Narco-themed works explore toll of drug use in the U.S. on Mexico

Americans who enjoy using recreational drugs probably don’t like to imagine the ripple effects in Mexico: the predatory narco gangs and corrupt cops in Ciudad Juárez, the bullet-riddled bodies and ravaged neighborhoods in Tijuana and Michoacán.

But at a recent rehearsal of “Timboctou,” a darkly comic, disquieting play set against the backdrop of the Mexican drug wars that’s having its world premiere through Sunday at REDCAT, director Martín Acosta reflected on the bloody connective tissue that the experimental drama weaves between Mexico’s ruthless narco lords and their naive and insatiable U.S. customers.

“I believe it’s a question of binational responsibility,” said the Mexican director, speaking in Spanish. “I don’t think the play analyzes who is responsible. But it assumes there’s a very direct link, looking from the Mexican side.”

“Timboctou,” a bilingual, multimedia piece by the precocious 27-year-old Mexican playwright Alejandro Ricaño, is one of a proliferating number of plays, movies and television series that address the volatile and complex subject of Mexican narco-terrorism. In it, the fates of a lovelorn Spanish tourist, a well-meaning Mexican official, two rather clueless U.S. dudes on spring break and twin sibling narco-thugs reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s tramps in “Waiting for Godot” all collide on a 100-degree day in Tijuana by way of Puerto Vallarta.


Co-developed as part of a bilingual theater initiative by the CalArts Center for New Performance and the University of Guadalajara, it’s among the most subtle and striking artistic responses so far to the violence that has claimed 40,000 Mexican lives since 2006. Juan Parada, a third-year CalArts MFA student who portrays the Spanish tourist, said his cocaine-addled character is essentially a First World innocent abroad who doesn’t realize (or much care) how his actions will affect others.

“He’s doing all that coke and has no idea who’s been killed and who’s going to die,” Parada said.

But this barbed, ironic perspective on the drug wars is hardly unique to “Timboctou.” From the new Will Ferrell Spanish-language movie comedy “Casa de Mi Padre” (opening March 16), to last year’s Telemundo hit TV series “La Reina del Sur,” starring the popular Mexican actor Kate del Castillo, ambitious, tonally ambivalent narco-themed works are popping up almost as fast as L.A. medical marijuana dispensaries, primarily in Mexico but increasingly on this side of the border.

Stylistically, these works run the gamut from broad satires like “Casa de Mi Padre” (House of My Father), in which Ferrell plays a Mexican rancher’s son caught up in a drug-fueled blood feud, to the poetically explosive “El Nogalar” (The Pecan Orchard), by the Chicago playwright Tanya Saracho, currently running at L.A.'s Fountain Theatre. Saracho’s drama, about a Mexican American clan debating whether to let a drug gang buy out the family’s debt-ridden ranch, mixes family melodrama with wistfully acute reflections on a rapidly changing world, like a telenovela scripted by Anton Chekhov.


Another recent film, the well-reviewed Mexican dramatic-thriller “Miss Bala,” balances on a razor’s edge between surrealism and terrifying daily reality in relating the story of a would-be beauty-pageant queen caught in the drug crossfire of a Mexican border city.

Like “Timboctou,” these works insist on viewing the drug-related mayhem as part of a global web of greed and addiction that implicates not only Mexico and other Latin American countries but the United States, which lines Latin American drug cartels’ pockets with about $40 billion annually, according to U.S. officials. As one character in “Casa de Mi Padre” caustically remarks of the bloodshed, “All this just so daddy’s little girl can score a dime bag.”

“It’s easy to blame the Mexicans. I don’t ever see the other side, the people who are taking all these drugs, which is us,” said Andrew Steele, who wrote the screenplay for “Casa de Mi Padre” and is among the film’s producers.

“It’s absurd to me that anyone could blame other people for their own weakness,” continued Steele, who has been friends with Ferrell since they worked together at “Saturday Night Live.” “I don’t think people have a clear sense of the ramifications anymore.... What’s happening is a bunch of crazy people are doing drugs and not realizing people are getting killed over there.”


The current wave of carnage has pervaded Mexican soap operas and the popular music genre of narcocorridos (drug-themed songs). One of Mexico’s leading playwrights, David Olguín, has written a trilogy of plays grappling with the rising body count. The crowning work, “Los asesinos,” strands its anguished characters on a set that suggests both the Mexican desert and an abstract island of the dead.

Drug-related stories and imagery, of course, also have transfixed U.S. popular culture for decades, notably in movies like “Scarface” and in the braggadocio taunting and preening of innumerable hip-hop artists. The U.S. cultural response to the current violence in Mexico has been slower but is gradually accelerating.

Carol Bixler, producing director of CalArts’ Center for New Performance, emphasized that serious art requires time to absorb and process historical events. “There’s always a pause and a time of reflection. You can write in the heat of battle and it so often becomes clichéd agitprop,” she said.

“Timboctou” exemplifies the more thoughtful and original responses that are now emerging. As director Acosta points out, by leaving open the question of who exactly are the victims and who are the victimizers in the U.S.-Mexican codependency, “Timboctou” brings a richly nuanced understanding of a topic that’s often caricatured by radio shock jocks and exploited by politicians.


“What I think that produces in the end is a shrillness, a sensationalism, of this situation,” Acosta said. “I think what is needed is a certain distance.”