A Mexican politician is murdering political rivals and taking million-dollar bribes from a drug cartel that is terrorizing his electorate. Bodies hang from highway bridges, the army is kidnapping civilians, and a top television network is carefully concocting a tear-jerker story meant to distract audiences from other atrocities.
While this scenario might read like the latest news round-up from crisis-ridden Mexico, it's actually the plot for a new film by Luis Estrada, a director who has made a career out of mocking the tragicomic consequences of Mexico's culture of corruption.
The Perfect Dictatorship, Estrada's latest piece of biting cultural satire, premiered last Thursday. Its title derives from a phrase coined by Nobel Prize-winning Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa during a 1990 television appearance in Mexico, in which he cuttingly described the country's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as a "perfect dictatorship."
Estrada's film is currently number one at the Mexican box office, and more than a million people have seen it.
"We decided to present several real-life cases where, even though they were in the media for weeks or months, we never found out what really happened," Estrada said in an interview with VICE News. "We wanted to create a mirror — for many, an ugly one — which describes the time and place in which we're living."
Though the movie, set in the world of social media memes and staged news events, finished filming in 2011, Estrada said that it could have been written directly about the problems afflicting the country today.
In Guerrero state, federal authorities have been unable to find 43 missing teaching students who were detained by local police in the city of Iguala. The city's mayor and a powerful local drug gang have been implicated in the case.
In a separate incident, Mexican soldiers have been charged with killing civilians in Tlatlaya, in the central state of Mexico. Human rights organizations continually accuse state forces of torture and forced disappearances, despite government efforts to present Mexico's army as a stabilizing force in the drug conflict.
"I wouldn't want to be frivolous with what has happened in Tlatlaya or Iguala, but the film shows a cycle in which the same stories repeat themselves," Estrada said. "It's all part of a wider context in which organized crime has penetrated public life and added to the existing problems of corruption, impunity, abuse of power, and inequality."
On the movie's opening night, filmgoers in a Mexico City cinema told VICE News that The Perfect Dictatorship rings disappointingly true.
"The film is very close to what really happens in Mexico," said Jaquelin Miranda, who works for the government health service.
"It shows the reality of a country in which democracy has been kidnapped by the television and the government," added lawyer Eliseo Vaselas, another audience member.
Mexico's television broadcasters, and their relationship with those in positions of political power, are Estrada's biggest targets. In the film, an all-powerful network decides who becomes president of Mexico, based on ratings and back-room deals.
The movie reflects the hold of one television network over the flow of information in a country in which only 3 out of 10 Mexican families had a home Internet connection in 2013, but more than 94 percent had a TV set. At one point in The Perfect Dictatorship, the central politician struggling to save his public image in the film exclaims that television is all that matters for his purposes.
"In Mexico, almost 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, and a big part of that sector only gets information about their reality and the problems in the country through the television, particularly the free-to-air channels," Estrada told VICE News. "And that's where TV has an enormous power to manipulate."
Televisa, the biggest Spanish-language broadcaster in the world, is by far the most powerful TV company in Mexico. It has historically had few qualms about maintaining cozy ties with politicians. Televisa chief Emilio Azcárraga once famously declared himself "a soldier of the PRI."
The PRI governed Mexico without interruption from the end of Mexican Revolution to the year 2000, when opposition candidate Vicente Fox was elected president. In 2012, the party regained control of the presidency with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto. Meanwhile, Televisa faced accusations of bias in the international press towards Peña Nieto during the campaign.
Though The Perfect Dictatorship is enjoying a successful run at the box office, its caricature of a TV network that closely resembles Televisa might have compromised its commercial prospects. Estrada said that Televisa affiliate Videocine originally agreed to distribute the film in the United States and throughout Latin America. That plan was scrapped after its executives reviewed the final version.
"When I thought the film was ready, I showed it to them [Videocine], and they said they weren't interested anymore in being associated with me or distributing the film anywhere or in any format," Estrada said.
Videocine didn't reply to calls and emails from VICE News to verify Estrada's claim.
About a third of The Perfect Dictatorship's budget came from public funds, Estrada noted. Some believe that the film's release and success indicates an evolving attitude about controversial content within the government.
"I didn't think they would show the raw reality that I just saw on the screen," Luis Alfredo Martinez, a 20-year-old law student who was leaving one of the film's first screenings, told VICE News. "And the government allowed them to do that, respecting their freedom of speech. In the 20th Century, the PRI government censored and restricted people."
But not everyone is convinced of the PRI's noble handling of the film.
"The PRI might not be happy about the film, but one thing they've learned in the years out of power is to allow this sort of thing. It gives the illusion that the government allows voices of dissent," Ricardo Lopez, a local spokesman for the international free-speech group Article 19, told VICE News. "The reality is that we have a large amount of disappeared students, military killings, and very little information from the government on either case. So on the things that really matter, they are creating a vacuum of information."
Legislators from the PRI were notably absent when Estrada and his lead actor Damián Alcázar recently presented the movie in the country's senate. Senators from Mexico's other main parties attended packed screening in a senate hall — to watch a movie in which the entire political class is vilified.
"I think it was very cathartic for them, fun, but painful and in some ways shocking," Estrada said about the screening. "The film criticizes all classes and levels of the political system. They all form part of this perverse story, and they must have seen themselves portrayed in this movie."
Despite his mission to confront politicians and the public with an illustration of Mexico's shortcomings, Estrada is realistic about how much one film can do to change a cycle of corruption that's been crippling the country for generations.
"The only thing I hope for is that people are entertained and reflect a little more about how power operates, and how the TV can be used," he said. "If that happens, the film will have done its job."
Follow John Holman on Twitter: @mexicocorrespond