I believe it was John Winthrop who said Laredo is our shining city upon a hill, a prosperous portal through which Mexican cartels send us the drugs that get us through the day, and we send back billions of dollars in browning, crinkled cash. And since it’s all under the table, it’s tax-free. Win-win! And while this probably isn’t what my poli-sci professor meant by “remittances keep Latin America afloat,” I can’t help but think the only mature response to this monolithic international trade is, “You’re welcome.”
For some reason (public health, national security, too much Walker, Texas Ranger growing up), our heroes in the Laredo PD Narcotics Unit have taken it upon themselves to poop all over this party, starting with street buys and flipping their way up the chain until they have press-friendly dope on the table and other jargon I learned from The Wire. Actually, that’s probably an inappropriate reference, since the War on Drugs ™ is but a job creator and an aegis here, not David Simon’s War on the Underclass ™ or a controversial waste of resources, no matter how hard the Cops angle (of trashy opening credits and low-rent arrests wearing self-defeating “Chubby, Naked, Dangerous” t-shirts) tries to convince us otherwise. What this series does share with The Wire is the idea that the cops and the drug dealers are both middle-managers (at best) that are but pawns powerful organizations play against each other. It’s an even, futile fight, and Bordertown: Laredo does a decent job not exactly sidestepping but implicitly defusing some of the controversial elements of its subject matter.
Neither does Bordertown: Laredo do much to introduce its characters. The only one who makes an impression is the unit’s commander (I think), Sgt. Sifuentes, but that’s just because he’s the one who explains everything to us in the talking heads. That said, Investigator Rodriguez, named only in the opening credits, if I’m not mistaken, at least gets a distinguishing moment. At their first small-time raid, the driver is a mom whose daughter spends the whole arrest lying down in the back seat, and after a bit of back-and-forth with the mom, Rodriguez asks her in subtitle form, “You know what really pisses me off? You have your little girl there. I don’t care what happens to you, but you little girl lying there is innocent.” Anyone remember Wife, Mom, Bounty Hunter? I only happened onto this bizarre, magical sideshow one late, ill night with my roommate, but the gist seems to be this woman hunts down fugitives and then in the car ride home gives them the tough love parental lecturing they’ve been lacking. Obviously, it was unrecognized genius. It’s nice to see a little of that in Rodriguez, and we conclude the scene with our hero letting the mother go in exchange for cooperation that leads them on to the stash house.
But the focus of Bordertown: Laredo, just like its fictional sister shows, the dozens of children its father had in a spree of one-night stands across America’s seediest hotspots, is procedure. Take the premiere, “A River Runs Through It,” presumably named after Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical account of his youth busting pot dealers in Tijuana, later made into a film by Robert Redford. We go from the morning meeting to a small-time bust and from there to a judge’s house to get a search warrant, then to a bigger bust, then to the delivery truck, which gets pulled over not for suspicion but for running a red light, all in 30 minutes. Did I mention the thing moves like the last hour of a Michael Bay film? The car chases are uneventful, but here come the shaky cam and aggressive percussion to action the shit out of it. Even the morning meeting is hyperspliced for your convenience, er, attention span, and factoids pop up over heavy pre-programmed Casio chords because no way am I reading something without a propulsive beat.
But back to debunking our favorite crime dramas. As someone whose only experience with narcotics busts comes from television, the draw is seeing the disparity between fictional and real-life drug organizations. The cameras surely keep the cops on their best behavior, although there’s nothing fake about the way they huff and puff after the anticlimax of busting an empty house or the way they take most pleasure in roughing up suspects with their words. There’s literally an Arrested Development-length bleep that the subtitles politely translate as “Stop f…..g with me, man.” Yeah, that’s what he said. And oh, the teasing! “Like I said it was a cat-and-mouse game. The cat won today. As you can see the mouse is inside the patrol unit.” This went on for another few minutes about the cheese and the furballs, but I don’t have unlimited space.
So the cops are just like the by-the-book types we see all the time (Vic Mackey excepted). It’s the criminals who are somehow not the season-arc masterminds we’ve come to know and love. Rather, they’re comically transparent. Did I mention the first bust had marijuana growing in his front yard? From there, we’re on to the destination for that guy’s pot, the aforementioned empty house (except for one unfortunate packager who goes quietly), which contains three towers of dope bundles (800 pounds) in the bathroom, and that’s just what’s visible from the doorway. And on day three, on the tail of the delivery truck containing the other half of this particular supply, when we get to open the container doors, big old dope packages are lying in plain sight through the slats in the wooden crates that I guess were meant to hide them, assuming you were pulled over by a cop who was either blind or a wooden crate enthusiast. The same goes for episode two, “Show Me the Money”—real Bruckheimers, these episode titlers—which at least has the virtue of targeting the more exotic coke supply. We even get to witness a buy, from far away and just one side of it (the undercover officer’s), but still. And then, after methodically testing the coke to confirm it’s real, getting the DA to sign off, and waiting a day—see what I mean? To the letter, these guys—we barge into the stash house and find bundles of coke just lying around on beds and sinks. Suddenly, Nancy Botwin isn’t looking like such an implausible drug kingpin.
But the reversal of Everything I Know About the Drug Trade I Learned from David Simon is how insanely easy it is for the cops to flip their way up the ladder. Obviously this is reality television, so we’re basically on a ridealong in the tail car, and presumably, we’re only getting to see the more successful raids, and “I don’t know” is a common response, but so far, the threat of arrest has been enough to coax information out of enough of these traffickers to score some decent busts. Not one of them pursued entrapment.
Unfortunately, Bordertown: Laredo is already repeating its formula. I’m sure there are more idiosyncrasies to uncover—like the cash compartment hidden in a car’s transmission in “Show Me the Money”—but so much is covering the same ground that the show seems as futile and repetitive a task as actually pursuing the cartels. Which Sgt. Sifuentes happily admits in the closing, calling their $100,000 and 53 kilo seizure a hiccup in the pipeline. Why’s he smiling? Could be acceptance, could be endless plot means endless renewal. You be the judge.