This is the first film review I have done on the blog. Though I have watched many documentaries with compelling narratives appropriate for this blog this is the first one that grabbed me so powerfully that I feel compelled to share it.
Cartel Land is a simple story showing how two different groups are responding to the growing power of the Mexican cartels. The first is a group of Minutemen patrolling a stretch of the Arizona border going by the name of Arizona Border Recon. The area they patrol is well used by coyotes to get migrants across the border. Tim "Nailer" Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, shares his worldview throughout the film. I will admit that at first he comes across as a paranoid anti-government nut, but as the feel progresses and he is able to present evidence that the area is used by human smugglers then his narrative becomes more compelling. Nailer is a man who sees the world in black and white, and some of his compatriots are exactly the type of militia racists you expect. The documentarians capture his outrage often through Nailer's consumption of media. Oftentimes right-wing cable news talking heads are the lead in to whatever conversation he has with the film crew.
Most of the story focuses on the struggle within Mexico itself in the state of Michoacan. In Michoacan local leaders come together to form the Autodefensas, a civilian self-defence force with the stated mission of driving out the cartels from the communities since the government will not act. The documentarians spent a great deal of time with members of the Autodefensas, but principally with its spokesperson, Dr. Jose Mireles.
In the case of the Mexican response to cartel violence I do not want to go into very much detail. I found the arc of their story the most fascinating part of the documentary. Every ten minutes presents a new reveal that casts the entire experiment into a different light and the fact that the documentarians caught it all on film is astounding. Sufficing to say, at the opening of the film the Autodefensas is remarkably successful. A collection of volunteers carrying horrifying amounts of weaponry successful drive out the cartels from a handful of communities. They story of the Autodefenses goes on from there. Speaking with a friend of mine more familiar with Latin American history and politics, he shared with me that what the documentary portrays is familiar to Mexican history and politics.
The scene that stuck out to me the most was early on in the film when the Autodefensas liberate a town from the cartels. Shortly afterward the military shows up and demands that the unauthorized civilian militia disarm themselves and leave. What happens next sent a chill up my neck. Called upon by the leaders of Autodefensas, civilians pour out of their homes and defend them, badgering, insulting and resisting the army. What makes the scene so compelling to me is that as a historian I felt like I was watching the seeds of a revolution. I imagine similar scenes played out across the Arab world during the Arab Spring or in Russia on the eve of its revolutions. There was something so tangible about the anger of the crowd that the potential for violence and active rebellion was just a misstep away.
How do we perceive vigilantes? It is very easy in the start of this film to support Mireles and his followers in their attempts to 'take their country back', but at the same time we view Americans who espouse the same rhetoric as a dangerous fringe. In both the United States and Mexico there comes into question the real power of the state. If the state's duty is to protect its citizens, uphold the rule of law and apply justice fairly it is hard to say that that is occurring on either side of the border.
The pervasive corruption of institutions is also a major theme in the documentary. Is it possible to have a fresh start, or does the corrosive environment doom any reform? This needn't be applied only to the vigilantes, but to political leaders as well. Ultimately this comes down to the distortions of the drug war. Cartel Land offers a different take from many documentaries I have seen on this topic. Drugs feature very little in the documentary in a sense, but in the background is the fact that American demand for narcotics is what is driving the chaos, violence and instability in Mexico.
The film is bookended by drugs, as if the director, Matthew Heineman, wanted to say that this is actually what this is all about. Everything that transpires in the intervening 90 minutes can be captures by these Mexican cooks.
The United States has much to answer for for what is going on in Mexico, but I would add that Canadians have a responsibility to move past their blind ignorance as well. Mexico is more than sunny beaches and tequila. As fellow North Americans it should be incumbent upon us to try to support our friends in Mexico from this brutal cycle of violence. I highly recommend this documentary and as of this post it is available for free with your Netflix Canada subscription.