Cartel Land (Matthew Heineman 2015)

Part of the WatchingHumanRights coverage of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (NYC) 2015

Watching Cartel Land I challenge viewers to remember that they are sitting through a documentary. Thoroughly compelling this is a tragedy of epic proportions made intelligible by director Matthew Heineman. His dangerously up-close account of resistance to Mexican drug cartels is split along the US-Mexico border exploring two parallel system of “legitimate defense”. At first this appears to be a straightforward struggle for the dignity and the rule of law, but all is not what it seems.

On one side we follow a group of armed American “vigilantes”, led by an ex-addict called Foley, who have taken it on themselves to patrol this porous border. He tells us that US territory has effectively been ceded to the cartels, this is the new “Wild West”. On the other hand, far south of the border we follow the charismatic Dr José Mireles. He is not dealing with ceding territory but acquiring it in a bid to defend his community from the notorious drug cartels, the Templars. His rational for picking up arms is literally to avoid how his neighbors ended up, tortured and decapitated. Life clearly has less value on this side of the line as depicted by the indiscriminate massacre of lime pickers whose boss could not pay a debt to the local cartel. This reminded me of a recent article exploring how murders and deaths attributed to the Cartels likely exceeds figures for all of Iraq. Their methods are just as brutal, they enslave and they have strong religious overtones and they are established in the US – yet they do not create the same hysteria as the so-called Islamic State.

Like Foley, Mireles has reorganized, seeking out a “real rebellion” to displace the cartels, but unlike the American’s patrols this is a vicious turf war complicated by a corrupt police force. Incredibly in just a few weeks he and his men clear his home town.  Quickly expanding to surrounding areas a grassroots self-defense movement emerges striking a chord in a brutalized population.

But with new territory comes new responsibilities, and cracks emerge just as fast as the movement spreads. Cartels are so ingrained in the Mexico’s systems of governance and the local population who run errands, inform etc. These people are “forgiven” by the self-defense groups and incorporated into their ranks. With them come their methods, their mentality and their brutality. Heineman captures this superbly, an extended still shot captures cries coming from their compound leaving no doubt that people are being tortured.  At one public rally in a town newly liberated from the drug lords the leader of the self-defense movement is confronted by an angry local: “You thrash homes … you don’t have licence plates, no gun permits you are not a legal institution … if we can’t trust the in institutions we are finished as citizens”.

Marked by its absence is the War on Drugs, tackling drugs flows or anything dialogue around the evil of narcotics. Everything is focused on “the cartels”. As the film unfolds one can read between the lines to see that cartels are not distinct groupings, they are simply part of the fabric of life. Certainly the self-defense movement is an attempt to reconfigure this province. Alarmed by their success the Mexican government tries to disarm the self-defense groups and after a tense stand-off they are “made legal” as a Rural Defense Force. As the film closes we see masked men manufacturing cocaine, including some wearing the new uniform of this new entity of the Mexican state. Sure this is corruption, but perhaps it has rebalanced or redistributed of power. Whether this power is checked remains to be seen but it could temporarily head off the extreme brutality and impunity of the cartel extremists.

I think the documentary also explains why Cartels are not treated like the existential threat in the same manner as IS. This former occupies the interior of modern Western society, an inequality that drives people on either side of the border to align for profit. Cartel Land is a must see.

Gearóid Ó Cuinn

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