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Home | Mises Library | Traffic: Exposing the Grand Charade

Traffic: Exposing the Grand Charade

  • drug_seizure.jpg

Tags Big GovernmentGlobal EconomyMedia and CultureThe Police StateTaxes and SpendingInterventionism

02/23/2001Dale Steinreich

The mischief done by bad ideologies, surely, is much more pernicious, both for the individual and for the whole society, than that done by narcotic drugs.  If one abolishes man's freedom to determine his own consumption, one takes all freedoms away.  The naive advocates of government interference with consumption...unwittingly support the case of censorship, inquisition, religious intolerance, and the persecution of dissenters--Ludwig von Mises, Human Action.

Director Steven Soderbergh is on a comeback roll.  The Louisiana native's first big break occurred twelve years ago with Sex, Lies, and Videotape.  Then in 2000 he revived his career with Erin Brockovich and this May will release the much-anticipated remake of 1960's Ocean's Eleven.  Positioned less conspicuously between these two flashy Julia-Roberts features, Soderbergh unveils Traffic, a film with a far more important message for the American public than anything he has worked on before or will ever likely work on again.  Filmed between April and June 2000 and based on the 1989 British television mini-series Traffik, the film has already won two Golden Globe awards and been rated Best Picture of the Year by the New York Film Critics Circle.  It is expected to win at least one Oscar at next month's Academy Awards, especially since it has five nominations.

The medium of film is important, not only for the size of audience it reaches but also for its ability to add an emotional dimension to an argument;  something that is not necessarily bad provided that it is solidly supported with reason.  The regnant shibboleth Traffic challenges is the international drug war, and it does it more effectively than any American film in recent memory.  Although 1999's Brokedown Palace and 1998's Return to Paradise explore themes of betrayal and state corruption, their main background antagonists are the merciless justice systems of Southeast Asia.  The beauty of Traffic is that it transcends this provincial perspective by offering a critique that is international, albeit limited to North America.  Its argument is multifaceted, employing situational and verbal irony to devastating effect across a massive (115 shooting locations and 135 speaking roles) and surreal sensory-overload cinematography which quickly and steadily whisks and swirls the viewer through a dizzying torrent of three extremely dense and gradually-converging subplots.

The first subplot begins twenty miles southeast of Tijuana with Mexican state policemen Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez (Benicio Del Toro) and his partner Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) seizing a shipment of cocaine from some low-level drug traffickers.  Rodriguez and Sanchez don't have their new booty long before being overtaken by General Arturo Salazar (Tomas Milian) and officers of the Mexican army who take the cocaine from them.  Salazar ingratiates himself with Rodriguez in order to get at assassin Francisco Flores (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who works for Mexico's Obregon drug "cartel" ("firm" is a more economically accurate term).  Salazar persuades the unworldly Rodriguez that he wants to capture Flores for killing some of his officers.  The truth, later learned by Rodriguez, is that Salazar (the titular head of the Mexican Drug Control Agency) is really a puppet of the Juarez drug "cartel," the Obregons' rival.  

The second subplot begins in the Supreme Court of Ohio where viewers are introduced to Justice Robert Hudson Wakefield (Michael Douglas), a merciless, zero-tolerance judge who lives in a world of stark moral black and white, especially when it comes to the gray issue of drugs.  With palpable contempt he tells an attorney whose client had his farm seized because of marijuana possession, "[T]here is no sacred protection of property rights in our country.  You grow marijuana on your farm, be it an ounce or an acre of plant, that farm can be seized, that farm can be sold."

Wakefield is rewarded for his steadfast allegiance to anti-drug dogma.  It turns out that an old friend of his has become President of the United States and has nominated him to serve as the nation's new drug czar.  Wakefield accepts the job but his early experiences reveal harbingers of serious problems to come.  His predecessor General Ralph Landry (James Brolin) is being forced out of office.  Wakefield at first attributes the dismissal to lack of support from the administration, but then begins to see the position for what it is:  thoroughly symbolic and impractical.  His top staffer is obsessed with political maneuvering, image, pretense, and spin.  Truly helping anyone struggling with any aspect of the drug problem is never discussed.  At a Georgetown cocktail party Wakefield talks with (among others) a former governor (William Weld as himself), five Senators, and a journalist.  Wakefield probes them and finds they have no real original, insightful, or practical answers to the drug problem.

Nothing resolved, Wakefield returns to his home in Indian Hill, a posh suburb of Cincinnati.  His daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen) and two other teens get caught by police one night dumping a teen boy (unconscious from a drug overdose) at the entrance to a hospital emergency room.  Wakefield and his wife Barbara (Amy Irving) ask Caroline if she too was consuming drugs that night.  Caroline denies she was but her parents know she is lying.  Barbara admits knowing of Caroline's use of illegal drugs for six months.  Robert Wakefield is stunned.  Befuddled, he leaves the glibness of Washington and heads to the California-Mexico border in search of "real" solutions to the drug problem.

But the front lines of the drug war provide no answers either.  In San Ysidro, California, border agents are pulling cars apart, hauling Mexicans to jail in handcuffs, and pushing shopping carts away whose baskets are filled to the brim with slab after slab of cocaine.  An agent tells Wakefield that his men are only able to seize about 10% of the total amount of drug traffic heading into the U.S.  At the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), with its state-of-the-art technology and information gathering, a staff member tells Wakefield that EPIC's resources don't come close to those of the Mexican drug "cartels."  On the plane ride home, Wakefield asks his gathered staff to "think out of the box," and give him some solutions.  The first answer comes quick:  raise the agency's budget.  Then the plane grows completely silent.  No one, Wakefield included, has any solutions and hence the higher budget is really no solution either since it represents more money poured into already-failed strategies.  

Wakefield arrives home in Cincinnati to find Caroline freebasing cocaine in the bathroom.  Caroline starts attending AA meetings but eventually runs away and takes her addictions to alcohol and cocaine to the Cincinnati ghetto where she sells her body for drugs.  Meanwhile Wakefield flies to Mexico City to meet and join forces with his Mexican counterpart, General Arturo Salazar.  Salazar tells Wakefield that in Mexico addicts treat themselves and deaths from overdoses aren't a problem since they mean less addicts to deal with.  (This is a clue to the slow-learning Wakefield that reveals one reason why Mexico doesn't have the same type of demand problems the U.S. has.)          

The setting of the third subplot (itself constructed of two interwoven plots) is San Diego.  DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) nab mid-level drug trafficker Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer) in a sting operation at a storage center.  In return for immunity, Ruiz fingers Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), the top distributor of Obregon cocaine in the U.S. and a direct underling of Juan Obregon.  Carlos Ayala is arrested and taken to jail to the great surprise and horror of his wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Thus begins the other co-vignette of subplot three.  In the wealthy San Diego suburb of La Jolla, Helena sees her life crash down.  Scandalized by the sensational arrest, her snooty friends and neighbors desert her.  Six months pregnant, her husband's assets frozen, and their credit cards at their spending limits, Helena is forced to survive in a rough world she's never had to face.  To make matters worse, the Obregons have threatened to kill her young son unless they receive payment for a three-million-dollar debt her husband Carlos owes them. 

The three subplots, already tenuously linked, begin to converge when Rodriguez turns on his new boss General Salazar after Salazar's men execute Rodriguez's partner, Manolo Sanchez.  The general is arrested for his dealings with the Juarez "cartel" by the DEA and Mexican authorities, much to Wakefield's embarrassment.  (Recall Wakefield's alliance with the general.)  Wakefield's top staffer of course has a ready spin for the developing fiasco:  Salazar was arrested by the DEA and Mexican authorities.  This shows that the new international partnership has resulted in progress in the War on Drugs (a complete lie given that we know it was only the work of a low-level snitch avenging his partner's death).  

With Salazar off their backs, the Obregons get an additional shot in the arm when Helena Ayala visits them to strike the ultimate deal:  she will trade her husband's new technology for producing an extremely difficult-to-detect cocaine in return for forgiveness for her husband's $3 million debt, the right to exclusively distribute Obregon cocaine in the U.S., and the murder of her husband's principal witness Eduardo Ruiz.  The deal is made:  Ruiz dies from poisoning and Carlos Ayala goes free.


Traffic's one shortfall is that it is a sensory overload for first-time viewers.  Its dense subplots and constant shifts in location (47 shifts in all) and characters (26 main and first-level supporting) cannot help but leave some viewers overwhelmed.  The three merging stories set across two large nations, though, are able to show the magnitude and extent of the drug war as it directly or indirectly affects the lives of everyone, as well as the war's universal brutality, futility, and destruction.

First Traffic devastatingly attacks the war's logical inconsistencies by unfurling a relentless, pounding montage of situational irony:

  • Wakefield (as an Ohio Supreme Court justice) is sent a fishing rod as a gift to pressure him for a favorable ruling on medical marijuana.
  • Wakefield (as U.S. drug czar) has a daughter who abuses alcohol, cocaine, and heroine.  His wife Barbara reveals that she herself extensively experimented with drugs in college and that Robert currently has to consume "three scotches just to walk in the door" every night before he comes home.  Robert admits to having only one scotch with dinner to avoid "dying of boredom."
  • Wakefield meets a representative of Merck Pharmaceutical Corporation at a Georgetown cocktail party where senators, journalists, and other guests are guzzling down alcohol while discussing America's dire drug problem.  
  • General Salazar reminds Francisco Flores in vino veritas, and Flores accordingly numbs himself with wine before disclosing the locations of the Obregons.  
  • While spying on Helen Ayala from a van, DEA agent Castro reveals to his partner Gordon that he can't quit smoking despite many attempts.  "Ever try a patch?" asks Gordon.  Castro says he has.  "You'll need about five of them," Gordon says, because that's how many a friend of his needed to quit.  He adds (unaware of the irony) that his friend died not from cigarettes but from being shot in the face by his wife for committing adultery.  
  • After handing Salazar over to the DEA, Rodriguez (like Flores) has to smoke (imbibe a drug) to help cope with his confession.  
  • General Salazar, sitting in the torture closet where Flores once sat, is mercy killed by a doctor with an overdose injection of heroine.

The next battering ram the movie uses to drive home its point is contrasting settings.  The worlds of Washington and Cincinnati, well behind the front lines of the war and inhabited by Wakefield and policy wonks, are a cool blue with interstitial spaces containing mirrors, glass, and other reflective surfaces.  Here Soderbergh uses blue filters for indoor scenes and tungsten-balanced film (sans color correction) for outdoor daylight scenes.  The effect is to magnify the sense of space and emptiness with the monochromatic blue environment signifying a winter-cool, deadened detachment from reality.  The not-quite antithetical summer is found in San Diego where Soderbergh gets an otherworldly, Elysian-Fields appearance by flashing the film negative at 10% of the first-generation image and using a desaturation filter to give the natural light a soft, watery glow.  This brings out the iridescent colors of lush, flowered San Diego which become an ironic contrast to the emerging sewage of Eduardo Ruiz and Carl Ayala's true business.

Mexico is illustrative of Soderbergh's auteur visual creativity at its best.  The light colors of Tijuana, the desert outside it, and Mexico City are lit up in a phosphorescent overexposure.  A tobacco-colored filter emphasizes the land's moral corruption and rot in a black and manure-colored glowing off white.  (One very poignant portrayal of mundane Mexican corruption occurs in Tijuana involving Rodriguez and a young college couple looking for their stolen Ford Explorer.  "Call theese man," says Rodriguez handing them a piece of paper.  "And you weel get your car back.")  Shutter angles of forty-five degrees produce an occasional strobing effect portending danger (Rodriguez and Sanchez's capture by Salazar, Flores being dragged off to torture).  Some movie critics have accused Soderbergh of using a special stock for the Mexico sequences.  This is incorrect.  What was used was a Kodak Ektachrome printing requiring seven generations of print from the negative.  Like a photocopy of a photocopy, this contributed to the scenery's rough, gritty, and sand-blasted texture.

The most beautiful image of the entire film is a swooping aerial view of Mexico City (Wakefield's much-heralded journey to join forces with Salazar).  The architectonics of the city emerge in a late-afternoon chiaroscuro as Wakefield's helicopter banks and turns.  Then the immagine perfetta:  the helicopter floats in with an ineffable grace, its rotor blades strobing between stillness and action--but it is a reverse image:  the vessel makes contact and the perspective traverses a seamless symmetry to the real object.  Traffic is thus a movie about reflections and Soderbergh uses mirror images to constantly remind viewers of the distinction between the real and illusory.  Wakefield's trip and subsequent alliance with Salazar is not what it seems.  In the bluish-reflective surfaces of Washington people see themselves but neither their inconsistency, hypocrisy, nor the frivolity or damage caused by their policies.  Caroline snorts cocaine on mirrors and freebases on foil but doesn't see the gradual destruction into which she's sliding or the true nature of her "friend" Seth who medicates her to get sex.  Sitting at a mirrored table, we see the reflections of Gordon, Castro, and Ruiz.  But in the end, only Ruiz is transparent to himself and honest about his conduct and lifestyle.  The parasitical Gordon and Castro live off the unwinnable drug war, know it, but don't have the honor or decency to pursue more constructive vocations:


Ruiz:  NAFTA makes it even more difficult to police the border.  In the next year or two Mexican trucking companies are going to have the same freedom to go to the states and back as UPS, DHL, or Fed Ex.  It's going to be a free-for-all. 

Gordon:  Are we on Larry King?  Tell us something we don't know,   Ed.

Traffic is about reversals and connections as well.  No one escapes the direct or indirect effects of drugs or the war on them.  The first spoken words of the film are those of Rodriguez detailing a morbid dream where he sees his dead mother return and suffocate in front of him with a plastic bag over her head.  It is a perfectly apt metaphor for the helplessness with which he and Helena are eventually forced to choose between gold or lead (corrupt riches or death).  The war jolts Helena and Rodriguez from their comfortable domiciles and forces them to seek individuals and effect retribution in foreign lands.  They unknowingly pass each other three times in the film.  The first time they walk right by each other on the streets of San Diego while Rodriguez is hunting down Flores.  Rodriguez is sinking into corruption while Helena is still naive and innocent.  The characters make an almost complete transformation by the time they pass right by each other again, this time on the streets of Tijuana.  Helena, to save her lifestyle, is going to make a dirty deal with the Obregons while Rodriguez heads to San Diego to exorcise his conscience and tell the DEA the truth about Salazar.  Between these two passings they become indirectly connected through Franciso Flores, whom both Rodriguez and Helena use and discard.

But the latter is only Traffic's most minor example of the drug war's contagious dehumanization.  Ruiz meets Gordon and Castro at Perennial Storage, a business painted in rat-maze orange (signifying the futility of drug enforcement) where Gordon is shot, Ruiz's partner is killed, and there is a complete pandemonium of shooting and then shouting between law enforcement personnel as locals and feds fight for possession of the bust (no doubt really fighting for the post-bust PR and photo-ops).  

Next is the ubiquitous coercion to snitch, the perfidy it engenders, and the murder and destruction that follow.  Gordon and Castro twist Ruiz's arm to get to Ayala while Salazar threatens Flores to get to the Obregons.  Here Soderbergh and Gaghan brilliantly reveal the parallels between the bullying tactics of the DEA and those used by Third-World dictatorial thugs.  A minor version of these coercive tactics is employed when Wakefield drags Seth Abrahams (Topher Grace) out of prep school to find Caroline's whereabouts in downtown Cincinnati.  Then there are the uncoerced treacheries:  Carlos Ayala's partner Arnie Metzger (Dennis Quaid) hides $3 million in drug receipts that could have been used to pay off Carlos' debt and moves in on Carlos' wife.  Sanchez endangers his life and Rodriguez's by his scheme to sell out Salazar to the DEA.  Caroline personally embarrasses her drug czar father by becoming an addict.

Caroline's case is illustrative of how the Washington elite never bear the same cost for their wars as ordinary citizens.  The Cincinnati DA tells Wakefield he'll expunge the hospital drop-off incident from Caroline's record.  Another staffer tells Wakefield that he cut a deal with the Washington Post to keep Caroline's drug troubles out of the news and says that even if the troubles surface, Wakefield can turn the incident into positive spin:  a personal experience in the drug war.  Related to spin are the lies, from Helena's serene country-club life in La Jolla to the alleged death of Porfilio Madrigal from plastic surgery.  Alleged deaths such as Madrigal's are all the more plausible because death is omnipresent:  Ruiz's partner (shot), Francisco Flores (who worked for and was assassinated by the Obregons), Ray Castro (car bomb), Manolo Sanchez (shot), Eduardo Ruiz (poisoned), General Salazar (deliberate heroine overdose), and finally Arnie Metzger (killed for double-crossing Carlos Ayala).  Almost as endless as the mounting bodies is the espionage the law enforcement apparatus engages in:  on Ruiz, Helen Ayala, and even a whole nation in the form of the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC).


There can be no doubt that Traffic is a powerful and persuasive argument against the domestic and international drug war.  But it would be a mistake to interpret the film as an argument in favor of decriminalization or legalization, as disappointing as that is.  This is due to statements made by Soderbergh, Gaghan, and some of the producers.  Said Soderbergh, "If we’ve done our jobs right on Traffic, everybody will be pissed off.  The decriminalization people will think that we were not proposing their point of view; the hard-core, lock ‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key people will think we’re being too soft.  It would be great if everybody comes away thinking that we took the other side’s approach.  We’re trying to be as dispassionate as we can, just show you a snapshot and say, ‘This is what’s happening now.’"

This is an odd way of declaring his own film a failure because the reaction Soderbergh describes is the opposite to that with which Traffic has been greeted.  As scriptwriter Stephen Gaghan notes, "Everybody who read the script--whether from the political right or the left, law enforcement or drug addicts--thought the script took their side."  Adds producer Laura Bickford, "What was curious about the reaction to the script was that everybody felt that it represented their point of view. The DEA, which gave us enormous support, felt that it was one of the most truthful things they’d ever read about what it's like to be in law enforcement fighting the fight."  It should be stated that the only diversions between the film and the script were minor changes in the order in which the three subplots were presented.  The reaction Gaghan and Bickford describe vis-a-vis the script was the same one that was received by the film:  all sides seem to view the film as supporting their position.  

Bickford alludes to the real problem.  With such extensive participation from all levels of law enforcement used to provide the film's high degree of documentary realism, Traffic's creators seem to have downplayed the script's decriminalization/legalization implications so as not to offend the film's law enforcement "benefactors," so to speak.              

Unfortunately this leaves viewers with two implications of the movie, one sound and the other untenable.  If one is both anti-drug war and anti-decriminalization/legalization, the policy implications of that person's position are very limited.  The only viable perspective that seems to fit into this category is an opposition to the manner in which the current war is being waged.  How can the current war be changed?  Not a single hardcore drug-war advocate believes it is being fought with enough vigor or resources.  From here they naturally argue for more police, SWAT teams, sting operations, wiretaps, searches, dog sniffing, surveillance, raids, checkpoints, forced rehab, life in prison for possessing a minute quantity of marijuana, ad nauseum.  Fox News' Bill O'Reilly and many others even want the U.S. military involved.  Posse comitatus be damned!

This position is surely not the message of the movie Traffic, partially expressed by Robert Wakefield when he resigns his post as drug czar saying "We're fighting a War on Drugs, and many of our family members are the enemy.  I don't know how you wage war on your own family."  It's very difficult to square an substantial intensification of the war with that message.  Consider the last words of Eduardo Ruiz (to DEA agent Gordon):

If my drugs had gone through, what would be the harm?  What would be the harm if two people get high?  We're getting high anyway, your partner [Ray Castro] is still alive, we don't have to have breakfast together.  Don't you see this means nothing?  Your whole life is pointless.  The worst part about you Monty is you realize the futility of what you're doing and you do it anyway.  Let me tell you something, you only got to me because you were tipped off by the Juarez cartel who is trying to break into Tijuana.  You are helping them.  So remember, you work for a drug dealer too, Monty.

How would a more intense War on Drugs elide some of the problems Ruiz alludes to?  It wouldn't and couldn't, but that doesn't mean the drug warriors are about to give up.  Fox News' Bill O'Reilly concluded that Traffic's message was that "we need to do something about Mexico."  On the same channel Mort Kondracke, on the February 10 edition of the Beltway Boys, confessed to liking Traffic because it "showed the part of the drug war worth fighting."  Apart from Soderbergh's ostensive ambivalence, the film itself doesn't seem to view this mentality too kindly.  Its O'Reilly/Kondracke analogue is the parasitic Montel Gordon, who in the second to the last scene of the movie, barges into the Ayala home to start a scuffle in order to fake a fall to the floor to plant an electronic bug under a coffee table.  Thus the war goes on...

Having been released on December 17, 2000 (or December 27, depending on the source), Traffic is definitely a contender for Libertarian Film of the Millennium.  It will put both a human face on the drug war and undoubtedly educate millions of people as to its pointlessness and frivolity.  In this respect Traffic will unquestionably be a valuable milestone in helping transform domestic and international drug policy.  Maybe someday Hollywood will smarten up and make the same type of film about the IRS, IMF, Federal Reserve, and interventionist foreign policy.


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