Cartel Land

Regarding  a country like Mexico, where last September cops in the state of Guerrero were accused of handing over protesting students to drug cartel members who then incinerated them as some kind of precautionary measure, it is hard to adhere to the old adage that crime does not pay.

In Mexico, if crime does not pay, at least it pays a lot of people off.

On both sides of the border, far less powerful people than celebrity real estate magnate turned presidential hopeful Donald Trump---who, if we are to believe TMZ, received a threatening text message from escaped Sinaloa Cartel leader “El Chapo” urging him to shut up about Mexico or else---are fed up with having to deal with the cartels that seem to be, more often than not, in cahoots with the government.

Cartel Land, a new documentary by Matthew Heineman, shines an uncomfortable light on the vigilantism that has erupted out of sheer desperation with the drug trafficking.The Kathryn Bigelow-produced film starts with a scene of cartel members explaining themselves to the camera crew, talking about how some American father and son team came to teach them all how to cook meth.  They have no illusions that what they are doing is not bad, but it is work that pays, and these guys are poor.

There is a heartbreaking funeral scene that takes place in the state of Michoacan where we see the burial of multiple members of a family that have been killed because they worked for a lime farmer who declined to pay bribes to the local cartel.

The sympathy we feel when we first hear out Jose Mireles, a small-town doctor who becomes the leader of the vigilante group the “Autodefensas,” is immediate. As Mireles explains the situation, the people of Michoacan are living at the “gates of hell.” Knowing that they could perish at any moment, the vigilante leader says they have decided to embrace their fate and will die fighting.  The charismatic Mireles makes convincing speeches, gets recruits, and passes out white t-shirts to the men who want to join his cause.

Less sympathetic, but perhaps more eye opening, is the character of U.S. veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley. Foley, who speaks of overcoming an abusive family background as well as a meth problem, runs a paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon that treks along Arizona’s Altar Valley in search of border crossers and drug smugglers. As the veteran sees it, the oath that he took when he joined the military was an oath to protect the Constitution and the country against foreign and domestic enemies, “and that doesn’t end when you leave the military.”

Viewers of Cartel Land should be prepared to have their assumptions shaken, as the film shows how  honest men and women can be tainted by the very evil they are trying to stand up against, and how meth cookers are capable of  displaying a world weary wisdom.

Roberto Ontiveros