The National Catholic Review

Traffic, an Academy Awards nominee film directed by Steven Soderbergh, is a rapid-fire saga of the drug trade and of stumbling binational efforts to stop it. It is also a dark-hued morality play. The drug trading and the violence in Traffic take place on both sides of the border crossing between Tijuana and San Diego. The border crossing is pictured in the film, and every few days I find myself in its jam-up of carswaiting up to an hour to get through inspection by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Although it is mostly routine, one day I idled too close to the car in front of me at the booth, and the agent warned me to stay back, because in emergencies, he said, their guns have to come out. A sign flashing on a screen overhead warns, The canines are working. In other words, don’t pet the dogs. And every inspection booth has a poster at eye level of the Arellano-Felix brothers (called the Juan Obregón cartel in the movie), offering up to $2 million for information leading to their capture.

Drugs are the albatross hanging on the neck of Tijuana. With a population of at least a million and a half, most residents work in assembly plants, in small shops and food stands or in building and clean-up. Wherever the city shows a touch of luxuryan exclusive tourist hotel along the coast, a walled-in home and grounds with lively partiesone is not surprised to hear the whisper of narcos or laundered money. And the local papers keep recording the death toll from organized and unorganized crime, starting with the chief of police, Alfred de la Torre, who was gunned down last summer on his way home from church.

Tijuana and San Diego are in symbiosis. Mexicans stream over early in the morning for work, and on Saturday they do as much shopping as they can on el otro lado, the other side. San Diego, for all its airy attractiveness, could collapse easily if these Tijuanans should decide some day to stay home. The two cities live their relatively normal life, but drugs are the cancer spreading into and out of them.

Traffic presents the border milieu in a melodramatic contrast. For San Diego we get some bright imagesan elegant outdoor luncheon attended by Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the wife of the big drug connection Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) and a park in the sunshine on Mission Bay where Helena watches her son play (and gets an ominous note to cough up $3 million). For Tijuana and its outskirts and even Mexico City, the screen turns a gritty ochre. This telltale hue and texture have a double effectone positive, to let us know immediately that the plot has gone south; and the other very debatable, to suggest how poor and seedy Mexico looks from the U.S.

Ayala is jailed when a sting operation by U.S. drug enforcement agents nets his distributor, Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer)just the witness the government wants to use against him. But the slippery Ayala and his wife, who turns from naïve to ruthless (not too credibly) in the movie, do not prove easy to hold. A complicating factor is Ayala’s sleazy lawyer, Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid), who has eyes for Ayala’s wife and his money. Plenty of room here for explosive settling of scores.

The U.S. segment of Traffic actually centers, however, in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., with an Ohio judge, Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), appointed as federal czar for the war against drugs. Politically wary, he is to succeed a blunt-talking general (any allusion to Barry McCaffrey strictly intentional). And he must let himself be talked at by all the oracles of Congress (real-life appearances by Senators Barbara Boxer, Orin Hatch and others).

Back in Cincinnati, the judge’s teenage daughter, Caroline (Erika Christiansen), has fallen among drug-sniffing rich kids, especially her precocious and odious boyfriend (Topher Grace). Her path takes her to the most unsavory part of town to trade sex for drugs. That’s when the Wakefields, a stock dysfunctional family, have to face the music, and the judge’s aggressive stance about war on drugs is of no help on the home front.

On the Mexico side, the film begins with two state agents intercepting a drug delivery, only to be intercepted in their turn by the Mexican army under General Salazar (Tomás Milán). Salazar, impressed by their work, forms immediate designs on the lead agent, Javier Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro), whom he undertakesin a crafty, hard-boiled wayto train, along with his companion Manolo, for the drug war and, just incidentally, for personal services. During one of these services, in Mexico City, Javier meets a bandaged and scarred figure whom he recognizes as a kingpin of the Juarez drug cartel, someone widely reported to have died. Salazar by now is head of the war on drugs for Mexico, yet here he is protecting the boys from Juarez. Javier and Manolo realize they have deadly information.

Javier and Manolo are halfway decent men (and Benicio Del Toro, as Javier, is the stand-out of the movie). As the film unwinds, what will they do with their secret? How will the case against Ayala turn out? And how will Judge Wakefield’s private life affect his public one? See the film.

Traffic is not just an ingenious crime story; it is a roman à clef. Salazar and Ayala and the two cartels and the scarfaced kingpin have their real-life counterparts. Being pretty close to reality, this thriller film, while sealing fates and elevating some heroesany moral decision in this morass is heroichas to leave the plague itself raging.

Mexicans are not very sanguine about President Vicente Fox’s war on trafficking. In a national column that included a brief review of Traffic, Eduardo Ruiz Healy wrote caustically about Fox’s drug trafficking offensive, calling it The Crusade Lost Ahead of Time. The Fox plan includes doubling law-enforcement pay, so as to relieve the pressure on police to make their work entrepreneurial. He has launched a campaign called Ojo Ciudadano, Citizen Eye, to enlist people as protected witnesses. (It will take a major shift to dispel Mexicans’ uncertainty about which public agents to trust.) And Fox has to admit that, in this deadly game, goals have already been scored against him.

Sebastian Rotella, in his 1998 book Twilight on the Line, reports that in recent years the Mexican mafias have been supplying two-thirds of U. S. cocaine and that they spend roughly double the entire budget of the Mexican federal attorney general’s office and federal police on bribing public officials. Ruiz Healy says, concentrate on getting the swelling number of users off drugs; even legalize them. All of that is beyond and outside the reach of Traffic, which nonetheless trains a harsh light on this particular social illness.

James S. Torrens, S.J., a former associate editor of America, is a professor of English at the Universidad Iberoamericana Noroeste in Tijuana, Mexico. He can be reached at: james@tij.uia.mx.