The Legend of ShortyIn recent years, the most demonstrable, descriptive, but ultimately fictional tie we have to the Mexican drug trade has been through Breaking Bad. We go back a little further to The Wire and we see how drugs in general can be routed and traced across entire cities through “following the money”. We keep going back until we arrive at Al Capone: once titled Public Enemy Number One during Prohibition-era America. That changed in 2013 when the Chicago Crime Commission named Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, a titanic Mexican drug lord, their 21st-century target.

Guzmán escaped from prison in 2001 under dubious circumstances, having already established himself as a kingpin while still behind bars, and the US-Mexican governments reportedly went into all-out assault mode. His free reign came to an end in February this year when he was re-captured, but filmmakers Angus MacQueen and Guillermo Galdos almost got to him first as they set out on a mission across Mexico to track him down.

Of course, the success and appeal of this story is its likening to the mythic tales of ancient history (and our love of a good bad-guy chase). The real revelation however is that the pair receives some extraordinary access levels deep into Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel—through persuasion and contacts—from the streets of Tijuana to the mountaintop retreats of La Tuna. Their journey is presented neatly, straightforwardly but overall cautiously. Many of the chief drug-lords’ faces are blurred out or concealed as MacQueen and Galdos witness kilo upon kilo of weed, cocaine and meth that are smuggled across the border into the US.

The film constantly aligns their search to the escapades of Zorro: indeed it all feels a bit Wild West with dusty pursuits and whispering hearsay. They mount the tension with seeming ease, clearly considering the pulse of their narrative well, as they climb steadily up the ladder towards the top man. The experience is like waiting for a terrifying Godot who might walk out from behind the trees with an AK-47 at any moment. It’s funny that only last month, the British government announced that drugs and prostitution will be factored into the UK national accounts; Guzmán’s tentacular drug network will have accounted for millions across hundreds of economies, local and national, over the years.

The end of the film is perhaps slightly out of kilter with the dynamic of the rest; however, MacQueen shows us the streets of blood that Mexico has been filled with thanks to the drug trade. For all we have mythologised and romanticised the infamous Guzmán, his legacy is that of death. It is clear that his presence is far from a legend: it is real, cold, tyrannical and dangerous. This tightrope balance can be close to toppling as the filmmakers run the risk of presenting a sympathetic account of intrigue. It never quite slips off the rope – instead remaining a captivating manhunt from behind the camera.