Thriller 'Desierto' Captures Immigration Hellscape at the US/Mexico Border

Gael García Bernal as Moises in 'Desierto.' (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

How much is a Mexican life worth? Since 2006, there have been 150,000 homicides and 28,000 "disappeared" in Mexico -- and 93 percent of violent crimes and homicides have never been prosecuted. On average, Mexicans pay smugglers $2,500 to $5,000 to help them illegally cross the border. Several thousand migrants die each year on their journey into the United States; many have been found buried in clandestine graves, their bones packed in milk crates.

Does the value of a Mexican life change once it enters the United States? For director Jonás Cuarón, whose film Desierto screens May 28 at the Roxie, the answer is yes. Cuarón describes Desierto as a cautionary tale, depicting the dangers migrants might endure to cross our border. But in the film -- as in reality -- once those migrants enter the United States, the violence they encounter has just begun.

Still from 'Desierto.'
Still from 'Desierto.' (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Ultimately, what is the value of a Mexican body? To vigilante groups like the Minutemen or the Texas Border Volunteers, the answer would be: worthless. In order to "defend their land," groups like these hunt migrants for sport. Ranchers intentionally make their land inhospitable, with electric fences and no safe drinking water, making traversal of the land near-impossible. The Texas Border Volunteers chase the migrants in trucks, many of whom are dehydrated, and have already walked hundreds of miles across the desert, until they collapse from fear and exhaustion and ICE is called to quickly deport them.

When the Texas Border Volunteers find migrants who have died on their land, they take photographs of the bodies, which are often missing limbs or eyes from being scavenged, and hang these photos on their hunting walls: prizes to be remembered, “success stories” to be collected.

So the premise of the thriller Desierto, of Mexican and Central American migrants crossing the border and trying to escape a vigilante who shoots “illegals” for sport, is far from fictional. The view persists in America, dramatized by Desierto’s villain, Sam, that the only good brown person is a dead one.

Still from 'Desierto.'
Still from 'Desierto.' (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

Eight years in the making, Desierto premiered in 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival. Gael García Bernal plays the lead character, Moises, a Mexican migrant trying to reunite with his family in California. During filming, Bernal joked with Cuarón that by the time the film was completed, immigration would no longer be a hot-button issue. Cuarón never predicted the film would become even more relevant.

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“When I started developing the character of [Sam, played by] Jeffrey Dean Morgan, it was impossible not to have as a reference all of the vigilante groups that existed on the border, like the Minutemen, when I was writing,” says Cuarón. “But to me, Jeffrey’s character, more than being specific to the Minutemen or vigilante groups, represented what society can get to if we keep allowing all of this rhetoric of hatred toward migrants to be used by politicians and media.”

Desierto opens with an expansive shot of the vast, inhospitable desert. A truck containing smuggled migrants breaks down, forcing 14 people to start their journey across the most dangerous part of the border on foot.

Still from 'Desierto.'
Still from 'Desierto.' (Courtesy of STX Entertainment)

As the coyotes (human smugglers) sprint across the desert, leaving those who are fatigued and less able-bodied behind, danger looms. Sam appears with his rifle, aiming for the migrants, gunning down nine of them in minutes. Moises and a group of four others spend the rest of the film trying to outrun and hide from Sam, and his murderous dog Tracker.

Throughout the film, we learn little about the migrants, Sam, or their motivations. I wondered if Cuarón chose to tell the story of Desierto in this way to mirror what happens when thousands die on their journey to the United States: their bodies are found, often without identification, and we never know their story.

“In Desierto, I really wanted the narrative to pop in the present tense. I wanted it to be a movie that once the action started, it didn’t stop. So it was really hard to find scenes where I could find an organic way to tell the backstory of these characters,” Cuarón explains.

“No matter what happened to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character [Sam], nothing justifies his actions," he says. "And at the same time, no matter what the backstory of any of those migrants had been, even if they had been cruel people, nothing justifies or takes away from the cruelty of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s actions.”

To Cuarón, his migrant characters, like those in real life, are simply searching for a better life, and he wanted to convey the tragedy of those lives being stolen from them.

That idea of a “search for a better life” often gets whitewashed, reduced to a pat phrase that doesn't address the complex combination of forces impacting Mexican and Central American migrants.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and the author of Los Zetas Inc.: Criminal Corporations, Energy and Civil War in Mexico, has spent the last six years conducting hundreds of interviews with migrants, military operatives, former drug cartel members, border patrol agents and migrant rights activists from Mexico and the Northern Triangle. Her deeply informed book covers the history, dangerous conditions, and economic plight of the regions controlled by the drug cartel Los Zetas, arguing that the cartel has become a highly sophisticated, profitable operation, similar to a transnational corporation.

“We need to acknowledge that there is more than one cause that makes people flee from their countries or look for a better life," says Correa-Cabrera. "The media portrays this phenomenon as if most of the migrants who come from Central America are fleeing from violence and flying from gangs. And that’s not necessarily not true." Some are escaping violence, yes, but others seek the economic advantages and opportunities their home country can't provide.

Family separation, as is the case for Moises in Desierto, is another a motivating factor for those risking their lives to cross the border.

“Overall we have seen that the dangers have increased," says Correa-Cabrera, "that the drug trafficking organizations, local gangs, et cetera have started to extort migrants, rape women, rape children." Migrants are willing to take the risk, Correa-Cabrera adds. "There are two powerful reasons they don’t care. They want to be reunified with their families in the United States, and it is true that their life will change [once in the U.S.]. The situation that they face in their country of origin makes it impossible for them to survive economically -- sometimes even their physical integrity is in danger.”

How much is a migrants' life worth? For the lives in Desierto and the real world, exactly as much as they can be exploited, and nothing if they can’t. Dehumanized before they even leave their birth country, is it any wonder that their humanity is also denied at the border?

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'Desierto' plays at San Francisco's Roxie Theater at 6pm on Sunday, May 28, followed by a Q&A with director Jonás Cuarón. For tickets and more information, click here.

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