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Ghost Recon: Going to war against a devout drug cartel

How Ubisoft’s largest open world game puts an obscure folk religion at the center of its campaign

A chapel dedicated to Santa Muerte, from Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands
| Ubisoft

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Polygon recently visited Ubisoft's headquarters in Paris, France for a deep dive into the making of the next Ghost Recon game. This story is the last in our series.

When it’s released in early March, Ubisoft says Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands will be the single largest open world game it has ever made. Set in a miniature Bolivia, it promises to feature one of the most authentic and exotic settings yet.

But what, exactly, is Clancy’s fictional U.S. Army special forces team doing in the backwoods of Latin American in the first place? And what does its mission have to do with Santa Muerte, an up and coming religious sect favored by Mexico’s most violent drug cartels and the men and women who fight against them?

Covert action

The backstory for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands is complicated. During a recent presentation to the press, it took two of the game’s writers nearly 45 minutes to work their way through it all.

“Everything related to the Clancy universe is asking a single question: What if?” said Sam Strachman, the game’s narrative director. “What if, in the near future, the relatively peaceful country of Bolivia were invaded by a Mexican drug cartel?”

The real Bolivia is one of the largest producers of coca leaf in the world. The plant is used to make everything from tea to medicated balms and toothpaste. The coca growers union is a powerful force in the nation, and counts the country’s current president, Evo Morales, among its members.

But coca is also the raw form of cocaine.

“What if a Mexican cartel moved there,” Strachman said, “and took over a huge area of the country?”

With the right friends and enough violent force of arms, Strachman said, it might be possible to turn a country into a “narco state,” a nation where a puppet government is propped up by a powerful drug cartel. In the fiction of Wildlands, that’s exactly what happens in Bolivia. When the Santa Blanca Cartel moves in, lead by a brilliant and brutal mountain of a man called El Sueño, it becomes the world’s largest producer of cocaine virtually overnight.

“By our in-fiction estimates,” Strachman said, “that’s around 250 tons of cocaine a year, or about $2 billion in revenue a week.”

In Wildlands’ Bolivia, the powers that be quickly bend to El Sueño’s will and before long he and his lieutenants have infiltrated many sectors of government. The only check on the Santa Blanca Cartel’s power is foreign intervention by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

It’s the CIA, as part of a interdepartmental task force with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), that brings in the Ghosts. When the game begins it’s CIA case officer Karen Bowman calling the shots.

CIA case officer Karen Bowman sits inside a helicopter with a player character. “I’m sorry for your loss,” says the player character.
A deeply-embedded CIA case officer named Karen Bowman is your handler while operating inside Bolivia.
Ubisoft

In the weeks before the Ghosts arrive, Strachman said, Bowman’s team has suffered a loss. An undercover DEA agent named Ricky Sandoval was captured by the Santa Blanca Cartel, only to be tortured and murdered. The U.S. embassy in La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, gets bombed in retaliation. With the stakes rising higher, the task force decides it’s up to the Ghosts to insert into Bolivia and take out the cartel’s leadership.

An opiate for the masses

As Strachman explained during his presentation, this particular mission is different than others that the Ghosts have gone on in past games. It’s not a “special forces” mission so much as it is a “special operations” mission.

The difference is subtle on paper, but plays out dramatically in-game.

“In special forces,” Strachman said, “soldiers are told, ‘There's your target. Get your target.’ What's unique about special operations is that soldiers are making on-the-ground decisions. What that means for the game is we put that all into the hands of the player. We will give you your possible targets, but it’s you who gets to decide how to go about it.”

As CIA officer Bowman explains to players early on, El Sueño has divided his organization into four branches and players are invited to assault each one in whatever order they choose.

There’s production, of course, the act of actually turning coca leaf into cocaine. That involves a small army of workers, as well as volatile chemicals like kerosene or diesel fuel. There’s also a team dedicated to trafficking, which helps to bring the drug to market.

“You have the basics, like cars and planes and trains and all that stuff,” Strachman said. “But then you also have the weirder stuff. They build their own submarines. They use silicone breast implants to smuggle it in that way. They use a million different ways, all dreamed up by people within the organization called ’cerebrals.’ It’s their job just to sit there all day and figure out new and crazy ways of smuggling cocaine.”

A chart showing El Sueño’s organization, divided into influence, tracking, production and security.
El Sueño’s Santa Blanca Cartel is divided into four branches, each with its own leaders and lieutenants. The player is able to attack them in any order they choose.
Ubisoft

Another branch is security. With billions flowing into his organization, El Sueño has access to high-end military equipment — light arms and heavy weapons, helicopters and armored vehicles — that are as good or better than what the Ghosts have brought with them at the start of the game.

Finally, there’s an entire branch dedicated to influence.

Gustavo “El Cardenal” Serrano
Ubisoft

“The influence operation is the propaganda machine of the cartel,” Strachman said. “It's how they win over the hearts and minds of all the people in the game world, but also how they instill loyalty in their members. It includes all the weird stuff like their religion that they follow, which is called Santa Muerte.”

El Sueño hasn’t simply brought money and guns into Bolivia. He has also brought a new system of beliefs. Its spiritual leader is an excommunicated Catholic priest named Gustavo Serrano. But he’s known to the people of Bolivia simply as El Cardenal.

“He’s became El Sueño’s spiritual advisor,” Strachman said. “The other thing that's interesting about the influence operation, and something that is really dear to El Cardenal, is that it's not just about making more money and selling more drugs. For him, there’s also this flip side of it all. The cartel is here, but they're employing people. They're building churches. They're building schools. They’re running charities. They're doing all these things to really get people to turn against their own government and their own systems.”

U.S. Army special forces set an ambush outside a Santa Muerte chapel in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Ubisoft

The grim reapress

You can see the symbology of the Santa Blanca cartel’s chosen religion, Santa Muerte, all over the world of Wildlands. Radio towers have been converted into hundred-foot tall icons depicting its saint. Tiny chapels filled with makeshift skeletons dot the landscape. It even features prominently in El Sueño’s menacing facial tattoos.

But what exactly is Santa Muerte?

To learn more, we reached out to the U.S.’s foremost expert on the religion, Dr. Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, The Skeleton Saint.

“Santa Muerte is the fastest growing religious movement in the Americas,” Chesnut says. “I estimate that there’s some 10 to 12 million devotees, with three quarters located in Mexico and the rest heavily concentrated in the U.S. and Central America.

“Just 15 years ago, Santa Muerte was the object of cult veneration and unknown to 99 percent of Mexicans. Now, the skeleton is literally out of the closet. You couldn’t find a single one of the 110 million Mexicans who’ve never heard of her.”

The Santa Muerte shrine in the tiny Michoacan town of Santa Ana Chapitiro, photographed in December 2016.

Chesnut calls Santa Muerte the “grim reapress.” He says that the figure itself was derived from traditions within the Spanish Catholic church, which has a tradition of depicting death as a skeletal woman.

“The first mention of Santa Muerte in the Mexican historical record is from 1793,” Chesnut said. “In the annals of the Spanish Inquisition, it’s said that Inquisitors were called out to central Mexico on a report that some indigenous people were worshipping a skeletal figure that they actually called ‘Santa Muerte.’ The Spanish Inquisitors destroyed the temple, and the effigy of a skeleton.”

From there, it’s clear that the worship of Santa Muerte went underground, only to emerge in the 1940s. Today, it is practiced among many members of the largest drug cartels in Mexico, but also among those Mexican police and military forces who fight against them.

But the religion, such as it is, has roots in Catholicism and is practiced in parallel by those who identify as Catholic.

“Without Catholicism in Latin America,” Chesnut says, “there is no Santa Muerte.”

But while it trades in imagery that we might think of as grisly, its believers are often asking its patron saint for very simple things.

“We're talking about millions of devotees,” Chesnut says, “most of whom are not narcos, and most of whom approach Santa Muerte just as they do Catholic saints. Most of them are poor folks who are asking for what you and I might seem as pretty mundane, rather prosaic miracles: Finding a new job, or maybe working more hours at another job. She also continues to be a huge sorceress of love. In fact, from the 1940s to the 1980s the only kind of magic she's working is love magic.

“The number one selling Santa Muerte candle in Mexico is the red candle, not of bloody murder but of love and of passion.”

Gathering intel in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands.
Ubisoft

Take it on faith

The representation of Santa Muerte in Wildlands is something that the team at Ubisoft has tried to be sensitive about. The use of its imagery is meant to intimidate players, the team said, not to diminish those who practice it.

“To be clear, Wildlands is a work of fiction,” lead narrative designer Sam Strachman told Polygon later, in a follow-up email after our visit. “We have a number of Mexican nationals embedded on our team, including two of our main writers. One is a journalist in Mexico and the other is a documentary filmmaker who has had first-hand experience with drug cartels and has a number of family members and friends who follow Santa Muerte.”

He declined to name either of them, citing concerns over the safety of their families still living in Mexico.

“Most of the people who are following Santa Muerte are wonderful people,” said game designer Dominic Butler during an interview in France. “[The image of death] is just a part of the religion, but for a very small amount of people in the Santa Blanca cartel, there's also a strong association between it and their cartel activities.”

The same can be said for many narcos in and around Mexico.

“It's based on the research that we did into the narcos themselves,” Butler stressed. “In our game, it's part of how the Santa Blanca cartel tries to win over the hearts and minds of the local people in Mexico. So, that carries over into radio stations and podcasts, posters, local events. They'll pay local leaders, but they'll also build churches and hospitals and sometimes they'll erect massive statues and try to make it into a celebration. They'll try to put on concerts and try to remove the fear of the cartels and turn the local people against the leaders.”

Ubisoft

Butler also stressed that U.S. Army soldiers aren’t the only people fighting against the cartel in Wildlands. The team at Ubisoft simply isn’t ready to say anything more about the Bolivian rebels that the Ghosts will be fighting alongside, a group known as Kataris 26. We can expect them to play a large part in the game’s storyline.

During a pre-recorded game demonstration in November, Strachman and Butler showed off portions of several missions from Wildlands. One showed how players can get ahold of one of the cartel’s foot soldiers, a former singer named El Chito. His capture allows players to move up the chain towards one of El Cardenal’s lieutenants.

While we weren’t able to play it for ourselves, the demo included the tactical combat that the Ghost Recon franchise is known for. The player character was able to give orders to three other AI-controlled soldiers, mark targets and perform synchronized executions at range. They were also armed with sophisticated drones to help scout out areas and set off deadly explosions. Furthermore, Butler explained how each one of the game’s 100 missions would be replayable for up four human players regardless of each individual player’s progress.

Both the difficulty and the mission availability, Butler said, will adapt to the number and skill level of the players who join up to play together at any given time.

“You're never forfeiting something because you decided to play solo one night,” Butler said. “You can just kept playing after your buddies go to bed. The idea is just to keep playing. You're always playing Wildlands. You're always progressing, and you're never sacrificing anything.”

That kind of flexible, open-world exploration sounds like something very special on paper. Coupled with a sophisticated backstory and a massive game map, it might be the kind of seamless single-player / multiplayer experience many of us hoped another Tom Clancy game, The Division, would be. We’ll know for sure when we get a chance to review Ghost Recon Wildlands, slated for release on March 7, on Windows PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.