Cartel Land

The best film I saw at Full Frame this past weekend was Cartel Land, directed by Matthew Heineman. This documentary is a fascinating study of vigilante movements on either side of the US-Mexico border.


On the Mexican side of the border, the filmmaker focuses on the Autodefensas – a group of citizens in the Michoacán district who grew disgusted with the Mexican government’s inability to eradicate ruthless drug cartels, armed themselves, and hunted down the cartel members. The Autodefensa movement caught on, in large part because of the charismatic leadership of a small-town physician, José Mireles, known as “El Doctor.”

On the American side of the border, the filmmaker focuses on Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary group that has appointed itself to patrol the US-Mexico border more vigorously than the legal authorities are willing or able to do, stopping drug traffickers and illegal immigrants, and turning the illegals they catch over the border police. This group is led by Tim “Nailer” Foley, another charismatic leader. Although Nailer and the ABR vigilantes turn violators over to the border patrol, they are every bit as disgusted with U.S. government as Mireles and the Autodefensas are with the Mexican government.  Both the Autodefensas and the ABR vigilantes take the view that the government is defaulting on its obligation to protect the people, and therefore the people have the right to take matters into their own hands. “We are in a state of nature now,” they seem to be saying. “Let us band together to save ourselves.”

Cartel Land is astonishing, eye-opening, and terrifying. The film has so much going for it, I hardly know where to begin. For one thing, it has not one but two great central characters. Mireles, the leader of the Autodefensas, is so appealing  that, at times, we are swept up in the drama of the Autodefensa movement.  We see the handsome doctor treating sick children, calling on the intimidated people of Michoacán to defend themselves from thugs, and urging his fellow Autodefensas not to succumb to the temptations of power, and we are tempted to accept him and the other Autodefensas on their own terms – as patriots and outraged citizens heroically doing a job the government is unwilling or unable to do. We not only see — we actually feel — the tremendous emotional appeal of the movement, and we want to believe that the good character of Mireles will guarantee the decent behavior of the Autodefensas. And yet the film also reminds us of the dangers of placing one’s faith in extra-legal movements and charismatic leaders.


“El Doctor,” leader of the Autodefensas


The filmmakers pull back the curtain on several scenes most Americans will – hopefully — never witness.  We see cartel members cooking meth in the Mexican desert, Autodefensas interrogating and roughing up suspected cartel members, and heavily-armed American vigilantes playing an astonishing game of cat-and-mouse with cartel scouts and drug mules in the hills of Arizona.  There is one scene in which the Autodefensas and an embedded cameraman find themselves under heavy fire from cartel gunmen. The footage in this scene was so life-like and terrifying that my instinct was to duck and take cover under my seat.

Cartel Land also has unexpected twists. There were several turns that I did not anticipate — and won’t give away here. And I gather I am not alone, because you could hear the audience at Full Frame gasping at several crucial moments in the film.

The film is tight and very well edited. It’s amazing that it is only 96 minutes long. You emerge from the screening feeling like you’ve watched a 6-hour miniseries and developed a comprehensive understanding of the situation. You also emerge emotionally fatigued.

The film does not oversimplify. It does not suggest that there is an easy solution. It manages to capture and convey the excitement of a cresting vigilante movement while also illustrating just how horrifying it is to see whole regions descending into lawlessness.

As I noted at the outset, the focus on parallel vigilante movements on either side of the border gives the film an interesting symmetry. Mireles and his vigilantes are fighting against the cartels in Mexico, where they cook the meth, while Nailer (himself a reformed meth addict, with the zeal of a reformed sinner) and his ABR vigilantes are trying to stop the same cartels from bringing the meth across the border. Both groups feel that the government has failed them, and that they have to take matters into their own hands. The viewer comes to understand each vigilante group a little differently, and a little better, because the other group, on the other side of the border, is also depicted in the film.

The film left me with a renewed appreciation for rule of law. Democrats get excited when a Democratic President is sworn in. Republicans get excited when a Republican takes office. And both act like it’s the end of the world if the other side gets in. Me, I get excited whenever one candidate is voted out another one is voted in, and the exchange takes place without any violence.  That is a great achievement, even though most Americans don’t realize how wonderful (and rare) it is. In parts of Mexico, change of real authority seems increasingly to be achievable only with automatic weapons.

Although I prefer honest politicians, I am also pleased to see dishonest politicians indicted and convicted for corruption.  In Mexico and too many other places around the world corruption seems to be universal and more or less taken for granted. When crooks are driven out of office, they are replaced by new crooks, and, over time, the people grow so cynical about the possibility of honest politicians and even-handed justice that many lose faith in the concepts themselves.  Eventually rule of law gives way to the law of the jungle.

I have come to think that democratic government gets too much hype and adulation, while rule of law does not get nearly enough. Recent events in the Middle East have shown that democratic government is not the answer to all of the world’s problems. If the majority happens to be a militant ethnic or religious group, then majority rule may turn out to be a very bad thing for numerous minorities, particularly if the rights of those minorities are not secured by rule of law.  The best guarantee for individuals or minorities is rule of law — the sovereignty of the statute rather than the rule of the individual. It is alarming to see how completely rule of law seems to have broken down in parts of Mexico, not far from the U.S. border.

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