Kingdom of Shadows Review – Exposing the Human Toll of Drug Wars

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Kingdom of Shadows, from Participant Media, Boiling Pot and Quiet Pictures, presents a stirring documentary that exposes the duality of drug smuggling through the eyes of a quiet nun, a convicted smuggler, and a hardened DEA/Homeland Agent looking back.

Taking three angels Director Bernardo Ruiz documents the effects of the Drug Wars from the hardened former undercover agent turned Senior Homeland Security Agent, Oscar Hagelsieb, who offers insights and history, convicted drug smuggler Don Henry Ford Jr., a 1980's Texas Rancher whose capture came right before the mandatory sentencing laws changed and of course Sister Consuelo Morales, whose network of hope has become a beacon in her devastated city of Monterrey, Mexico.

Kingdom of Shadows opens with a long shot of a biker, heavy tats, high handle bars, hog riding down the open road, gang colors, and for all intents and purposes it is the foundation of the story of dichotomies. This one image says it all, the director would have us believe.

The truth is former undercover DEA agent Oscar Hagelsieb is our biker. Undercover for the majority of his career as DEA he explains the truth behind some misconceptions of the Drug War. And as we spoke on the media day, legalization is not the end to the troubles faced by devastated cities across Mexico including Monterrey and also Juarez, both whom annually face more than 25, 000 thousand murders each to the drug wars.

Weaving in the calm and casualness of the early 1980's smugglers blues, when American television shows, like Miami Vice and songs like Smuggler Blues by Glenn Frey made the trade seem cool and less harmful almost serving a purpose.

And then we have the quiet strength of Sister Consuelo Morales, a real David in the jungle of Goliaths, she fights everyday prodding to have corrupt and concerned politicians of Monterrey file missing person reports, to persist against foreign governments, the United States and the president of Mexico to bring an end to this war, that we have no chance of winning and daily is taking more lives than all of Vietnam.

She organizes marches, with pictures of runners, compatriots, caught in the cross fire or wrong place wrong time, sons and daughters, children, husbands wives all hoping they could be the one who escaped. They could be the one who completes the run, without running into trouble and finds the escape from the suffocating poverty that drives this stunned, distraught, and wounded city.

Sister Consuelo, a force standing fearless against the cartels, is doing what these shocked, distressed, and traumatized souls cannot: she is becoming the voice in the wilderness of the Drug wars, the voice that cries out, the voice that brings the light to the darkened places.

She speaks of fear, of those who silently hold their signs, a sendoff tribute to those whom in the heart of hearts understand what they petitioning for is the opportunity to bury their loved ones, to have the chance to say good-bye, to pay proper respect to a life, that may have seemed insignificant to others but to these touched by a deep and uncomforted sorrow, they are asking for one last look.

Agent Hagelsieb, a different man today, sitting across from us at the Participant Media Day, his shiny badge, the small lapel pin neatly attached to his jacket. Mexican, the Agent, brings such an interesting background, his years of undercover work, the allotted time and necessity of sharing the questioning with others there just wasn't enough time.

His life as an undercover agent come to end, for the sake of his family. His stories of deep cover, spending days wheeling and dealing and living the large life with such authenticity that he could convince even the most seasoned dealer that he was working on building his empire. The deals, takes down, narrow escapes, run in's with now released former dealers were all very interesting.

The poignant moments, of course, came as he spoke on Sister Consuelo, for someone so seasoned, and maybe he thought or hoped we would be less jaded or more hopeful team of reporters, and prodded him on the remains of the 25,000 men and women who were killed last year alone.

Explaining, these individuals "are dead somewhere" the Agent looked somewhat uncomfortable and stunned that the impossible hope of Sister Consuelo wasn't as contagious as it was among those invested in hope. "They're not in a prison camp somewhere," I continued.

The Cartels are as vicious as any despot anywhere in the world, more so. They dismember and scatter body parts, they incinerate, they dissolve, and the methods used to make these voices disappear are as diabolical as the imagination.

A network built by a nun has risen up in several cities in Mexico calling for government to end corruption and help. Honestly, the cries are bringing the glare of the world spotlight and falling on deaf ears in country.

Don Henry Ford Jr., our last vignette in Ruiz's exceptional documentary, brings his story which in reality had some similarities to each person presented. Raised in poverty, a rancher, the farms barely staying afloat not wanting to sell or lose the land that was in the family for generations, he chose what seemed like the easier and like all the most advantageous decision.

Ford wasn't one of the quick hit, one score and end it, he flew weed across the border for years. His story deepens as Ruiz brings in the change of mandatory sentencing which he missed by a few months.

He also acts as the foot solider observer of the current war and strategy. With the rise of the cartels, the Smugglers Blues went from "You've got to carry weapons 'cause you always carry cash" to you have to bring a militia to protect yourself from the very well protected ex-soldiers and mercenaries that protect the cartel kingpins.

The Mom and Pop smuggler days are over which is evident in the sheer number, the volume of pawns, dying in the current war. Inner fighting among the Cartels which date back to the 1920's territorial war are driving the slaughter of innocent stringers carrying instructions, recruiting or other unknown reasons.

Kingdom of Shadows, humanizes the cries of families whose pleas fall on deafened and corrupt ears through a nun, whose voice is rising above the din and whose selfless heart and the need to comfort her church suddenly and unfortunately blossomed into a network of hope.

The deaths a nuisance, the voices calling for change fueled by exhaustion are kept alive by the media, and with the amount of American dollars involved the death sentences are issued without thought or concern as the government agencies are now involved.

The 25,000K murdered in Juarez ever year, 5 miles from El Paso, the safest city in the U.S., the murdered in Monterrey, they are expendable foot solider and the price of loyalty.

The type of escalating war, a non-conflict-conflict, targeting the citizens in order to control the government has happened throughout history. Everywhere there is conflict, where there is war: Kosovo, Bosnia, Mexico, throughout History, European Jews, Polish, Pol pot responsible for 1.5M deaths. It is a sad blot and without intervention a sad truth.

Kingdom of Shadows is in wide release and if given the chance through streaming platforms or other options, see this film. Definitely a solid introspective look into the current narco wars. 

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