Director: Matthew Heineman
MPAA Rating: (for violent disturbing images, language, drug content and brief sexual material)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 7/3/15 (limited); 7/10/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 2, 2015
Director Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land is a brave exercise in and a fascinating piece of journalism. The film documents the rise and fall of a citizen-led rebellion against one of the major drug cartels in Mexico. The group rises to prominence because of necessity, and its fall is brought about by a combination of arrogance, a lack of set rules and oversight, poor organization, and the inevitable result when people gain absolute power. The downfall starts, as always, with a few lapses in moral judgment as a means to better achieve their goal, and by the end, they are just as bad as the people they had set out to fight. Arguably, they might be worse.
Heineman and his crew follow this group over the course of about a year, entrenching themselves into the organization to get a firsthand look at its politics and vigilante techniques. The camera watches them raid the homes and hideouts of suspected cartel soldiers and leaders. It darts back behind and forth from the walls protecting the filmmakers from a firefight. It may not capture the most obvious moments of the group's corruption, but it doesn't need to when the leader leaves on his microphone during incriminating moments.
The leader is José Mireles, a doctor from a town within the state of Michoacán. For 12 years, he has seen the Knights Templar cartel ruin lives, destroy families, and murder innocent people. They hang their victims in the street or leave decapitated heads in full view of the neighbors.
After a brief prologue in which methamphetamine cooks rationalize their work (They live in poverty, and since no one seems to want to stop the drug trade, why not take advantage of it?), we learn of a mass murder orchestrated by the cartel because a farmer could not pay his "taxes" to the criminals. They got their revenge by killing his employees. Fifteen people were killed—13 of them from one family.
In the face of such horrors, Mireles sounds, at first, like the only sane man in an insane place. It's a poorly-kept secret that the police and government are tied to the cartels, so Mireles and other members of the community decide to take up arms and fight the criminals. They call themselves the Autodefensas, and within a few months, they have removed the presence of the cartels from about half of the state.
Objectivity in reporting—especially on a topic as expansive and infuriating-on-multiple-levels as this one—is infamously difficult to attain, but Heineman comes about as close as one could expect. We spend about a quarter of the film under the assumption that he is in favor of the Autodefensas and their methods. We spend another quarter believing he has doubts, and we spend the rest of the film certain that he has simply given up hope on any progress being made.
Mireles is an utterly bewildering subject, and Heineman gives him his due for better and for worse. There is no doubt that he is a man of conviction and that he appears to have pure intentions: to save ordinary people from "the gates of Hell." Even when the Autodefensas are accused of corruption and illegal activities similar to ones cartel members have perpetrated, he is convinced that the cartels have infiltrated the group to give them a bad name. We might think that, too, save for the fact that, in a chilling scene, Mireles orders one of his men to execute a suspect, lest the police release him later. Perhaps the group is simply corrupt without any outside aid.
There are actually two stories here, although the second ultimately undermines the film's potential through its unclear thesis. In that story, we see another vigilante group in Arizona, right along the border of the United States and Mexico. The leader of Arizona Border Recon also purports to be fighting the drug cartels as their activity spreads across the border, leading to occasional violence. Ostensibly, both groups do what they do with good intentions.
This group's connection to the one in Mexico, though, begins and ends there, and that's both to its benefit and an indictment against it. On the positive side, this group isn't anywhere near as dangerous as the other, although Heineman seems to be suggesting that it could be the case in the future if the organization is left unchecked. On the other hand, this group shows its corruption to be ideological.
Tim Foley, the militia's leader, insists that he isn't a racist. He admits that he might allow people whose opinion he doesn't agree with into his group (Sure enough, Heineman doesn't have to look too deep into the ranks to find a bona fide racist). Foley himself says he started the militia because he wasn't happy about losing job opportunities to "illegal immigrants" (He somehow knows their citizenship status). The spread of the cartels gives them a façade of legitimacy.
Both the Autodefensas and the Arizona Border Recon parties are poisonous to one degree or another and display some deep failings on the part of societies that would lead to their creation. Still, it isn't exactly fair for Heineman to make the connection, and for the majority of the scenes in Arizona, we are left wondering how the director will tie them together. There's an obscure attempt to note Foley's lack of self-awareness about what his organization could potentially become, but that's a hypothetical.
Fortunately, the bulk of the film's attention is with Mireles and the Autodefensas, and Heineman seemingly has unfettered access to everything. They even allow him to film inside an extrajudicial prison, where suspects are detained and tortured on the slimmest of evidence. One wonders how they possibly could have thought that allowing exposure of such practices would be a good idea. That's the problem Cartel Land witnesses: They believe, without question, that the entire enterprise is a good idea.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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