hapless than Cheech & Chong, who unwittingly but successfully smuggle pounds of marijuana across the border. (The pair drives a green-brown van made entirely of “fiberweed.” Far out, man.) Chong’s open endorsement of drugs, however, was less a laughing matter when he became a real victim of the War on Drugs. Arrested and imprisoned for nine months in 2003 for possession of drug paraphernalia, Chong cited his prostate cancer, which he treats with hemp oil.
One of the plotlines in Traffic concerns the futility of trying to do real police work in a border town besieged by the War on Drugs. The town is Tijuana, and the police force has given in to corruption. The one holdout is officer Javier Rodriguez, who, by the end of the film, has worked toward a novel solution to the problem: He manages to get streetlights and a baseball field installed in his neighborhood, so the local kids can come out of the shadows and play.
Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 documents a related problem—namely, an outmanned police force dealing with body after body surfacing in Santa Teresa, a fictional Mexican border town meant to represent real-life Ciudad Juárez, where more than 5,000 women have been murdered since 1993. In Santa Teresa, Inspector Juan de Dios Martínez and police chief Pedro Negrete no longer have any hope of solving the murders. “Femicide” has simply become part of the apocalyptic landscape. Unlike Traffic, which ends with light and hope, Bolaño’s Santa Teresa story ends with the sound of unseen revelers’ drunken laughter—the only beacon keeping residents from getting lost in the streets that “were completely dark, like black holes.”
Writing about Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West (1985), Cormac McCarthy’s novel immediately preceding his Border Trilogy, author Roberto Bolaño described McCarthy’s “thirsty and indifferent” landscape as “out of de Sade.” This may have been a compliment. While both authors chronicle the border towns in west Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua, McCarthy’s bleak rendering of the final nails in the coffin for the frontier way of life is nothing compared to the nightmarish abyss Bolaño depicts in 2666.
In the third book of McCarthy’s trilogy, Cities of the Plain (1998), the murder of Magdalena, a Mexican prostitute who makes the mistake of thinking she can cross the border, seems to predict the real-life murders of thousands of young women in Mexican border towns that have degenerated into widespread violence. In 2666 Bolaño explores the extent of the “femicide” in Ciudad Juárez and situates it in a larger context—one where rampant gangs, poverty, the drug war and maquiladoras (massive U.S.-owned assembly plants brought about by globalization) are nefarious forces that have made Juárez one of the most violent places in the world outside an official war zone.