Drug War

Showtime Documentary Highlights Drug War's Futility

The Trade offers access to cartels, addicts, and cops alike.


'The Trade'
'The Trade,' Showtime

The Trade. Showtime. Friday, February 2, 9 p.m.

In all the billions of words and electronic images expended in telling the story of the war on drugs, perhaps nothing sums it up quite so concisely as a scene in Showtime's new documentary series The Trade. As a bedraggled mother is dragged off following her arrest on heroin charges, a cop kneels to speak to her crying children. "It's okay," he comforts them. "We're the good guys." After more than a century of this senseless, futile war, you still can't identify the players without a scorecard.

Producer-director Matthew Heineman, in his second go-round with the war on drugs (his 2015 film Cartel Land was nominated for the Oscar in documentaries), has given us an unnervingly close-up study of the conflict. Given an astonishing level of access to both Mexican drug lords and American junkies, he's intercut their stories with a narrative about an Ohio police narcotics squad, which though far more ordinary, is still revealing.

The result is a maddening and depressing account of cruelty and stupidity on every side. In the southwestern Mexico state of Guerrero, the country's top-producing poppy state, Don Miguel's heroin business is booming so much that he throws a giant Christmas party for the kids in his town, complete with toys and pizza.

But his body count is rising exponentially, too, as he settles difficulties (real or imagined) with rivals in distinctly un-lawyerly ways—a part of the job, Don Miguel is quick to add, that he doesn't enjoy: "It's no fun doing dirty work." Judging from the terrifyingly animalistic howls of townfolk who've found loved ones among roadside stacks of Don Miguel's tortured, headless victims, it's not much fun on the receiving end, either.

A couple of thousand miles to the northeast in Atlanta, we meet some of the consumers of Don Miguel's product. Skylar, a 30-ish junkie whose days are devoted to shooting a prodigious amount of dope and ripping off his parents, is—after going through seven overdoses and the shootings of a bunch of his friends—as fatigued as Don Miguel. "The last seven years have been like a frickin' roller coaster," he allows, saying he's ready to quit. His mother, who's heard it all before, is willing to help, but skeptical. "Skylar would walk over my dead body to get his drug," she declares with weary certainty.

And in Columbus, Ohio, narcotics cops are relentlessly pursuing their mission to get drugs off the street with the same single-minded zeal of the American military officer in Vietnam who famously observed that sometimes you've got to destroy a village in order to save it. "Chilling" isn't nearly a sufficient word for what it feels like to listen as they map out a flash-bang grenade attack on a suspected drug house, even though they know several small children are inside.

The raid, amazingly, ends without disaster, only because a couple of addled junkies—"dealers" in the sense only that they sell small amounts of dope to support their own habits—have better judgment than the cops and surrender without a fuss. "I am making a difference," brags one of the cops. "We are getting drug dealers off the street. At least this way we can say we are trying." So are Special Olympics softball players who get ribbons for hitting the ball even though they ran to third base instead of first. That analogy is dead-on, in more ways than one.

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16 responses to “Showtime Documentary Highlights Drug War's Futility

  1. His mother, who’s heard it all before, is willing to help, but skeptical. “Skylar would walk over my dead body to get his drug,” she declares with weary certainty.

    If you want to know the character and reliability of your neighborhood junkie, talk to the people closest to him.

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  2. “It’s okay,” he comforts them. “We’re the good guys.”

    Would anyone but a good guy even bother with the collateral damage?

    1. I would posture that if you must state that you are “the good guy”, there is a very real chance you are not. Much like the blowhard who’ll tell you he is the smartest one in the room, he ain’t.

  3. Did you really need to disrespect the special olympics kids? Anyways cops are cops because they’re good at following orders they dont get paid to stop and think about the actual consequences of their actions, they get paid to enforce no matter how unjust a law is.

    1. The comparison of cops to retards is appropriate, though.

      1. Not fair to the disabled.

  4. “It’s okay,” he comforts them. “We’re the good guys.”

    Every tyrant and state-sponsored murderer in the history of humanity had considered themselves to be the good guys.

    1. Hans, are we the baddies?

  5. The war on drugs is an epic fail on all fronts.

  6. The War on Plant Leaves by Colombian and Brazilian death squad “first responders” is also funded by tax dollars the “US” Political State takes from Americans. The sort of countries most disrupted the officious meddling of foreigners with guns are so structured as to NOT have a Libertarian Party. So the cycle is papist christianofascist parties alternating with Soviet-admiring internationalsocialist political gangs in a Groundhog-Day cycle that never changes

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  9. Just watched it, the cops lied a whole lot in this show. Oh and when they went back to look for the drugs in the truck they made snarky comments to the children. The mom was looking at the truck floor for the drugs and the kids ask what they were doing and the cop replies “your mommy dropped something here” in snarky smart ass way. The show ends with the cops putting GPS devices on the cars of the suspected wholesale supplier.

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