Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Playing the Cartel War

Robert Rath | 18 Oct 2012 13:00
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The Mexican government scored a major victory in its ongoing war against drug cartels when a Marine patrol intercepted and killed Heriberto "The Executioner" Lazcano, one of the country's most wanted drug lords. Lazcano was the head of the Los Zetas Cartel, a group he founded when he and several comrades defected from the Mexican special forces to work as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, eventually striking out on their own in 2010. Since then, the Zetas have contributed more than their fair share to the 55,000 people slain in Mexico's Cartel War. They've massacred Latin American migrants, beheaded rivals, and murdered journalists who reported on their activities. Last year, they kidnapped hundreds of people at a fake military checkpoint and made them fight to the death with hammers and machetes for a chance to join the cartel. That's the story, anyway. Fact and myth blend in the Cartel War until truth is indiscernible. Here's what is real: Police found 193 of the kidnap victims buried in 47 separate mass graves.

In 2006, President Felipe Calderon deployed the military to Mexico's streets in order to break the cartels, whose turf war was increasingly endangering public security. Instead, the violence got worse as cartels that were previously fighting each other now fought the military as well, and rifts formed between the military, federal police, and local cops. It's a terrible story, but it also holds a lurid fascination. The resulting headlines of gun battles, drug lords and mafia killings across the border excite American imaginations and stoke American fears, and games haven't failed to capitalize on this trend. It started in 2007 when Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2 portrayed a civil war in Juárez that threatened to cross the border into Texas. The game wasn't specifically about the Cartel War, but the plot was similar enough to get the game banned in the State of Chihuahua. The GRAW case looked like an isolated incident, until Techland decided to fast forward Call of Juarez to the present and set it in the Cartel War, resulting in a horrifying mess of a game filled with racial caricatures and poor gameplay. Recently, Visceral announced Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, claiming that the game will have a more serious tone than its predecessors and engage with the real-life subject matter of the Cartel War.

None of the games I've seen, to my mind, are good depictions of the Cartel War, and most of them mischaracterize the conflict by reinforcing stereotypes, getting details wrong, or telling the story from an American perspective. The worst part is I think you could make a great game about the Cartel War, one that respects the lives lost and educates people about a conflict that's largely experienced by Americans and Europeans through bloody headlines and political spin. This game, however, would look extremely different from the ones that have been made or are currently in development.

Let's look at what might need to happen.

It's A Mexican Story
One of the most egregious problems with games about the Cartel War is that so many of them deal with Americans trying to protect the United States from "spillover violence," rather than protecting the Mexican population. Though GRAW 2 pioneered this model, Call of Juarez: The Cartel is the worst offender, since the game begins with a cartel bombing a DEA building on American soil (a type of attack that has never happened, even in Mexico) and later contains an infuriatingly backward mission about cartels trafficking American women to Mexico as sex slaves, when in reality Mexican women get trafficked to the U.S. Worse still, the game never acknowledges the war's impact on Mexican civilians, since literally every Mexican in the game is a narco. In Call of Juarez's weird, alternate version of the conflict, America is a victim of the war, rather than a complicit party that puts the cash in narcos' bank accounts and the bullets in their assault rifles. That's incredibly insulting, both to Mexican gamers and to the intelligence of the player, regardless of nationality.

There's also an added problem of using American protagonists: Mexicans hate having American troops on their soil. The Mexican Constitution specifically forbids foreign troops to carry arms in its country, and Mexican law doesn't allow any foreigners to own or carry guns, a policy that's kept many security contractors from doing business there (ahem, Army of Two).

There's good reason for this; throughout Mexican history, every time gun-toting foreigners showed up saying they were there to help, Mexico wound up becoming part of someone's empire or losing territories with names like, say, "Texas" and "California." Given this history, it's understandable that the topic is still extremely sensitive, and that Mexican public opinion is heavily against American intervention in the Cartel War.

While Americans do have a role in the conflict-such as funding, training, and providing the government with intelligence through the Merida Initiative-the people who bear the brunt of the conflict are largely Mexican citizens. I would like to see a game where Mexicans are the heroes, the villains, and the victims, a game less focused on protecting America from a foreign other, and more focused on a hero trying to save his family, his community, or even just himself. GRAW actually moved in the right direction in this regard, since it featured members of the Mexican military as smart and capable allies, but do Mexicans really have to be sidekicks in their own national crisis? There are countless heroes in the Cartel War, from journalists and bloggers who report on the cartels despite press intimidation, to mayors that go to work every day knowing that they could be shot, to missionaries and doctors who run detox centers in dangerous areas. If we're going to make a game about the Cartel War, let's play for the home team.

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