In recent years, the U.S.-Mexico drug war has been discussed as part of policy debates on subjects ranging from prison and sentencing reform to immigration law and border control. In Mexico, the war has become increasingly violent, resulting in more than 27,000 “disappeared” in less than a decade.
There are complex and contentious debates to be had about causes and solutions, but one fact is incontrovertible: the Mexican drug trade is driven by demand from the U.S. It is likely that some students in your school are contributing to that demand.
Typical drug abuse prevention efforts focus on personal harm, i.e., the negative consequences for the user. This lesson has students experiment with a different tactic: creating compassion for the “disappeared” and their families. Using clips from Kingdom of Shadows, a documentary about the drug trade and Mexican families searching for their “disappeared” loved ones, students will conduct research to determine whether prompting subjects to think about the real-life impact of the drug trade on innocent victims increases the likelihood that they will resist using illegal drugs.
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Two class periods plus out-of-class work (which may extend over several weeks)
- Reflect on the role of “demand” in the U.S. war on drugs and U.S.-Mexico border policy
- Conduct a short social science research study and prepare written and short oral summaries of their results
Film clips from Kingdom of Shadows and equipment on which to show them
POV: Kingdom of Shadows – http://www.pbs.org/pov/kingdomofshadows – The site includes a general discussion guide with additional activity ideas.
POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films – http://www.pbs.org/pov/educators/media-literacy.php – This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.
Borderland Beat – www.borderlandbeat.com – This extensive blog features open-source reporting on the drug war.
Borderzine – http://borderzine.com/ – Borderzine is a journalism education initiative based at the University of Texas at El Paso with partner schools in Mexico and the United States.
The Dallas Morning News: Mexico – http://www.dallasnews.com/news/nationworld/mexico/ – The Mexico bureau of The Dallas Morning News provides in-depth features and analysis.
Drug War Facts, edited by Douglas A. McVay – www.drugwarfacts.org – An encyclopedia-style aggregation of government statistics and reporting on issues related to the U.S. war on drugs compiled by the organization Common Sense for Drug Policy can be accessed or downloaded on this site.
Fronteras – http://www.fronterasdesk.org/ – A collaborative reporting effort between local NPR stations covers borderland issues.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy – www.ssdp.org – The website of this international network of students dedicated to ending the war on drugs provides a running tally of U.S. federal dollars spent on anti-drug efforts and an extensive set of links to related organizations.
1. Prep (5 min.)
The lesson begins with a homework assignment. Post (so that all students can see) this statistic:
Since 2006, more than 27,000 individuals in Mexico have been reported missing or “disappeared.”
Very briefly, invite reactions and questions. To prepare for further discussion, assign students to read the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations overview of the U.S.-Mexico drug war: www.cfr.org/mexico/mexicos-drug-war/p13689.
2. Discussion and Research Design (full class period)
Post the statistic about the “disappeared” again. Ask students what they learned from the reading that helps them understand the statistic. It isn’t important for students to have complete knowledge of detail, but they should understand that the damage from the war on drugs extends beyond the damage of drug addiction and incarceration to include human rights violations committed by drug traffickers and also by government forces.
Then show Clip 1 (about U.S. demand) and ask students for their thoughts. How does this information compare with other anti-drug messages they’ve seen or heard? Has what they’ve learned so far influenced their thinking about their own potential role in the demand for drugs?
Tell students they’re going to explore these questions in more depth by doing their own research. Briefly outline the task for them:
Working in teams, you’ll survey at least 20 people (increase the number for advanced groups)—half as a control group and half experiencing the experimental condition.
The purpose of the investigation is to see whether or not people are less likely to say they’d consider using illegal drugs after seeing an emotional film clip about the “disappeared” in Mexico. The film clip (actually a combination of Clips 2 and 3) will be provided to you.
Once data is gathered, each group will be required to submit a written summary of its findings and students will share their findings in five-minute in-class oral reports.
Divide the class into teams and let them begin planning how to conduct their research. Decisions should include:
a) Who will be the subjects of their research?Will they survey other students, friends, family members? With advanced students, discuss whether they want a scientific or random sample and how that could be achieved.
b) What, exactly, will they ask?
For beginners, you may want to explain how to use a Likert scale and help frame a question. Be sure students understand that basic research ethics prevent them from asking people if they have used or plan to use illegal drugs. Instead, they should focus their questions on attitudes. Also, be sure students plan to ask the same question of the control group and the experimental group. The only difference is that the latter will be asked to view five minutes of film before answering.
c) In addition to asking their main question, do they need/want to ask for any demographic information that would allow them to analyze data by age, gender, job and so forth?
d) How will they record and track answers?
Provide each team with a copy of Clips 2 and 3 and let them know when their research summaries are due. If applicable, provide a rubric indicating how work will be graded.
3. Reporting and Reflection (full class period)
On the day research summaries are due, give each group five minutes to explain what it did and share results. Leave time for students to ask questions of one another.
Review the strengths and weaknesses of their research method(s), whether their results can be generalized to other groups and any explanations they have for the results they got.
Wrap up the lesson by asking students to reflect on what they learned about the war on drugs, anti-drug messages and the power of documentary.
Add complexity to the research task by adding a third group of subjects to the survey. This group is shown a typical anti-drug message rather than the film clips.
As a follow-up to reading John F. Kennedy’s, Profiles in Courage, have students view Kingdom of Shadows in its entirety and write a profile of either Consuelo Morales or Oscar Hagelsieb. The profile should answer this question: What makes Morales or Hagelsieb a role model for courage?
Research and debate other aspects of the U.S. war on drugs, e.g., building a border fence or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes.