Cartel Land is a troubling documentary by Matthew Heineman that indicates we have little to be optimistic about in achieving a resolution of the border issues between the U.S. and Mexico any time soon because of the power of cartels, corruption in the Mexican government, and drug and human trafficking. Although the documentary follows two vigilante groups, one in Arizona and one in Mexico, and records their discontents, it does not get into what the problems are on either side of the border, especially ours; for instance, our appetite for drugs. If we didn’t buy them, traffickers would lose their biggest market. It’s stated very well by some Mexicans brewing up meth; their attitude is, “Well I kind of feel bad about it, but we have to earn a living.” Nor does it explore the U.S. “war on drugs”, political stalemates about the border and what to do with it, and the influence of policies and politics in both the U.S. and Mexico. It references indirectly the Southern Poverty Law Center’s classification of the vigilante groups as extremist, but this is not explored to any extent.
Nevertheless, this is a good documentary that gives the viewer a “You are there” experience that is gripping in showing the bloodshed, torture, and human trafficking rendered by the drug cartels.
On the Mexican side of the border, it is interesting to learn about the vigilante group Autodefensas in Michoacan formed in 2013. The citizen militia group was founded and for a time coordinated by a physician, Dr. Jose Mireles, who suggested people take up arms and reclaim their towns from the Knights Templar Cartel, and illustrates their hold over citizens. The last straw that made the organization even more appealing to the people was the cartel’s invading a farm owned by a man who hadn’t paid his dues and brutally attacking his employees, killing 15. No evidence is given as to whether the government even tried to find and prosecute the perpetrators. Mireles observes that when the government can’t protect its citizens they must defend themselves, their families, and their property.
Mireles’ leadership did not last long; in early 2014, he was regarded as a hero after the group had reclaimed 28 towns in Michoacan; but he was seriously injured in a plane crash (whether from sabotage is unclear) and was away in Mexico City being treated for about a month. When he returned, he had lost influence in the group, and there is some evidence that the Mexican government ineffectively intervened. As a consequence of his not wanting to give up his arms, Mireles was branded a criminal.
The spokesman for the vigilante group on this side of the border, Tim “Nailer” Foley, uses reasoning similar to that of Mireles, saying that his group is “upholding the law where there is no law.” The Arizona Border Recon was started when he found that cartels were controlling human trafficking as well as drugs. Foley owns the vigilante designation, but says it has gotten a bad name; it used to refer to citizens simply protecting their rights and property. “Our main priority is going after the bad guys”, he says. Although he is aware that they are sometimes picking up innocent people and that they have no hope of stopping the cartel leaders from transporting drugs, he is committed to keeping the border free of illegal entry.
Because of the many complicating factors, it is difficult to assess the viability of the citizen groups taking on the cartels. Both of these groups claim that they are protecting themselves, and when they capture someone, they turn them over to the authorities (although Mireles claims that the Mexican government simply releases them, along with their arms.) This documentary leads the viewer to think that Mexican President Nieto likely did cave in to cartel pressure in forcing the independent group to give up their arms then outfitting them with new ones under a new leadership. Many Mexicans think Mireles was unfairly undermined. From the documentary, we’re given the impression that the citizen group was actually successful in reclaiming towns, and Mireles—rather than using his power for himself—was urging each town to establish a town council for governance. As far as this side of the border, Tim of the Arizona Border Recon, does take a dim view of the U.S. government’s role in keeping the border free of illegal entry. It’s hard to determine how objective he is, since he’s had personal experience that would make him likely to resent other people wanting to come to this country.
Good coverage of a complicated issue.
Grade: B By Donna R. Copeland