Selling Violence

Some Mexican filmmakers now mirror global stereotypes about Mexico’s violence, which make the films legible for international liberal audiences.

The dystopian thriller New Order opens with a sharp contrast: chaos in a crowded Mexico City public hospital, followed by a joyful wedding at a wealthy family’s mansion. High walls separate the party from a riot that has burst out in the city. But the border between these worlds soon collapses.

Wearing face paint that suggests a racist idea of indigenous tribes, a group of insurgents climb the fence and break into the property. With the help of domestic workers, robbery and increasingly lethal mayhem ensue. The movie’s opening culminates with scenes of massacre and one of the guests—a pregnant woman—lying on the floor with a shot in the belly.

Depicted as a barbaric upheaval of poor classes against the white and wealthy, the riot does not seem to have any concrete purpose beyond wreaking havoc, stealing, and inflicting gratuitous violence. “The ambiguity of the movie is deliberate,” explains the director Michel Franco in an interview with the Spanish paper El País. “I wanted to keep it open … so that audiences from different countries could see themselves.”

This vagueness points to a trend that has taken over much of the contemporary cinema of the global South: representations of violence that contort local circumstances for international tastes. These films’ allegiances, as scholar Ignacio Sánchez Prado argues, lie in their status as “commodities for neoliberal capitalism” that aim to circulate globally.1 This tendency, which comprises productions of varying quality, is now all too familiar in Mexican cinema. Taking precedence over the country’s social and political realities, films like New Order—notably successful in international festivals—reflect the upper classes’ anxiety about their perceived vulnerability and loss of status.

Violence, emerging from different contexts and social actors, has become a marker that makes Mexico intelligible to Western circuits of tastemaking. This trend motivates Niamh Thornton’s recent book, Tastemakers and Tastemaking: Mexico and Curated Screen Violence. “Violence,” she argues, “has particular salience, because it falls outside of the usual considerations of taste as a consequence of being inherently aberrant.”2 In other words, violence signals bad taste. However, her analysis emphasizes tastemaking as a malleable practice: a series of conventions and decisions made by a network of actors, ranging from festival curators to directors and performers, who determine artistic value and trends as they navigate different conditions and interests.

Thornton examines violence as a paradoxical aesthetic marker for both art-house and commercial films. And this examination points to questions about the types of stories that the globalized market demands from Mexico and Latin America as producers or native informants of “diverse” local art.

Responding to these expectations, as well as to the need for a global projection, a sector of well-established Mexican filmmakers now adjust their work to these stereotypes about violence and barbarism, which make it legible for international liberal audiences. As historian Pablo Piccato notes in a different context, “Mexico’s infamy has been a domestic product for universal consumption.”3


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New Order—recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Venice Film Festival—is only the most recent iteration of a type of film that prestige circuits expect from Latin America. This type is frequently related to how it represents public security in these countries.

An earlier paradigmatic film along this trajectory is Amores perros. Now-Hollywood-celebrated director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut movie was released at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prize of the Critics’ Week. Since his initial success with Amores perros, Iñárritu has amassed dozens of accolades in leading categories in the Cannes and Venice film festivals, the BAFTA, and the Academy Awards (where he won the Best Director Award in consecutive years), among others.

Moreover, a “myth” lingers that Amores perros reinvented Mexican art cinema, as film critic Alonso Díaz de la Vega argues. But, he continues, far from unprecedented, Amores perros deftly brings together many formally innovative techniques already in circulation in 1990s US cinema, an early pointer to Iñárritu’s future career in Hollywood. Following a series of aesthetic guidelines consolidated in Europe and the United States that determined what constituted a quality film, Iñárritu infused these models with locally colored content. In so doing, he didn’t reinvent Mexican art cinema; instead, he merely situated Mexico—an idea of Mexico—within an existing global landscape, thus confirming a principle observed by the cultural critic Carlos Monsiváis: “Without the local there is no access key to the global.”

Set in Mexico City at the turn of the century, Amores perros revolves around a series of violent and criminal actions. These crimes and violence, Sánchez Prado contends, are presented as an apolitical effect of the moral corruption of the characters.4 He takes up Susana Rotker’s notion of “citizenships of fear,” which she describes as communities constituted around feelings of unsafety in Latin American urban centers. In so doing, Sánchez Prado interprets Amores perros as a narrative about the anxiety generated by the potential incursion of “marginal subjects in the bourgeois normality” of the Mexican capital.5

Like New Order, Amores perros employs violence to cater to the anxious gaze of the upper classes and their perceived vulnerability to violence inflicted by the poor—categorized as either criminals or low-rank state employees. Responding to a question about his approach to violence in Amores perros from his perspective as a resident of Mexico City, Iñárritu himself provides a clear example of this perspective:

It’s very scary; there’s a lot of vulnerability; it’s very fragile. You feel like if you go out for dinner tonight, you don’t know if you will return. There’s that kind of civil war going on out there. It’s crazy; it’s crazy. It’s very sad. Because it became that way just eight years ago. Now, I think a lot of drug dealers have come in from Colombia, everything is so corrupted, and the policemen are the worst.

Twenty years that have passed between Iñárritu’s and Franco’s movies. Since then, and particularly in the last decade, the focus on the role played by police in state-sanctioned violence has shifted to a focus on the role of the army, which has since 2006 fought a war that has led to at least 240,000 killings of mostly impoverished young people.

When the self-assumed universal Western intelligentsia fails to understand anti-systemic emancipation on its own terms, we are left with paranoid conversations about new orders.

Franco’s New Order emerges partly as a response to a moment of political transition. In 2018, a new party rose in both electoral branches of state power in Mexico. While its promised progressive transformations have far from materialized, its populist rhetoric has produced a landscape of unease and resentment among many members of the economic elites and middle classes. Moreover, from a progressive standpoint, one of the main themes of discussion at the national level has been the ongoing escalation in the militarization of public security. Such escalation has a foundational precedent in the 21st-century exacerbation of the decades-long counter-narcotics policies in Mexico: the so-called “war on drugs.”6

In December 2006, Calderón brought the army to the streets with the stated purpose of fighting drug cartels. Since the early 1990s, murders (and associated acts of violence) had been steadily declining throughout the country—as is attested by public records and studied by sociologist Fernando Escalante7—until they reached a historic minimum in 2007. From then onward, the trend reversed, particularly in the territories with active military intervention. In fact, Mexico has experienced peaks of violence that emerged, precisely, as a result of the policies that were supposed to end an alleged threat.

In Mexico City, the scene of Iñárritu’s Amores perros, we find an important precedent for Calderon’s instrumentalization of a narrative of fear. After a peak in 1997, reported crimes in the capital descended and almost reached the levels recorded before the early 1990s surge (which was not exclusive of the Mexican capital but a larger urban Latin American phenomenon, the causes of which haven’t been clearly identified). After this rise during the 1980s and 1990s, when Mexico City’s fame as a dangerous city was consolidated, violent criminality kept descending between the early 2000s and 2005, but the perception of insecurity began to increase in 2002, confirming Escalante’s claim that “neither in Mexico nor in the rest of the world a strong and significant correlation exists between a rise in fear and a rise in criminality.”8 Furthermore, in Mexico City, murders committed by perpetrators unknown to victims were rare, as journalist Josefina Estrada explains in her 2008 study of violent murder in the city.9 But the media, television, and cinema often conveyed the opposite message.

In this context, in 1997, the then president Ernesto Zedillo announced a “national crusade” against crime. Partly, the crusade consisted of a communications strategy, echoed by mainstream media, that encouraged citizens to “renounce resignation and denounce criminals,” as well as to be cautious, and take responsibility for their own safety.10 But Zedillo also began a process of militarization of public security that has only been exacerbated ever since. Then, in 2002, partly sponsored by billionaire Carlos Slim, Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador (currently the country’s president) hired Rudolph Giuliani as an advisor to import the “zero-tolerance” approach he had undertaken in New York in the 1990s. This strategy echoed Zedillo’s own rhetoric about zero tolerance in his crusade. Without any demonstrable efficacy, zero-tolerance policies focus on increasing policing and criminalization, especially of racially profiled residents.

Embedded in the recent history of the war on drugs, Franco attempts to convey a critical warning of the dangers of militarization. In New Order, the army seizes control of the nation amid the chaos caused by the protests. Straying away from the institution’s order, the soldiers—portrayed as empowered and unscrupulous dark-skinned marauders—act much like the insurgency. They kidnap and torture members of the wealthy elite to extort ransom. At moments, these scenes suggest analogies to the Holocaust; they imply that, if the lower classes take control, the logic of the genocidal violence implemented as part of a program of white supremacy could be simply turned against the elites.

Far from critiquing the institution itself, which instrumentalizes soldiers to manage state violence, Franco’s narrative locates the origin of the horrors perpetrated by the military in individuals who are already seen as a threat by the upper classes. Most frequently, soldiers come from backgrounds of poverty and severely limited opportunities of mobility.11 This phenomenon illuminates the fact that the poor constitute a dispensable class on both sides of the state line: either as its enemies or as the cannon fodder used to fight them.

None of this reality is present in New Order. Franco’s soldiers appear to execute extreme violence as a result of individual corruption, independently from the logic of the institution to which they belong. The opportunity to craft a much-needed critique of militarization-related violence of Mexico is lost.


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Reviews in US mainstream media almost unanimously described New Order as a class-conscious condemnation of economic injustice and of the risks of violence this disparity entails. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Franco’s movie offers “a chilling representation of unchecked social disparity sparking potentially all-too-real chaos”; Salon saw in New Order a “stinging indictment on economic inequality.” Comparisons to Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) have abounded. Franco himself envisioned his film as an admonition against Mexico’s remarkable wealth inequality.

In contrast to the praise lavished on the film by US outlets, scattered approving reviews of New Order in Mexican mainstream outlets were sharply opposed by a backlash on social media.The critique exploded immediately after the release of the movie’s trailer last October, in which the depiction of the poor as violent savages was already clear. The outcry in Mexico didn’t stop after the movie’s subsequent theatrical release, which, despite the pandemic, resulted in a remarkable turnout in Mexico and beyond, echoing Amores perros’s feat of conjugating international critical acclaim and commercial success. To the accusations that the movie was a racist depiction of the impoverished classes, Franco soon responded with a public lamentation about reverse racism (a comment he later retracted after a second wave of backlash).

As Franco’s camera surveys the aftermath of the riots in Mexico City, we can distinguish hints of the demands that led to the destruction of the city, the death of thousands, and the military takeover. Some clearly make reference to the feminist protests against gender violence and femicide that have taken place throughout the country in the past years; others point more vaguely to the poor’s hatred of the rich (as perceived by the latter). In his depiction of the protests, Franco prioritizes representing an imagined global reality at the expense of a nuanced local experience, which takes advantage of a canonized image of local violence and savagery.

The reasoning behind the revolts portrayed in New Order remains vague, because Franco himself has only a hazy grasp of the current mass protests in Mexico and around the globe. This was clear in his interview with El País. The director mentioned that he was inspired by protests as diverse as the Black Lives Matter movement, the gilets jaunes in France, the 2019–20 Hong Kong demonstrations against China, and the massive revolts in Chile that led to a vote repealing the constitution, a legacy of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Franco even dragged in the French Revolution. “When they teach you about the French Revolution in school,” he asserted, “they tell you it was positive. But you never hear about the people who were murdered or looted.”

Most people do learn about the guillotining of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in school. What seems to elude Franco, however, is that many of the contemporary anti–systemic racism protests are being violently repressed by the state powers. Chile, where the police went as far as blinding protestors in 2019, is a brutal example, among many others. The problem of trying to understand social upheavals in abstract, ahistorical terms is that protests only make sense as they respond to a specific situation and advance concrete goals. Representing them as bursts of violence, void of content and context, detaches movements seeking justice from all the elements that make them meaningful in a time and place.

Instead of presenting a meaningful critique of inequality and state violence, Franco portrays social protest as senseless savagery, in a context that indeed warrants an organized public response.

What is a dystopia in New Order—a fantasy nightmare presented as a potential future in the tone of a warning—is past and present for countless people. Earlier this year, for example, soldiers shot and killed Elvin Mazariegos Pérez at a checkpoint at the increasingly militarized border between Guatemala and Mexico. As he was driving back to his native Guatemala, an agent of the Mexican National Guard shot repeatedly at him, despite the fact that he presented no threat to the military. Earlier, a wave of protests was sparked by a case of police brutality in which a Salvadoran refugee, Victoria Salazar, was killed by four agents in Tulum, an affluent international tourist resort near the borders with Guatemala and Belize.

If New Order has been repeatedly described as “provocative,” even “ultra-provocative,” what exactly does the film provoke? Instead of presenting a meaningful critique of inequality and state violence, Franco portrays social protest as senseless savagery, in a context that indeed warrants an organized public response.

Notwithstanding the narratives of social commitment that accompany them, in their need to adjust to the taste expectations of global markets, films like New Order tend to perpetuate stereotypes, without contributing to an understanding of the underlying causes of systemic violence and popular turmoil. In this context, despite a recent ramping up in the production of both commercially and critically successful Mexican films, a crisis of representation looms large, forged between the expectations the cultural establishment and world markets pose to the so-called Third World and the local responses that do not challenge this framework and, instead, contribute to its tastemaking practices.

When the local cannot be so easily adjusted to these predetermined narratives, when the self-assumed universal Western intelligentsia fails to understand anti-systemic emancipation on its own terms, we are left with paranoid conversations about new orders. It is no coincidence that the title of Franco’s movie so clearly reflects the realm of conspiracy theories, a last resource deployed in a post-enlightened world to make sense of the unintelligible.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, “El arte de la violencia sistémica: La explotación neoliberal como estética y mercancía en el cine mexicano contemporáneo,” Hispanófila, vol. 178 (2016).
  2. Niamh Thornton, Tastemakers and Tastemaking: Mexico and Curated Screen Violence (SUNY Press, 2020)
  3. Pablo Piccato, A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico (University of California Press, 2017), p. 7.
  4. Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, “Amores perros: Violencia exótica y miedo neoliberal,” Revista de la Casa de las Américas, no. 240 (2005).
  5. Sánchez Prado, “El arte de la violencia sistémica.”
  6. In his recent book, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade (Norton, 2021), Benjamin Smith studies the development of these punitive approaches since the early 20th century, their relationship to violence, and the involvement of state authorities in the management and profiting of the same economy they officially outlaw.
  7. See, e.g., Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo, El crimen como realidad y representación: Contribución para una historia del presente (Colegio de Mexico, 2012).
  8. Ibid.
  9. Josefina Estrada, Señas particulares: La muerte violenta en la Ciudad de México (Debolsillo, 2013).
  10. Gustavo Fondevila and Miguel Quintana Navarrete, “Juego de palabras: Los discursos presidenciales sobre el crimen,” Estudios sociológicos, vol. 31, no. 93 (2013).
  11. Daniela Rea and Pablo Ferri, La Tropa: Por qué mata un soldado (Aguilar, 2019).
Featured image: Detail of a still from New Order (2020). Photograph courtesy of Netflix