Reviewed April 17, 2016
Cartel Land is a 2015 documentary film about the Mexican drug war, specifically focusing on vigilante groups in both Mexico and the United States. These groups attempt to combat and thwart drug cartels by using their own illegal efforts. Brutal and ugly, the documentary paints a dark picture of the very real drug trafficking problem and the hopelessness of the situation. Interestingly, the hot button issue of illegal immigration is not explored as the issues are considered separate from each other.
The great thing about documentaries in general is their truthfulness and ability to open ones eyes to a situation in the world in which one may not be aware of or have limited knowledge of. Most people know there is a drug problem in the United States, but Cartel Land successfully educates the viewer to the complexity of the issue.
Various perspectives are explored throughout the documentary: the Arizona Border Recon, led by militant figure, Tim “Nailer” Foley, and the Autodefansas, led by Dr. Jose Mireles, are the vigilante groups in the U.S. and Mexico, respectively. A third perspective, in that of one of the cartel members, the particular gentleman featured, cooks and transports the crystal meth across the Mexican border. Additionally, there are individuals who feel that the police and government are the ones responsible for solving the issues and the matter should be left in their hands.
The documentary does not side with one particular opinion over the other, but rather, paints a controversial picture of the reality of the situation and presents both sides objectively. However, the majority of the screen time do go to the Autodefansas story.
One of the most thought-provoking parts of the documentary, and what initially had me engaged in it, comes at the very beginning of the story. Told from the perspective of one of the cartel members who is interviewed with the backdrop of a nighttime scene, where he cooks the meth he will then deliver, is poignant. Since he transports drugs, he is perceived as a monster. He admits he causes people’s deaths, destruction, violence, etc. He then explains that the cartel members come from poverty- what else are they going to do to make this much money? Or make a living at all? It is an opportunity- who would give that up? This made me think of how complex a problem drug smuggling is and it also laid the groundwork for the viewer to realize that the cartel members may not be the only ones who are bad or crooked. What is the definition of right and wrong? On who’s terms?
Dr. Mireles and another member of the Autodefansas, named “Papa Smurf” are the primary members featured. They started Autodefansas as a way of combating the corrupt Mexican police and government that allow the drug cartel to exist, presumably for profit. Their group of vigilantes brandish militant guns in order to “protect their town” and the inhabitants. An assassination attempt occurs when someone tries to crash Mireles’s plane- he goes into hiding. But we also learn that Mireles is a womanizer, a cheat, and cannot be trusted. Is he making deals for profit on his own? Papa Smurf is in cahoots with the police. Is cash being exchanged?
The Arizona vigilante story is interesting to hear from Foley’s perspective. I observed the group to be uneducated, poor, angry, and filled with racist hatred. This is scary to think that some Americans feel the way they do and it actually made me sympathize with them the least and the drug cartel a bit more. One vigilante compared different races as being like two pit bulls in a cage- separated things are fine, but released from those cages the animals will kill each other. He had no concept of two races being able to live happily amongst each other.
Parts of Cartel Land are quite gruesome and descriptive. In one scene we see a teary mother from the town of Michoacán, who the Autodefansas protect, describe how an entire family of innocent farm workers, including a newborn, were murdered by being hurled against rocks until they died. They were the victims of a revenge scheme enacted against their boss. One pities her and we see the funeral for the newborn take place amid screams of despair from surviving family members. We also see decapitated heads and murdered individuals. It is chilling to think that this goes on in today’s world.
The cinematography is splendid and countless scenes of the Mexican and Arizona landscape are prominently featured. Miles and miles of spacious, mountainous area are shown, and the use of night vision cameras allows for a feeling of being right there with the patrol groups.
The main takeaway from Cartel Land is the subject of corruption. Throughout each story the lines are blurry. Who is corrupt? Who should we sympathize with? Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? The facts are shaded in gray and we know that there are no good groups and bad groups. This documentary teaches the audience that there is a major problem with the drug cartel across Mexico and the United States that has existed for years and will continue to exist for years to come. A lesson learned.