Playing the Cartel War


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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Don’t Make It A Shooter
All of the games made, or currently being made, about the Cartel War are shooters. Now there’s nothing wrong with shooters, but when you make a game where the primary mode of interacting with the environment is through high-velocity ammunition, it severely limits the kind of story you’re able to tell. How would a developer portray the uncertainty that accompanies the violence, the nervous moment when you’re stopped by a cop and don’t know if he’s dirty, if he’s clean, or if he’s a narco wearing a patrolman’s uniform? How could a shooter show the societal breakdown that’s occurring in some of the worst affected cities, like Juárez? RPG mechanics, on the other hand, would give a player the opportunity to explore the world and speak to characters, while stealth mechanics could emphasize the danger faced by people living under the threat of assassination. A game of this type would wind up looking more like LA Noire, Beyond Good and Evil or Splinter Cell, with its mechanics focused on collecting information and staying alive rather than killing. Another option would be to place the player in a strategy or resource management role a la Sim City or the Total War series, perhaps taking on the role of a federal police commander trying to keep order in a city with limited resources, while discovering and purging corrupt officers. Even something oddball like a sports game could work, casting the player as a boxer or MMA fighter under pressure by narco gamblers that don’t like to lose. Centering the story on the Cartel War’s victims like this would be a powerful way to humanize the conflict.

Taking away the player’s gun, or at least limiting its use, would also go toward solving the problem of glorification. Though the Cartel War is full of horrors, it has its glamour too. The war has its own genre of music, the narcocorrido, that celebrates famous gangsters. Telenovelas like Munecas de la Mafia and La Reina del Sur feature sagas about trafficking families or Mafia wives. Narcos appear in tabloid magazines, snapped in glossy relief with their mistresses, and when the gangsters die, inevitably by violence, they’re buried in huge modernist mausoleums. To the large numbers of working poor, the narco fantasy of limitless cash, hot women, and empowerment through gold-plated guns has become a recruiting tool for traffickers, and there’s a real problem of kids aspiring to the narco lifestyle. Narco culture doesn’t need the help of games, and frankly, we shouldn’t give it to them. Once again, Call of Juarez got this backward, as it had the player participate in beating information out of suspects, choking prostitutes, and at one point threatening to hang a man-torture tactics used by cartels and, at times, Mexican military and law enforcement. Instead of providing some sort of commentary on the relationship between cops and criminals, or creating moral grey areas for the player, these scenes just served to normalize the human rights abuses that take place on a regular basis.

Avoid Easy Answers
The Cartel War isn’t happening because of the United States’ appetite for drugs, loose gun laws, or institution of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Likewise, it isn’t happening because of Mexico’s corruption problem, its endemic poverty, or (as President Calderon contends) the breakdown of the traditional family. Nor is the violence the fault of Central America’s porous borders, or even the massive amounts of cocaine produced in Colombia. In fact, it’s the fault of all these things. Tragedies this big don’t happen for a single reason, but for a whole collection of reasons, and if anyone tells you there’s a silver bullet solution, they thoroughly misunderstand the problem.

Something about the Cartel War makes people preachy. When we talk about it, we tend to say “If we only …” a lot, and reach for an easy answer like marijuana legalization, gun control, or tighter borders. Unfortunately, the country’s drug trafficking organizations are far too dynamic and nimble to crumble because of a policy change or legislative crackdown. They can always diversify into other illicit trades, source their guns from Latin America, and develop their domestic drug market and European distribution network. Any solution-if there is any-is going to be a multi-tiered effort by the U.S., Mexico, and Columbia to fight cartel networks in their respective countries, paired with major institutional reform and economic development initiatives within Mexico that allow people to earn livable incomes. Even then, “winning” the conflict won’t mean that the cartels are dismantled and nonexistent; it’s more likely the violence will simply decline to acceptable levels when the remaining cartels form a lasting pact or one cartel gains majority control of the country, negating the struggle for smuggling routes.

Mexico Is More Than Massacres
Last May, police found 49 corpses dumped on a road outside Monterrey with their heads, hands, and feet removed. Monterrey hadn’t seen that type of body count since the previous August, when Los Zetas gunmen stormed a casino, doused the exits with gasoline, and burned the building down, killing 52 people. The stories go on-a car bomb in Juárez, a town mayor stoned to death in Michoacán, kidnappings and body dumps-a journalist here, a police officer there. These are terror tactics the cartels learned from Al Qaeda, calculated brutality used as a message of power projection to keep their enemies, the government, the people, and foreigners, in fear.

Each of these events is true, but they paint a distorted picture. In the U.S. and Europe this spectacular butchery shapes our image of Mexico, and it’s tempting for developers to create an untrue, alternate reality where Mexico is a hellscape devoid of culture and everyday life. The full picture isn’t as bleak as that: Drug violence is down significantly in 2012-in some cities like Juárez, the decline is as much as 50% compared to last year. It’s also important to note that drug violence tends to occur close to the U.S. and Guatemalan borders, leaving many areas of the country fairly safe.

Added to the reduction in violence, Mexico’s economy weathered the recession fairly well and the Peso remains strong, with a low inflation rate. The middle class is growing and foreign firms continue to invest in the country, leading to modest economic growth. Arts and culture are alive: Vibrant film and music industries still exist, and Mexican directors have turned out some excellent movies in the past few years, ranging from historical epics to the incisive, Cohen-esqe drug war satire El Infierno. In the political sphere, the country elected a new president on July 1st, showing that democracy still functions. Mexico is still a country with vast challenges, make no mistake, but there are also people who live normal lives as the hurricane whirls around them. Kids still play soccer in the afternoons, friends gossip about new boyfriends over drinks, old women still count rosary beads, and gamers … well, gamers still game.

And that’s the point, really. The Cartel War is an albatross around the country’s neck, but the Cartel War doesn’t define Mexico. As games increasingly seek to explore the internal strife raging south of the U.S. border, I hope that they choose to do so in a way that highlights rather than reduces the complexities, that proves there’s more to the country than kidnappings and narcotics slayings, and that holds out hope that Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos is ultimately too strong be held captive by murderers.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp. Have questions about this topic? Tweet them to: @Crit_Int

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