After seeing the more positive side of life on the US/Mexican border in the Ross Brothers’ Western, it was with some interest that I turned to the other Netflix provided recent documentary offering on the same general subject, from director Matthew Heineman. Yesterday, I talked about a refreshingly different viewpoint from that which typically dominates discussion of this border region, but Cartel Land was more in line with what we have come to expect.
Deep in the heart of Mexico, violent and seemingly unstoppable drug cartels tear lives apart, in an endless war between themselves and government authorities left impotent in the face of this criminal behemoth. Enter the “autodefensas”, a civilian militia dedicated to fighting back against the cartels, with or without government help. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, other militias attempt to stand against the drug and illegal worker trade.
Heineman’s work, focusing primarily on the ever more bitter insurgency conflict in the Mexican state of Michoacan, is a remarkably detailed insight into a war that so much of the world knows so little about. We are used to tales of cartel atrocities – Cartel Land opens with some grizzly details of the inhuman actions carried out by the “Templar” Cartel – and the ineffectiveness of a government riddled with inefficiency and corruption. But less known, at least on this side of the Atlantic, is this paramilitary element, as locals decide they simply have had enough. Procuring guns and making an organisation that follows the militant path while espousing a democratic philosophy, the autodefensas go from town to town, clearing house and acting as both police and army.
With the charismatic “El Doctor” – local physician Jose Mireles, who is the initial leading light of the autodefensas – to focus the narrative on, Heineman already has a good running start, but initially I was actually worried about the early direction of Cartel Land, which was approaching dangerous levels of “puffpiece” after around a half hour. After all, we had a suave, silver-tongued hero fighting back against an unadulterated bad guy, civilians flocking to his banner, bullyboy soldiers of the federal government forced to back down, and a general sense that the autodefensas were the only game in town when it came to fighting back against the cartels. It’s almost like a remake of The Magnificent Seven, only minus the seven, the Mexican farmers standing up for their rights from the very off.
But the skill in Heineman’s film is in the way that he carefully builds this figure and his organisation up, only to let the truth start peeping in, leading to things coming crashing down. The seemingly devoted family man Mireles isn’t quite as faithful as he seems, and indeed displays a creepy attitude towards women: a truly awkward sequence late on shows Mireles clumsily coming on to an uncomfortable looking girl. The autodefensas aren’t adored by all and sundry, and seem to have a problem keeping people on their side, especially when Mireles’ charming nature with crowds is not around. They intimidate and threaten as well as any cartel, and some members truly glory in it. And Cartel Land’s final devastating point, that any organisation like the autodefensas is inevitably ripe for infiltration and corruption, with government acquiescence, is effectively built up to, the book end segments at the beginning and conclusion one of the most searing comparisons I have ever seen a documentary pull.
Heineman is to be commended in the way that he makes such potent use of his access. He is present at several moments when gunfire erupts and people are killed, and also at imprompt arrests and interrogations carried out by the autodefensas, who grow increasingly radical and violent as the film progresses. But then again he also blanches away at truly crucial moments, such as when the militia group captures a cartel member alive, and Mireles orders one of his men to put this cartel man “into the ground”: the exact reality of this statement is never made explicitly clear.
On the other side of things is Arizona native Tim Foley, a man from an abused background who has managed to right his life but finds himself embittered by the illegal immigrant, the bogeyman that negatively affects his job prospects without enough being done by the authorities. Foley gets comparatively little time in Cartel Land than Mireles and the autodefensas – the film connects the two of them directly only in the briefest of moments – and actually looks, to my eyes, far more childish, playing at soldier while actual lives are at risk much further south. Foley comes off as someone who has seen a few too many action movies, and his attitude towards those that he “apprehends” is tyrannical and scary. The barely hidden racism – one of Foley’s crew openly states that it is impossible for two races to co-exist in the same country – is the final kicker, and that’s after you realise that the cartel activity that Foley claims to be opposed to is literally occurring thousands of miles away.
In drawing a contrast between the situation with paramilitary groups on either side of the border, Heineman shines a light on the escalating, but inherently hyperbolistic militia groups claiming to perform a national service in Arizona, while showcasing where the real life or death situation is developing, largely away from the cameras and significant worldwide media attention. And the situation in Mexico is a bleak and ugly one, a cyclical system where violence begets resistance, which only begets more violence. Uniforms change, but the drug production doesn’t stop. Like a latter day Hundred Years War, various groups squabble over the right to call themselves “in charge”, with nary an ending in sight. Western told the story of the US/Mexican relations with a hopeful air of humanity simply deciding to get along with each other, but Cartel Land warns of the opposite: a world where dog eats dog, and where the body count of those caught in the middle will grow ever larger. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of The Orchard).