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‘El Sicario’: The (Masked) Face Of Drug-War Murder

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 28, 2011

“The sicario never boasts about what he does,” announces the anonymous ex-gangster who tells his story in El Sicario, Room 164. But the man shows more than a little pride in his professionalism as he recounts his former life as a torturer and murderer. Indeed, the former sicario’s self-esteem is one of the qualities that makes his story credible.

Filmed in a motel room on the U.S.-Mexico border, Gianfranco Rosi’s potent documentary could be an elaborate hoax. The movie’s subject doesn’t mention any names, including his own, and speaks from beneath a black shroud. The guy — call him E.S. — could simply have closely followed the narco wars in and around Ciudad Juaraz, identified here as “the most violent city in the world.”

Yet the documentary’s backstory bolsters its credibility. The movie is based on a 2009 Harper’s magazine article by Charles Bowden, a New Mexico-based journalist who’s written extensively about the region’s violent drug trade. And both Bowden and Rosi say they’re utterly convinced that their unnamed source, now a fugitive, was indeed a sicario — a top-level assassin, named for a 2,000-year-old Jewish sect that killed Romans and their allies in occupied Judea.

E.S.’s biography is like something from a movie — in particular, the Hong Kong triad saga Infernal Affairs and its American remake, The Departed. The “black sheep” of a poor but respectable family, E.S. was told to shape up by his older siblings. So he entered the police academy, which he explains is the best training for a sicario. Mexican drug lords — E.S. calls his simply “el patron” — don’t hire amateurs. Of his 200-strong graduating class, he says, 50 were already working for narco cartels.

E.S. speaks directly to the camera, illustrating his lecture by jotting diagrams and stick-figure drawings in a large notebook. Rosi periodically shoots from over the killer’s shoulder to provide a better view of these. Sometimes E.S. acts out the specifics of kidnappings and tortures, at least one of which, he says, happened in this very motel room. A few glimpses of the outside punctuate what is otherwise a one-man show.

The stories are horrific, if laced with Tarantino-style humor. E.S. describes one victim who was tortured almost to death, only to be saved by a call from el patron. The man was too far gone to revived by the gangsters, so a doctor was called to resuscitate him. The physician did his job well, but the reprieve was temporary; later, el patron called back to countermand his order.

E.S. also provides inside information, believable if uncorroborated, about the DEA practice of microchipping its informants; the various messages communicated by different ways of mutilating a corpse; and the dangers of being an attractive young woman who gets too “ambitious” during an affair with a narco boss.

Ultimately, E.S. says, he lost his appetite for assassination, and turned to religion. He acts out this development, too, and it’s persuasive.

The movie was shot in a single room for its subject’s protection. But the effect is also to simulate the claustrophobic menace that such a place must hold for the victim of a cartel kidnapping. E.S., and the viewers, get out alive. But with a $250,000 price on his head, the man’s safety is by no means guaranteed. If El Sicario, Room 164 plays like a communique from the land of the dead, that reflects E.S.’s likely fate as much as that of his victims. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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