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"Machete" and Mexico - Slices of Real Life

Machete, the new action flick by Robert Rodriguez, puts the macho – and macha – back in "machete." Steven Seagal, Cheech Marin, Robert De Niro, Don Johnson, Jeff Fahey, Jessica Alba, Michele Rodriguez and Lindsay Lohan are some of the brutes and amazons surrounding pumped star Danny Trejo in this B-film roundup of A-listers.

Danny Trejo in Machete

Dancing blood, 'tude so thick it coagulates – not since Grindhouse has violence seemed so sexy and campy.

As fans of that 2007 Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino gorefest know, Machete picks up where one of its faux trailers left off. Maiming to rock 'n roll is a mainstay of the Tarantino school of filmmaking, where Rodriguez has long since become co-headmaster.

This latest lesson in lawlessness takes us to the Tex-Mex border for a bead on such political perils as immigration and the drug wars.

We first meet Machete (Trejo), a rogue former Mexican Federale roving the Texan streets after drug lord Torrez (Seagal) cleans house. Political flak and local businessman Benz (Fahey) sics Machete and his killing skills on crooked Senator McLaughlin (De Niro). Betrayed by his contractor and hounded by a vixenish US immigration officer (Alba), the reluctant hitman takes help where he can get it: from his God-fearing brother (Marin); from a gun-slinging rich girl (Lohan); and from a dishy taco vendor (Rodriguez).

Trejo's face alone supplies enough twists. He spooks and charms, droops and rises all at a flick of the mane. A whiff of his jailhouse grit clenches makes you laugh, gasp and wish you too were pushing 66. You'd swear he's a comic book superhero sprung to life.

The punch line of the movie comes at the end, when we're told that two sequels await us: Machete Kills! and Machete Kills Again! Trejo should still be going strong throughout these productions, as should the real-life ferment across the border.

During my own recent jaunt to northern Mexico, I had a chance to hear how the shoot-em-up violence plays out in the daily lives of ordinary citizens. What they wouldn't give for it to be as fun or cool as films like Machete would have them believe.  

Chihuahua-based producer Salvador Valdes told me that the saddest part about "this swamp of madness" is "learning to distrust everybody, and to care only about ourselves." As opposed to the good old days -- not that many years ago -- when people didn't even lock their doors, he no longer regards strangers "as a friend that I haven't yet met, but rather as an enemy that wants to hurt me." Innocence is nostalgia. "We have to play inside, watch out for any stranger or anybody that approaches us on the streets," he said.

A location scout Salvador works with echoes his lament. (She prefers to go unnamed, so let's call her Scout.) Scout described how she has "defriended" many school chums, and not in the Facebook sense. Who can be trusted when, at 1,000 pesos a murder, anyone reared on values of "ambition and greed" can buy what advertisers are selling them? This goes for street sweepers and scions of privileged families alike.  

"Suddenly they began to kill people in broad daylight using weapons of high power, and the words 'hitman' and 'shootings' entered into daily use," she recounted. "First there was the unease of not knowing what's happening and reading news of death and threats…but soon it became normal to see a drug chief in a local convenience store."

"With all these people killing in the streets, it has unleashed insecurity, not just of being caught in the crossfire, but also of being attacked by groups of criminals who'll take your car and then, once you've emptied your bank account, go to your house and at gunpoint in broad daylight take away everything you have worked for."

Businesses too are mobilized for the narco-economy. Scout described the money laundering they're forced to provide and the infamous "installments" they're demanded to pay "to maintain the panic."  

A local university professor we'll dub Prof took me for a spin on the town. One of the first things he did was to check in with his wife, as he does every two hours, whether by voice or text. After work, the young couple tends to stay in, even though this has meant no more singing at night clubs for the missus. "Partying has become more of an extreme sport, because you might run into a balacera," Prof noted, adding that he preferred not "to meet a bullet."  

Pointing to an SUV, he explained that driving a fancy car could either mean that you're a "narcotraficante" or a target, but that anyone using a navigator may as well be saying, "kidnap me!" Prof also regaled me with some chilling tales of the ambushes that have terrorized substance abuse support groups, given how uneager drug lords are for their cadres to detox and spill the beans.

He fondly remembered a period of relative calm that accompanied the pragmatic policies of former governor Patricio Martínez, who let the cartels do their thing without harming civilians. The top cartels, Prof clarified, adhered to an honor code that kept them from hurting a flea outside of the business – while the lesser gangs preyed on the populace to give the cartels a bad name and to try to level the playing field.

Though Salvador, Scout and Prof are hardly fans of the violence, they share with many of their fellow Mexicans an ambivalence about the drug trade. 

As Scout put it, "On the other side there is no denying the importance, not only in Chihuahua but in Mexico, of drug trafficking since it is an important part of the economy. I am not saying that this is good or bad, only that it is a fact that the process by which they take your money and wash it -- using restaurants, shops, brokerage houses and a multitude of business – serves to employ people and influence the economy."

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Just as the drug cartels have more weaponry than the Mexican army, their contribution to the country's coffers is undeniable, and cracking down may not be all it's cranked up to be.  

What would Mexico be like if it just said no to drug revenue? "God knows what would be left from the debris of the catastrophe," said Salvador.

"TV and film are so eager to sell us a society that cares only for money, status quo, consumerism and sex," he rued. It's a sentiment that Scout, Prof and the rest of Sal's entertainment industry friends sharply endorse.  

"Is there any hope?" Sal wondered aloud. The answer I heard from every Mexican I asked: "Go back to our original values."

Meanwhile, Machete should be a big hit around the country.  

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