Sinaloa man cleans guns. Photograph by Nick Quested, via National Geographic

Migration and Narcotics Meet in Blood on the Wall – a Grippingly Bleak Documentary

Early in “Blood on the Wall,” Nick Quested and Sebastian Junger’s dissection of the Mexican narco-state, a cartel soldier in a balaclava and t-shirt pores over an assault rifle in a dimly-lit room, musing to the camera on the commonalities between organized crime and illegal immigration. 

Weapons and migration are treated as if they are both a crime, but you never know the reality of an immigrant

Cartel soldier

Those worlds run parallel throughout the documentary, as the filmmakers move between the devastation brought upon America’s southern neighbor by the global narcotics trade and their attempt to share the harrowing tales of Central American migrants who journey through Mexico in search of American dreams. 

The result is a loose and sometimes unevenly structured documentary that balances overwhelming pessimism against a microcosm of hope in the smallest of human stories.  

Though elements of the documentary expand beyond the country’s borders, it focuses on Mexico, where some 150,000 homicides have been linked to the government’s ongoing war with drug traffickers. In recent years, a record number of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador trekked across the country in order to try and attain asylum in the United States.  

The documentary’s principal story kicks off just south of the Mexican border back in 2018. We meet two groups amid one of the migrant caravans which will shortly become international news: a crowd of Honduran teenagers centered around Ludy, the only girl; and a Guatemalan family led by Charol and elder matriarch Sara. 

“Blood on the Wall” is at its most compelling when it follows  Ludy, Charol and Sara, perhaps because they relate their stories directly to us. Ludy records several segments herself with a smartphone provided by the filmmakers, providing the documentary’s most compelling moments.

The space between the migrants’ journey is filled by vignettes that attempt to cut through Mexico’s present-day dysfunction, including the decay of a former resort town due to overwhelming gang violence and an excursion with family members searching for the bodies of those ‘disappeared’ by the cartels and the government. (Some 73,000 people remain missing, according to NBC News) The documentarians pull from a host of journalists, diplomats, and politicians to update viewers on the last 50 years of Mexican history.

The perspective offered by these segments is overwhelmingly bleak. Junger and Quested’s realization of Mexico is one of a doomed state ridden by extreme violence and institutional collapse, much of it wrought by the escalation of the American war on drugs and the ultimately disastrous involvement of the Mexican government in the narcotics feud. At one point, even one of the cartel soldiers laments how screwed they are.

The United States features heavily throughout the redux of the birth of the Mexican narco-state, courtesy of B-roll of Drug Enforcement Administration busts and a half-century’s worth of presidents. 

In one brief, but resonant sequence, a map of Central America lights up blue as a title card lists off the various coups and dictatorships America has facilitated in the region.  

America stays in the backdrop of the present-day stories – most notably, the Trump administration and its border policies don’t come up – but the US casts a long shadow in both the migrant and cartel narratives. While the migrant stories and the vignettes largely don’t match up, both sequences close with a border crossing into Arizona, which is also where the documentary begins.  

Frank in their assessment of the region’s geopolitics, Junger and Quested are similarly blunt in displaying the carnage that has accompanied it. The documentary draws from a macabre grab bag of tricks to showcase the extraordinary violence committed by both the cartels and the government. Archival footage of a political assassination is slowed down and highlighted at one point, while viewers are brought into a gunfight from a shooter’s perspective through body camera footage in another.

The graphic imagery doesn’t exaggerate the country’s violence – none of the footage appears to be simulated – but it is unsettling and at times egregious. This is a documentary that, in its 90-minute runtime, features two different, unsimulated deaths by headshot. 

Viewers are granted some relief, because none of that violence is inflicted upon the migrants, though there are plenty of allusions to the less fortunate who’ve attempted to cross Mexico previously. Fate – and the filmmakers – are ultimately kind to our protagonists in their quest to enter America.   

Of course, as “Blood on the Wall” sees fit to remind us, the drugs are headed in the same direction. 

Joshua Irvine studies journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He has written for The Daily Northwestern, Windy City Times, and Wisconsin State Journal, among others.

Joshua Irvine studies journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He has written for The Daily Northwestern, Windy City Times, and Wisconsin State Journal, among others.

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