Cartel Land, Matthew Heinemann’s gripping third documentary examines vigilantism, the so-called war on drugs and the break down of state authority on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Unintentionally or otherwise, it is also a powerful depiction of the nature of masculinity in conflict zones.
The story focuses on two men on either side of the border. Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley has been a survivor of child abuse, a drug addict and a hard working family man, in that order, before the 2008 recession capsized his economic hopes and eventually led him to the US side of the Arizona border with Mexico. There he began a one-man effort to prevent the spread of human and drug trafficking onto America soil, which has slowly attracted other followers, largely men, but also a few women, who share his concerns.
Charismatic surgeon Dr. Jose Mireles leads a vigilante movement known as Autodefensa in a fight against a vicious drug cartel known as Knights Templar that has infected every aspect of the poor central Mexican province of Michoacan. What started off as Mireles and a few of his neighbours deciding it is better to risk death fighting than passively accept the slow motion annihilation promised by the cartel, has snow balled into a major movement. Heinemann shows Mireles and his forces battling to take over towns controlled by the cartel and, literally, being welcomed as liberators by the local population.
His success results in push back by the state authorities, unnerved by the presence of a popular and armed alternative to their legitimacy. It also sees Mireles nearly killed in a plane crash, a probable cartel assassination attempt. With Mireles temporarily out of action, leadership of the Autodefensa falls to his untrustworthy lieutenant, known as ‘Papa Smurf’. Accusations arise of Autodefensa members harassing local women in towns they have ‘liberated’, stealing property and acting like thugs. Worse, rumours start to circulate of cartel infiltration of the movement.
Not surprisingly, the heavy lifting in Cartel Land occurs via the Mexican side of the story. While a collection of disaffected white men patrol the arid region along the border in search of unfortunate immigrants, in Mexico, Mireles is engaged, quite literally, in a battle to the death, as demonstrated by what appears to be secretly recorded sound of Mireles instructing members of the Autodefensa to kill a captured cartel member. But while the US side of the story is far less riveting, it serves as an important counterpoint to the story.
The cinema verite nature of the documentary means that we are only getting a thin slice of what is happening and more questions are raised than answers. How is Foley able to operate an extra legal paramilitary force that appears to cooperate with US police? Is there any validity to the accusations that cartel has infiltrated the Autodefensa? Who is good, who is bad, do these terms mean anything in such a complex and bloody situation?
Heinemann only touches on the fact that if there was no US demand for narcotics and the cheap labour supplied by human trafficking, the cartels would be in a much weaker position. It is also important to emphasises how most of the armed participants on all sides of the conflict, and all the leaders, are men and flawed men at that.
Mireles is immensely charismatic. He also has a huge ego and a major character weakness, which Heinemann reveals in an excruciating scene. Despite some of his views and the fact that he operates a heavily armed extra legal vigilante force, Foley doesn’t come across as particularly dislikeable. He’s not a blowhard rightwing shock jock. At the risk of psychoanalysing his motives, he comes across as someone who has had a tough life, was looking for a cause he could dedicate himself to, and found it playing soldier on the Mexican border.
Both Mireles and Foley are damaged and reacting to what they view as untenable situations, violence and economic dislocation in which the state has largely ceded control to dehumanising forces.
The final word goes to the anonymous cartel member who allows Heinemann to film a meth cook. He tells Heinemann that economic forces have limited their choices in life. “If we were doing well, we would be like you.”