Lead Stories
John Paul plays Esteban Mendoza Cruz in <i>Los Traficantes</i>.
Courtesy photo
John Paul plays Esteban Mendoza Cruz in Los Traficantes.

God’s drug lord

Movies | Feature film Los Traficantes tells the story of a Tijuana drug dealer’s transformation from addict and killer to servant of God

LOS ANGELES—News about Mexican drug cartels gets depressing. From 2006 to 2012, drug-related violence has killed more than 60,000 people, terrorized towns, disrupted industries, and corrupted politicians. 

But in the film Los Traficantes, producer Kurt Tuffendsam tells a hopeful story amid all the sorrow. The independent film is based on the true story of Esteban Mendoza Cruz, a drug lord in Tijuana who finds Christ while in prison and starts a church movement so powerful the corrupt prison officials release him because drug sales within the prison dropped.

Working on a shoestring budget, Tuffendsam couldn’t pay the cast and crew, and had to work with donated equipment and vehicles. But what the film lacks in polish, it makes up in compelling storytelling and a strong lead. Rather than the sterile narrative often found in so-called Christian films, Los Traficantes spends much screen time showing the realities of drug cartels, with Esteban (played by John Paul) snorting cocaine and exacting revenge on his enemies. It also doesn’t skimp on the dismal conditions inside La Mesa prison, the notorious Tijuana jail that operates like a city behind bars. Prostitution, fights, and drug dealing are rampant.

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Interspersed in the film are snippets of interviews with Cruz and his wife Perla, which often provide the strongest lines, particularly when Cruz starts talking to missionaries visiting the prison and reading the Bible. “Most of the time when God takes hold of you, it’s a little seed the Holy Spirit puts in you,” Cruz says in Spanish. “And it starts building, restoring, cleaning. And this seed is growing, growing, growing until one day it blooms. But very often this process takes a long time.” The film ends with actual footage of the 40 ministries and churches Cruz planted, many within prisons, and photos of the men and women who graduated from the Bible Institute Cruz founded. 

Tuffendsam first heard Cruz’s story from a missionary at a Perspectives class in 2009. He had moved to Hollywood seven year earlier to share the gospel while working in the entertainment industry but wasn’t seeing much happening. He and his wife considered leaving for missions overseas, but through the course he realized that God had given him the ability to create films that could tell the gospel story and had provided the connections he needed to make them possible. 

So he started Rise, a mission organization with like-minded filmmakers and non-believers attracted to the powerful stories. “We could create content within the mainstream commercial avenues that relate what God is doing,” Tuffendsam said. “They are all true stories based on narrative biographies, and there are so many of them available, the possibilities are unlimited.”

Once he heard Cruz’s story, he asked the missionary if he could join him on his next trip to Tijuana and soon went to Mexico to interview the former drug dealer. Through talking to Cruz and others involved in the story, he and director Adam Watson wrote the screenplay and touted the project to raise funds for production. They shot the entire 80-minute film in Tijuana in 12 days, dealing with the danger of actual drug cartels, cultural differences (neither Tuffendsam nor Watson could speak Spanish), and tight budget constraints. At times, they were certain they wouldn’t be able to finish the project. Locations fell through, actors didn’t show up, and they didn’t have the money for food and travel.  

The film’s subject matter affected even the non-believers in the cast. Actress Erika Flores, who played Perla, met with her real-life counterpart and got to hear her testimony. Paul, who was a Christian, evangelized to the others on set in Spanish. 

Tuffendsam said traditional studios that work on faith-based movies wouldn’t pick up Los Traficantes because of the drug use and violence, but he believes it is necessary to tell the story: “We’re in a weird spot, pioneering a movie that appeals to the mainstream audience with influences from the kingdom of God. The storyline sheds a kingdom light without being preachy.”

Rise is now working on Nomad’s Land, a docudrama about how nomadic tribes in Africa came to Christ and how they are now bringing the Gospel to other tribes. He expects the film to be released in 2015. 

But despite Tuffendsam’s success, it’s still difficult to get churches onboard for his cause. “The church doesn’t see entertainment as a necessity, it’s never on par with other ministries,” he said. “How can we communicate to the next generation about what God’s been doing unless we communicate through the means that He’s given us?”

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