Americans have a rough time talking about their southern neighbor. A frayed shared history combined with a sensitivity to xenophobia makes it difficult for Americans to speak of a country which has a greater impact on the United States than any other. As such, it’s sometimes best to allow Mexicans to speak for themselves, as they reveal the country’s underlying realities that are fraught topics of discussion among those living in America.
Director Michel Franco’s film “New Order” (“Nuevo Orden” in Spanish) is an example of such a message. Produced in Mexico, it debuted at the Venice Film Festival and was released in Mexico in 2020, before arriving in the United States in 2021 in select theaters. It depicts a near-future Mexico wracked by civil unrest that suddenly turns into widespread looting and rampant violence. A high-class wedding falls victim to this uprising, leaving bloodshed and carnage in its wake. Once the dust settles, a “new order” is established in the form of a dictatorship enforced by the military in brutally oppressive fashion.
The new order depicted in the film would, arguably, resonate in a country which, for most of its history, existed under diverse iterations of authoritarianism. The Mexican Revolution, which ended 100 years ago, culminated in the entrenchment of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) within Mexico politics. For 71 years, the PRI possessed a stranglehold on governance, winning every presidential election until 2000. This amounted to a de facto single-party state, leading Peruvian Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa to describe this regime as “the perfect dictatorship.” The veneer of republicanism from 1929 to 2000 allowed the Mexican government to fly under the radar, while more bluntly dictatorial regimes in the region, like the National Reorganization Process of Argentina and Pinochet’s Chile, received more global attention.
Like Argentina, Mexico, under the PRI’s monopoly on governance, fought its own “dirty war” from 1964 to 1982. Like its South American counterparts, the Mexican authorities battled left-wing groups and had the support of Washington in doing so. At the hands of Mexican military, intelligence, and police services, thousands of Mexicans (some guilty, some innocent) were disappeared, killed, and tortured during this period. They were incarcerated in secret prisons throughout the country, enduring beatings, harsh interrogations, and rape, among other atrocities.
It appears “New Order” draws upon this ghoulish aspect of Mexican history to illustrate a dystopian vision of what the country’s future could hold in store. In that sense, there’s nothing “new” about this order. If anything, it’s a regression to the old ways: brute force and state terror.
The movie contains unyielding depictions of disappearances, merciless killings, torture, and rape, leaving no doubt how unforgiving the consequences of a social collapse would be. “New Order” isn’t for the faint of heart, both on a visceral and psychological level, posing very uncomfortable questions about how we’d each endure such an awful change.
The film generated considerable controversy in Mexico, mainly due to its depiction of Indigenous peoples or darker-skinned Mestizos exacting violence against a mostly-white upper class. This is a strange criticism, however, given that advocates of the poor often cite racial disparities when talking about inequality. There exists extensive literature linking poverty and race in Mexico, with one fairly recent study finding that “one’s race is the single most important determinant of a Mexican citizen’s economic and educational attainment.”
While American racism is often cited in conversations concerning cross-border relations or immigration, Mexico, too, has serious problems related to race; despite darker-skinned people making up the majority of the population, they not only lag in economic status, but on the social hierarchy also, perhaps a legacy of Spanish colonization. Mexico’s immigration policy, in fact, favors lighter-skinned migrants.
The race controversy aside, there’s no question economic inequality is a serious problem in Mexico. Absent a deeper dive, it’s impossible to know how likely it is that inequality alone would spark a violent uprising on the level depicted in “New Order.” However, Mexico is routinely described as a “failed state” or on its way to being one. Mexico is mired in its second decade of civil war, against powerful drug cartels across the country, costing tens of thousands of lives annually as a direct consequence and hundreds of thousands of more dead due to cartel-related organized crime. This makes America’s southern neighbor one of the most war-torn countries in the world, rivaled only by countries like Afghanistan and Yemen.
Government corruption is rampant and there are daily reminders the country hasn’t quite overcome its authoritarian past. Just as recidivism is prevalent among criminals, countries that have a long history of authoritarianism find it tough to break old habits. If Mexico were to encounter serious social turbulence resulting from inequality, war, crime, or any combination of stressors, it isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility that widespread unrest would result. When that happens, don’t expect the Mexican military to stand idly by, especially since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador further entrenched its role in providing internal security.
All this matters because what happens in Mexico doesn’t stay in Mexico, and routinely spills over onto our side of the fence. Its civil war has, directly and indirectly, cost the lives of countless Americans.
Difficult as it is to fathom, a war-torn country exists just over yonder. It exacerbates not only illegal immigration, which Mexico has also soured on, but also the fentanyl crisis killing thousands of Americans yearly. For now, the United States has managed to contain much of Mexico’s problems inside Mexico, but it will become increasingly difficult to do so in the years ahead, especially as the border crisis worsens.
More ominously, Mexico represents what the United States could become on a long enough timeline. Though it seems worlds away, inequality, government corruption, and systemic dysfunction are all increasingly prevalent in the Land of the Free. It often takes a crisis to show what sort of stuff a society is made of, and while America held on in the face of COVID, mass civil unrest, and a fraught election, serious cracks were exposed.
The United States would have to fall a long way to end up even with Mexico, but none of this precludes it becoming a more chaotic, disorderly, and violent society. Even the American upper class isn’t exempt from the escalating carnage, the same as the Mexican upper class depicted in “New Order.”
What ails America isn’t the same as what ails Mexico, but the latter is merely an example of what a country can become when inequality, corruption, and dysfunction become endemic. If living standards continue to deteriorate and the state proves unable to address critical issues, over time, the United States, too, will experience tumult in the form of mass violence and unrest. The last two years have proven the critical mass is there.
“New Order” isn’t for everyone. The story lacks a big pay-off, which may disappoint some viewers, leading one to surmise that the depiction of carnage and cruelty is the point. At the end of the film, audiences may be asking, That’s it? What comes next? But maybe that’s Michel Franco’s message: the sheer awfulness of the new regime leaves nothing to look forward to. In that sense, “New Order” is a warning, to both Mexico and America, not to continue down their respective paths. It also asks a question that just might make “New Order” 2021’s most important film: can either country turn around, or is it too late?