This piece carries a content warning for violence, including sexual assault.
One half of the team moved in on the cartel boss' hideout by night, watched overhead by their partners in an helicopter gunship. The narcos retreated to the second floor of a building, scattering to pick up machine guns and a grenade launcher.
That's when the helicopter's minigun opened fire, hammering through the walls and tearing the narcos apart. With another capo down, the team moved in to search for intel that might lead to their next target.
Though it might seem like a mission out of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Wildlands, this battle between Mexican Marines and the Beltrán Leyva drug cartel actually occurred two weeks ago, in the Mexican city of Tepic. It wasn't the first time the Marines had used helicopter gunships against cartel targets, but previous incidents had been in rural areas, not the heart of a city. This underscores why it's difficult to create believable fiction out of the ongoing Mexican Cartel War: what's over-the-top one day might be standard tactics the next.
"In 2009, Breaking Bad had an episode where Mexican cartels used an IED," says Ioan Grillo, a journalist and author of the book Gangster Warlords. "I thought 'Oh, that's too much,' then in 2010 there was an IED in Ciudad Juarez."
Into this bizarre middle ground between fiction and reality steps Wildlands, a game that explicitly draws inspiration from the ongoing cartel war. The gameplay mirrors DEA strategy, the villains resemble real figures from the conflict, and the cartel follows a well-established Mexican folk saint, Santa Muerte. But in a culture where reality and fiction are already blurred by cartel myth-making, how do you parse out what about Wildlands is real and what's not? And does it even matter?
A Work of Fiction that Draws on Fact
"Our philosophy with the Tom Clancy brand is to find out what's real and to deviate from that to make a great game," says Sam Strachman, Wildlands' Narrative Director. "We had the great opportunity to team up with New York Times bestselling authors Don Winslow and Shane Salerno to create the cartel-themed narrative for the game."
Winslow and Salerno are easy partners to brag about. Don Winslow's novels The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are well-regarded portrayals of the US war on drugs, while screenwriter Shane Salerno has helped adapt several of Winslow's books for the screen. They have a good grasp of the history at work here—so if you want to know the basics before picking up your controller, you'd best catch up.
The Mexican Cartel War broke out due to a collision of economics and politics. In the 1980s and '90s, a US crackdown started pinching off the traditional Colombian trafficking routes in the Caribbean. Ever pragmatic, the Colombians looked instead to contacts in Mexico which, due to NAFTA, suddenly had an open trade border with the United States. These Mexican middlemen expanded their power over time, until they controlled 90% of the cocaine coming into the US.
That was the good time.
In 2000, the PRI—the Mexican party that had held power for 71 years—got voted out in favor of the National Action Party (PAN), which took a hard line against drug cartels. The old system of payouts that kept the country stable fell apart, and soon the cartels were at war with each other and openly battling security forces. In response, in 2006 President Felipe Calderón sent 6,500 Mexican ground troops and federal police into Michoacan, along with helicopters and navy gunboats. Soon, similar forces would storm cities across the country.
It only got worse. Deaths as a result of the drug war rose from 1,500 in 2004 to almost 17,000 in 2011.
"Back in 2011 there was this incredible escalation of violence, and a fear that the escalation would continue," says Grillo. "Thankfully, it did reduce or plateau a bit, but we've still had a sustained layer of violence in parts of Mexico."
Grillo explains that since 2011, the government has killed or arrested a number of major cartel heads—including the world's most famous drug lord "El Chapo" Guzman, who was recently extradited to the US. But violence has continued and anti-cartel militias, known as autodefensas, are increasingly common as locals take their security into their own hands.
As Grillo explores in Gangster Warlords and his previous book, El Narco, these battles between cartels, militias, and government forces often resemble actions we only associate with war—or the over-the-top narratives of FPS games.
"It was not a regular criminal situation here," he says. "You had guys with shoulder-carried rocket launchers shoot down military helicopters. You had a gunfight in 2010 when there were 500 gunmen against 2,000 federal police—helicopters were involved in that as well—crazy fighting, and a lot of people dying, and a battle over a large area."
And according to Grillo, the war has entrenched cartels even more deeply in local communities: "They've gotten into local politics to the point of charging mayors 10% of their budgets, and controlling—having their own people—run mayor's offices in these cities."
As a result, it's not too difficult to give some credence to Wildlands' idea of a narco-state that's carved up into territories controlled by either cartels or government forces, though he says it's a stretch to suggest that Mexican Cartels could take control of Bolivia.
"Mexican cartels are present in many countries, but being present is different from controlling," says Grillo, explaining that cartels dispatch operatives to countries like Peru and Honduras in order to buy raw ingredients, cook meth, or launder money. They also partner with local gangs for these operations, but they're not controlling territory or running large groups of hitmen. "The country where you see Mexican cartels act most violently has been Guatemala," he continues. "The Zetas established themselves quite deeply there, carried out massacres, and got really powerful in some small towns in northern Guatemala."
But Strachman cautions that Wildlands' scenario is meant to be speculative, not taken as completely realistic. "From a narrative perspective, we worked with numerous experts to create an authentic and thrilling Tom Clancy 'what if?' scenario, including building on the tense relationship between the DEA and Bolivia." Beyond that, Strachman says, it was Bolivia's geography that sold it as a setting.
"Bolivia is beautiful and has varied terrain that lends itself to diverse gameplay," he says. "Players will be able to fly over the salt flats, drive through the Altiplano, and chase their enemy on the infamous Yungas 'Death Road.' The environment is perfectly suited to the new type of open-world gameplay we want to offer."
Ironically, Bolivia is the one place in Latin America where drug violence is going down. In 2008, the country pursued a radical new drug strategy that involved kicking out the DEA and controlling its coca leaf-growing regions via agricultural policy. This tactic—where the government allows farmers to grow a certain amount of coca leaf for personal use, and to be sold for legal purposes—has cut the country's coca crop in half and significantly lowered the bloodshed.
"There used to be all kinds of conflict before. Now it couldn't be more different," coca farmer Roxana Argandoña told a Vice reporter last year. "The soldiers would abuse us, especially the women, sexually. Now, there is respect on both sides."
The United States, however, was not thrilled by Bolivia's drug strategy, preferring to disrupt cartels by decapitating their leadership—the kind of strategy portrayed in Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Cut Off the Head...
Though the United States deploys no troops in the Cartel War, its influence is significant. Since 2008, the US has contributed $2.5 billion worth of Black Hawk helicopters, communications equipment, training, and black ops gear to Mexican forces. DEA operations assist via intelligence sharing and helping Mexican security forces target cartel heads.
"The DEA has a continuing year-on-year mission of arresting drug traffickers, busting drug loads, and getting drug traffickers to prisons in the United States," explains Grillo. "Often they gain information to arrest more drug traffickers, bust more drugs, bust money, get more people extradited, seize more assets, it's kind of a continual cycle. Billions of dollars go into that."
The DEA's theory is that if Mexico kills or captures a kingpin and "decapitates" a cartel, they'll destabilize and weaken the drug trafficking structure—hopefully enough that it falls apart. This is sometimes called the "Kingpin Strategy."
This is, essentially, the strategy portrayed in Wildlands: the player hits a lieutenant in order to damage an underboss' operation, and in doing so, collects intelligence that eventually opens the underboss to a decapitation raid. You kill your way to the center of the web, from the lowest sicario all the way to El Sueño himself—with a certain amount of choice about how to take on targets.
"From the beginning of development, we knew we wanted to create a game with total freedom of choice in a massive, dangerous and responsive open-world," says Strachman. "The kingpin hierarchy best suits the mission structure of the game."
But in reality, Kingpin Strategy is controversial. On one hand, Grillo points out, the government has no option but to pursue cartel heads. After all, the very fact of their existence de-legitimizes the government and suggests authorities can't keep control.
But the vastly profitable drug trade means that no matter how many gang leaders you kill or arrest, someone will always step into their place (though Strachman hints that characters may address this in the game). In addition, decapitating a cartel often makes violence go up as underbosses turn on each other for control of the organization, or rivals pounce on the weakened cartel's territory. "When Arturo Beltrán Leyva was killed in 2009," says Grillo, "Cuernavaca went from being a very peaceful place to a very violent place."
But according to Grillo, more than the devil's bargain of Kingpin Strategy, the problem with US drug policy is that it lacks focus—after all, in geopolitics there's no waypoints and simple mission briefs.
"Washington lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with cartels and crime in Latin America," says Grillo, pointing out that the government has sent mixed signals on granting asylum, international aid, drug legalization, trade and border security—policies that may alter significantly under the Trump administration. "What it does have is a series of different and often competing agendas."
Meanwhile, the Cartel War drags on, and the people who live in it must find ways to live with the violence in ways that increasingly involve culture or religion—including religions born from the drug war itself.
The Skeleton Saint and the Craziest One
Faith defines the Santa Blanca Cartel. Religious tattoos cover its leader's body. Cartel hideouts coalesce around shrines. The very name Santa Blanca is a reference to Santa Muerte, a personified death figure that's emerged as an unsanctioned offshoot of Roman Catholic saints.
In the game, this religious belief is at the center of loyalty to the cartel.
"The Santa Blanca Cartel makes up some of these followers, and they leverage Santa Muerte to win over locals and exert influence," explains Strachman.
And while it's possible Wildlands may not portray Santa Muerte worship in all its subtleties, it's true that the skeleton saint is deeply entwined with cartel culture.
The vastly profitable drug trade means that no matter how many gang leaders you kill or arrest, someone will always step into their place.
"Santa Muerte appeals to narcos because of her powers of protection, prosperity and vengeance," explains Dr. Andrew Chesnut, Professor of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the foremost authority on Santa Muerte. "Since she's not a Catholic saint, she's open to all kinds of petitions, including ones that might violate Christian morality."
In his book Devoted to Death—the only academic book on Santa Muerte in English—Dr. Chesnut describes how the saint arose as a fusion of Catholic doctrine and Pre-Columbian indigenous beliefs.
When Spanish missionaries arrived in Latin America, they used the Spanish symbol of the Grim Reaperess—known as La Parca—as a way to represent the fear of death while preaching to locals. The indigenous people then interpreted that imagery through the death gods of their own cultures, such as the Aztec underworld god Mictecacihuatl. Santa Muerte has therefore existed for centuries, but the recent Cartel War has dragged her out of relative obscurity as the most recognizable "narco saint."
"Narcos are in constant danger of being killed," says Dr. Chesnut, "so who better to ask for a few more months or years in her hourglass of life than death herself?"
Beyond that, he says, Santa Muerte has gained a reputation as a quick and effective miracle-worker who often comes through when traditional Catholic saints, like St. Jude, fail. "Upon the recommendation of a friend or relative, the worshipper takes the request to Santa Muerte, who within a few days performs the requested miracle."
Like the cartel head El Sueño in Wildlands, many Santa Muerte devotees incorporate tattoos into their worship. Tattoos are an act of sacrifice and devotion, often acquired as a form of thanksgiving after Santa Muerte performs a miracle on a worshipper's behalf. "The devotee has surrendered a precious part of their bodily real estate to the Bony Lady," he says. "The two most popular tattoos in Mexican prisons are Santa Muerte and the Virgin of Guadalupe."
"Narcos are in constant danger of being killed," says Dr. Chesnut, "so who better to ask for a few more months or years in her hourglass of life than death herself?"
But Dr. Chesnut points out that while Santa Muerte is often labeled a narco saint, most of her worshippers aren't criminals—in fact, she has a large number of followers in the LGBT community and the poor, since Santa Muerte worship maintains a sort of egalitarianism.
"In a Latin America plagued by socioeconomic inequality, Santa Muerte's leveling scythe—that reaps all souls eventually—resonates with those at the bottom of the steep pyramid of social class."
The Mexican and American wings of the Catholic Church, for their part, denounce Santa Muerte worship as a satanic cult.
Therefore, it wouldn't be unusual for a cartel to establish an unofficial religion for its members as the Santa Blanca Cartel does—and in fact, it's happened before. When Nazario Moreno—better known by his nickname of El Más Loco or "The Craziest One"—inherited control of La Familia Michoacana he reorganized the cartel along the lines of a quasi-religious organization that looked a lot like the Santa Blanca Cartel. In fact, once you start to look, there's little doubt that several real figures at least influenced or informed the characters in Wildlands.
Madmen and Beauty Queens: The Real-Life Narcos Behind Wildlands ' Villains
"While we were inspired through our research and collaboration with experts on the subject-matter, the characters and stories aren't based on specific people or events," cautions Sam Strachman, the game's narrative designer. However, he also says working with Don Winslow and Shane Salerno helped the team "establish a grounded storyline, a believable criminal organization … and assist in creating the in-depth backstories for key in-game characters, including the boss, El Sueño."
Though El Sueño may be entirely fictional, his fanatical religiosity and legendary reputation mirrors the infamously loco Nazario Moreno. As a youth, Moreno had always been religious, even as he sold marijuana and got in knife fights with other small-time dealers. Early in his career, his nickname translated to "The Rosary." But after a series of life-altering events—including an Evangelical conversion and severely fracturing his skull—Moreno started to see visions.
When he took control of La Familia Michoacana in 2004, he immediately began indoctrinating his cartel members in a homebrew combination of evangelical Christianity, self-help literature, and guerilla wisdom. Nazario required members to give up drugs and study his self-published spiritual manifesto. He instituted complex initiation rituals that involved wearing armor. The cartel's violence too took on a medieval, even Old Testament vibe—La Familia would flog, crucify, or behead enemies to "protect" the people of Michoacan. The layer of religiosity served as both social control and a way to frame killings as divine justice.
"As a divinely inspired and sanctioned enterprise, the cartel became something much greater than a criminal syndicate driven only by profit," says Dr. Chesnut. "The pseudo-evangelicalism provided a moral basis for the cartels to portray themselves as noble knights crusading against the heretical invaders of Michoacan, mostly the Zetas Cartel."
Indeed, after Moreno "died" in a gunbattle with police—in reality he escaped and went into hiding—he reorganized the most devout members of La Familia into an even more fanatical group known as the Knights Templar. Members of the cartel began to evangelize their leader as a narco-saint, bolstered by Moreno's "ghost" appearing on the streets dressed in white. Police dismissed these sightings as folk rumors until Mexican security forces gunned Moreno down a second time in 2014.
El Sueño isn't the only character to have parallels. Wildlands' E3 presentation last year introduced us to El Pozolero, the "Stewmaker" who dissolves bodies in drums full of caustic soda. In 2009, the Mexican Army caught a man with the same nickname and modus operandi. The cartel's security expert, El Muro ("The Wall") served in the Mexican military before defecting to the cartel—which is exactly how the Zetas began.
Nidia Flores seems to take cues from Sandra Beltrán, whose fleet of smuggling boats gained her the name La Reina del Pacifico ("Queen of the Pacific") and who helped inspire the telenovela La Reina del Sur. The cartel's Cardinal resembles David Romo, a self-declared "archbishop" of Santa Muerte known to appear wearing a priest's collar.
Given these examples, it's clear that even some of the extreme portrayals in the game have at least some basis. But with a political topic as divisive as border security has become, we should probably ask: are there ethical questions to a game like Wildlands? Should we be fictionalizing this conflict at all?
Reality Inspires Fantasy, and Fantasy Inspires Reality
"Ghost Recon Wildlands has been in development for more than four years," says Strachman, when asked whether the presidential campaign's focus on border security and aggressiveness toward Mexico changed how the team thinks about the game. "The focus has always been about bringing the intense tactical action of the previous Ghost Recon games to the next level with total freedom of choice in a massive, dangerous, and responsive open-world. Ghost Recon Wildlands is inspired by reality, but remains a work of fiction."
That attempt to mentally separate reality and fiction is rare in media about the Cartel War. A whole slate of narco culture has grown up around drug lords and their battles, influencing everything from fashion, to architecture, to music and film. The most famous narco-media are narcocorridos, accordion and horn-centric ballads about the exciting lives and deeds of drug traffickers. (A genre that sits so close to the cartels that the frontmen get assassinated.)
There's also the low-budget narco films—at times financed by drug kingpins—that utilize real gangsters, truck crashes, guns, and prostitutes. In the popular imagination, drug traffickers have become mythic figures.
"The narcos are larger-than-life characters anyway," says Ioan Grillo. "Certainly the narco world is fueling pop culture."
But the newest strain in drug war media, he says, are narconovellas—soap operas like El Señor de los Cielos and La Reina del Sur that combine serial melodramas with smoking-hot cast members and the treacherous narco lifestyle. Five hours of telenovelas air in Mexico every day, he says, plus numerous gossip shows about the actors and actresses. According to Grillo, this bombardment of fictionalized narcos both makes drug war media mainstream and blurs the line between the real people and fictional depictions.
"People get confused between the fantasy and the reality," he says. "Like watching La Reina del Sur, people get confused between the character, the actress, and this gangster woman named Sandra Beltrán, who did prison time for money laundering."
When Sandra Beltrán was arrested, Grillo explains, the press and prosecutors named her the "Queen of the Pacific"—maybe because she resembled the character in Arturo Pérez-Reverte's 2002 novel La Reina del Sur, or maybe because the moniker made the arrest sound good ("I've met guys in prison who say that their nicknames were made up by the prosecutors," he adds). When the novel later got adapted into a narconovella, viewers naturally assumed it was about Beltrán's real-life exploits.
But fantasy can also inspire real criminals, he adds. During his research for Gangster Warlords, he found that Jamaican gangs started naming their leaders "Dons" after seeing the Godfather movies. Mexican gangsters frequently look at characters like Don Corleone and Tony Montana of Scarface as role models. "I was in San Pedro Sula in Honduras, and there's a gang there called the Vatos Locos—they were inspired by the movie Blood In Blood Out."
Despite this cross-pollination, Grillo doesn't feel media should bear any special ethical burden while portraying the Cartel War. He doesn't support censoring culture, he says, and doesn't think a prohibition would have any effect on the violence anyway.
Fantasy can also inspire real criminals.
"If you think of all the factors that produce violence in Mexico, you've got drug money, you've got guns, you've got poverty, you've got the impunity of failed justice systems—so you've got these hardcore factors that really affect people and make someone go into violence. Maybe the culture gives some form to that violence, but is it really the cause of it?"
Talking to Grillo, you get the sense of how often he's seen real violence—execution-style slayings, massacres, battles—run through newspaper presses, film cameras, and stereo speakers. He knows that one game more or less won't ultimately change this conflict, the best it can do is teach through osmosis.
"I think any fiction's better if it's educational, it's better if you're not trying to glamorize, but I wouldn't criticize somebody for making a video game about this. Will people playing it be that educated about this stuff? Maybe, maybe not, it's their choice. It's really the same thing if you're making a video game about any conflict, I wouldn't necessarily say it's a wrong thing to do."
'Ghost Recon Wildlands' is released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on March 7th.