«I would like to be Superman,» says a pool hall owner in the Mexican state of Guerrero, towards the end of Julien Elie’s documentary Dark Suns. He has spent his time outside work in the five years since his brother was kidnapped scouring the hills for the body. Special infrared powers would allow him to simply see through the earth, needless of a pick and shovel. It is not so much the labour that troubles him, though. Searching for a family member is dangerous: so many Mexicans have disappeared that he inevitably turns up other remains. They’re other families’ lost loved ones, but to the corrupt who have buried them there, they are inconvenient evidence, and threats to his own life have escalated. We see him turn up a shoe, with bones. Size four or five, it can’t be his brother’s — just one more of the 32,000 missing (not counting those unreported). His longing for superpowers, such an imaginary, unattainable fantasy, underscores just how helpless he and his fellow citizens are, trapped within an abject architecture of power so deep in its corruption that organised crime and state institutions collude in deadly concert to reign by terror. He carries a copper horseshoe in his back pocket — partly for luck, but also so he can be easily identified should a similar fate befall him. He is just one of numerous individuals offering up verbal testimony in this sprawling, lengthy and devastating film — a piling up of suffering that in its sheer volume of stories achieves a sense of just how pervasively the shadow of violence hangs over Mexico’s population.
Voces sin Eco
Dark Suns is shot in an elegant black and white, respectfully restrained and never sensationalistic in allowing the weight of its cumulative horror to build. It begins in Ciudad Juarez, the most populous city in Chihuahua, infamous for its brutal cartel-related crime that at one point made it the most violent city in the world, and since 1993 subject to an epidemic of femicides. Hundreds of women have been murdered, seemingly with impunity — a phenomenon the film attributes to an initial protest against the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement that then morphed in motive to simply killing for sport. Tied to the larger reign of organised criminality, perpetrators have protection. «We do the work the authorities won’t do,» says a representative of Voces sin Eco (Voices Without Echo), a group of the missing women’s relatives, who search for victims in the face of no serious police investigation.
The film then moves on to Ecatepec. As the spate of femicides has spread through Mexico, it has become, we are told, the most dangerous place to be a woman in the country, and perhaps all of Latin America. Like Ciudad Juarez, it has a predominance of poor women working in factories — and as in that city, many of them are grabbed from squares or dimly lit streets, and vanish.
Illegal immigrants — whose transport is a revenue source for organised crime gangs — are also especially susceptible. It is suspected that drug cartels collaborate with the U.S. government on stemming the flow of migrants, a main issue of American foreign policy. Police and taxi drivers receive a bounty for handing them over. What is more, migrant lives can be collateral damage in the rivalry between cartels, who compete not only to control the drug trade but over extortion rights and kidnapping. The execution of 72 undocumented migrants in 2010 in San Fernando by the Zetas cartel, connected to a turf war in the region, is just one of numerous massacres related.
All the crimes we hear about in Dark Suns, related one after another, pile up with a sense of claustrophobic inevitability.
As it gathers stories from numerous regions, the film points out a crucial difference to the disappearances enforced by, for instance, the dictatorship in Argentina. Because in Mexico, while many victims are tortured, killed, and dismembered in unimaginable ways, still others endure a different kind of horror. They remain alive but must work for the cartels, separated from their families and forbidden contact with them. One young man, we hear, was given a police uniform, and made to patrol the area to prevent outsiders entering. Some women are forced into sexual slavery. «It’s like the Revolution when the army had a draft,» says one citizen. «You’re either drafted or murdered.»
The risks faced by journalists, and end of their « protection bubble» in Mexico City, also gets its due. In 2015, photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, who covered social movements and protests, was brutally tortured and killed along with four women in the capital. He’d gone to Mexico City for refuge from the more dangerous places of Xalapa and Veracruz that he had been working in, after a deluge of threats. All the crimes we hear about in Dark Suns, related one after another, pile up with a sense of claustrophobic inevitability. This leaves us with a sense that the toll of dead and disappeared, massive as it is, does not begin to account for the destruction inflicted upon the living, as there is not a citizen untouched by this siege, and the constant knot it creates in the stomach, wondering who’ll be next. But also, we realise how many oppose this reign of terrorised silence, in which truth cannot be obliterated entirely. Parts of Mexico are a «huge mass grave», with «the kind of smell you can’t get rid of», we hear. A horrifying observation — but a reminder, too, that memory does not die easily.