Nightline: Traffic -- The Reality Behind the Movie

BySara Just

March 19, 2001 -- Traffic was a film that impressed all of us here at Nightline. While fiction, it shed more light on the drug war than most reporting has.

But was it accurate? Did it understate or overstate the violence, the corruption, the entrenchment of the problems? Anchor Ted Koppel, correspondent Deborah Amos and a team of producers went to Tijuana, Mexico, where much of the film was set.

We found the reality was even more disturbing than it was portrayed in the film.

Fighting the war on drugs costs American taxpayers $18 billion a year. And yet, 14.8 million Americans said they used illegal drugs in 1999, according to a recent survey. Is there any way to stop it?

The Nightline team talked to Jesus Blancornelas, the editor of Zetam, a weekly newspaper in Tijuana. He published a daring series of articles on the grip the drug cartels have on his city and he became a target for assassination. He has survived at least one attempt on his life.

Blancornelas now lives in a virtual prison. He can only leave his home with a team of 12 bodyguards. "I go to the office and I don't know which route I'm going to take, they never tell me, it's always a surprise for me," he told us.

The team also spent time on the U.S.-Mexican border at San Ysidro, America's busiest port of entry. There, U.S. Customs official Rudy Camacho demonstrated how customs agents try to stop the inflow of drugs.

Drug-sniffing drugs and other technology try to identify which cars have drugs hidden inside. But they must do it quickly. About 89 million privately owned vehicles cross the Southwestern border into the U.S. each year.

You might recognize Camacho. He had a role in the film Traffic, where he played himself, giving U.S. anti-drug czar Michael Douglas the same tour of the San Ysidro border crossing that he gave us.

New Hope for an End to Corruption and Violence

The Nightline team also traveled to Mexico City, where Koppel talked to new Mexican President Vincente Fox and several key members of his administration. Their election has given a lot of people reason to hope the corruption and violence that has plagued that country can be stopped.

Amos, who has covered this subject for many years, interviewed a former member of the top Mexican drug cartel, now in hiding, who explains how, despite efforts by law enforcement, the cartels continue their extraordinarily profitable business.

Finally, in Washington, Koppel interviews a group of suburban teenagers now in drug rehabilitation.

There is a scene in the film Traffic in which an American teenager explains it's easier for her to get drugs than to get alcohol. The teens Koppel talked to said she was right.

This is how one of them put it: "Yeah, very true. Because to get alcohol, you need to find somebody of age and who is willing to buy the alcohol and that takes time. Whereas if you know a friend who knows a dealer or something like that, they don't care about your age, and they don't care about who you're with or anything like that. They just care about getting the money."

Sara Just is a Senior Producer at Nightline. The five-part series will air on ABC this week.

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