by Joseph Houlihan
Cartel Land, a documentary directed by Matthew Heineman, offers a strange and ambivalent look at vigilante groups that have sprung up in both Mexico and the United States in response to the ongoing violence of the Mexican “drug wars.”
This documentary is timely as news broke Saturday, July 11th that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, had once again escaped imprisonment. This will have been his second escape. Loera, boss of a vast crime empire worth over $1 billion, trafficking meth, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, along with people, is personally responsible for more than 2,000 deaths, a startling number, and according to a May article in The New Yorker, probably a gross underestimate: “Nobody knows exactly how many people have been killed in Mexico’s drug wars over the past decade, but between the dead and the disappeared the number likely exceeds eighty thousand.”
Director: Matthew Heineman
Producers: Kathryn Bigelow, Matthew Heineman, Tom Yellin
Cinematographers: Matthew Heineman, Matt Porwoll
Editors: Matthew Heineman, Matthew Hamachek, Bradley J. Ross, Pax Wassermann
Music: H. Scott Salinas, Jackson Greenberg
Premiere: January 23, 2015 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 3, 2015
US Distributor: The Orchard
It is into this environment in that Heineman rockets, and he approaches the violence up-close. The first scene of the film is an interview with drug traffickers, mixing meth at night and explaining in simple terms that they are small pieces of a global system.
The film keeps up the intensity. In a tearful scene, Heineman records the funeral of an entire family gunned down by the cartel called “Knights Templar.” It’s hard to feel anything besides confusion and sadness to see a tiny coffin lowered into the mass grave; the gang members killed an infant, throwing him into a rocky ditch. Heineman catches the mourning, and the reaction that follows. In 2013, a group of citizens in the southern Mexico state of Michoacán organized an armed militia to protect themselves against criminal violence (an autodefensa). Brutal gang killings raged across the province, targeting families and workers, intimidating anyone that wouldn’t cooperate. Heineman follows the emergence of this system of autodefensas, especially focusing on the Dr. Jose Morales, the charismatic physician advocating self-defense and deriding government collusion with the cartels. In an early victory for the Autodefensa movement, the Mexican military cedes them control of the towns they occupy, “sweeping,” them clear of suspected gang affiliates and declaring peace. Heineman describes this action with a narrative quality, and a stirring score. But in the wake of this tenuous peace, the ambivalence mounts; although professing commitment to “citizens councils,” these autodefensas quickly demonstrate the dangers of mob rule. Kidnappings, extortions, and even drug trafficking permeate the vigilante groups.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Cartel Land is its basic exploration of the relationship between government and violence. In the simplest terms, governments necessarily enact a monopoly of violence over the territories they govern. A government that cannot protect its citizens from violence. But a monopoly of violence cannot be the sole basis for sovereignty. To see everyday people forced to take up arms, demonstrates a sliding away from civil society. And this is the bitter pill of Cartel Land. There is serious pain and desperation in this film; while the notion of people coming together to protect their communities has a romantic glimmer, this idealism is quickly snubbed out. A more ideal system of governance involves fewer assault weapons on the street, not more.
Entrenched with the so-called Arizona Border Recon, Heineman documents another sort of reactionism. The leader of this group, Tim “Nailer” Foley, also discusses the breakdown of the rule of law, and the notion of safety. He leads “night patrols,” attempting to catch up the scouts of the drug cartels. But any claim to legitimacy he might have is quickly undermined by persistent racial antagonism. He speaks of our “nation” under siege by a flood of “illegals;” according to Nailer there are, “good guys,” and “bad guys.”
It’s fascinating to see the way each of these vigilante groups frame themselves as heroic underdogs, outgunned in a struggle against a vast and violent behemoth drug cartels. Nailer actually says, “they’re Goliath, we’re David.” The vigilantes in Michoacán and the vigilantes in Arizona can barely hide their grins as they drive fast in open jeeps, and fire assault weapons into the air. In a telling line, Nailer admits, “We’re playing a big game of hide and seek.” The saddest and strangest part of the film is witnessing the banal juvenile pleasure these adults take in their violent war games. This kind of euphoria quickly deteriorates into myopia. And it doesn’t really bode well for the establishment of good governance and civil society. This kind of frailty reminds us there’s a privilege in the ability to criticize our police state and its far reaching overstretches in the US, but that doesn’t make it less important. This film is a sad reminder of how many places around the world basically exist in states of perpetual thug rule and kleptocracy. As these conditions become exacerbated it’s difficult to think they aren’t necessary aspects of a global system.
The solipsism of vigilantes and thug-rule puts forth that tired argument that people are scary and bad and self-interested. Basically, one of the defining aspects of the way we live right now is how romanticized notions of self and individualism undermine the ability for people to come together to make a better society. Violent expressions of so-called self-rule only further undercut more communitarian projects founded in the basic idea that people can get along just fine without militias. Cartel Land is a distressing film about a distressing time, and the filmmaker refuses to believe things could ever get better.