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Is Sicario based on a true story? Comparing the film with real criminality in Mexico

With the release of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to the 2015 film Sicario, we thought it would be of interest to look back at the original movie and analyse whether Sicario is based on true stories. We compare just how close the film’s depiction of the locations featured to real criminality in Mexico and surrounding states.

What does Sicario mean?

Sicario means hitman in Spanish and the word is most often used to describe the hitmen associated with the Mexican drug cartels. The film is about the CIA’s operations to disrupt the drug trade from Mexico to the United States and is seen through the eyes of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) an idealist FBI agent who leads a kidnap response team. Kate is essentially used by CIA agent, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) so that he can operate on American soil.

How similar is Sicario to real life?

The film begins with an FBI raid in Chandler, Phoenix targeting a cartel house, which results in the discovery of numerous dead bodies hidden in the walls of the house, before a booby trapped ground hatch explodes and kills two agents.

Although movies often exaggerate real life for dramatic effect, just looking at a selection of incidents in the Phoenix area from our threat intelligence platform, you can see that the reality is not too far from what the film portrayed. Among the incidents there was a person in a truck who followed a police vehicle before opening fire on four officers. In another incident in Phoenix, a police officer shot and injured a man who was threatening to detonate a bomb. Police later confirmed the device he was holding consisted of “four separate and individual viable explosives connected through one wick fuse.” Near the border we recorded an incident where a Border Patrol agent was shot and wounded, as well as arrests of armed scouts for cartels who act as lookouts for drug smugglers. To the southeast of Phoenix, in Tucson, a pipe bomb exploded near a residence in the city.

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Real life incidents in and around Phoenix, United States, a location featured in Sicario [Image Source: Intelligence Fusion]

The film then moves on to Nogales in Mexico, where it introduces the home life of a corrupt Mexican State Police officer. Intelligence Fusion has recorded numerous incidents of criminality in Mexico including drug and people trafficking from Mexico to the United States, as well as cartel violence in the city and the arrest of a cartel leader.

sicario true story how accurate is sicario nogales mexico cartel activity real life

Real life incidents in the vicinity of Nogales, Mexico, a location featured in Sicario [Image Source: Intelligence Fusion]

One of the main action scenes occurs during an operation by US Marshalls, supported by Special Forces to extract a cartel leader from Mexico to the United States. The operation takes place in Juarez. On the drive into Juarez, executed and mutilated people are seen hanging from a bridge, before a spotter police vehicle follows the US convoy, leading to a shootout at the border crossing point.

The sheer quantity of incidents Intelligence Fusion have recorded in Juarez shows how violent this city is. The reason for the scale of violence is due to many factors, however, primarily it is due to different cartels vying for control of the city and by extension the cross border drug flow.

In just the few incidents we have highlighted on the map you can see numerous mass executions, and an incident of a dead body being hung from a bridge with the words ‘The Jaguar’ written on the body, which is an alias for a sicario of the Sinaloa cartel. There are also numerous incidents of not only low level but senior police officers being assassinated, as well as a former city official. Again the film’s portrayal of Juarez was worryingly similar to real life criminality in Mexico.

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Real life incidents in Juarez, Mexico, a location featured in Sicario [Image Source: Intelligence Fusion]

The end of the film culminates in the CIA asset crossing into Mexico using trafficking tunnels. The asset is supported by a diversion created in the tunnel by Special Forces. In real life there are likely hundreds of tunnels which are used by criminal groups to cross into the United States. In just the San Diego area, since 1990, more than 220 tunnels have been discovered. Reports state that cartels will spend as much as $2 million USD on construction of a tunnel with the plan of making significant return on the drugs and illicit goods that are transported through them.

When we look at the border area as a whole and compare it to the incidents recorded, the areas of high activity correlate with major transport routes as well as major cities. It seems likely that cartels who control the major border cities, also then control the illicit goods which are transported across the nearby border areas, hence the significant levels of violence between rival cartels.

sicario true story how accurate is sicario real life incidents mexico us border

Incidents and incident types found along the US-Mexico Border [Image Source: Intelligence Fusion]

How accurate is Sicario?

Although Sicario is a work of fiction and not necessarily based on a true story, the criminality depicted is highly accurate and the locations used in the film do witness similar types of incidents. The issue of border criminality is being debated currently in U.S. politics with President Trump’s plan to build a border wall. It seems likely however, based on the sheer scale of criminality in the border areas, that this problem looks set to continue unabated.

Follow Intelligence Fusion on Twitter for regular alerts and further insight into the security threats across Mexico and the wider world.


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