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Review: Cartel Land (2015)

Cartel Land (2015)

Directed by: Matthew Heineman

Premise: A documentary about drug related violence in Mexico. The film profiles armed civilian groups on both sides of the U.S.A.-Mexico border who are fighting back against the cartels.
What Works: Cartel Land takes a street level view of the drug violence in Mexico and the response to it by armed civilians. The film alternates between American militiamen patrolling the United States’ side of the border and a Mexican group, knowns as the Autodefensas, operating in Michoacan. Of the two groups, the Mexican militia is given more considered treatment and they have the more compelling story. The filmmakers establish the terrible violence perpetuated on Mexican towns and villages by the cartels and show how a group of armed civilians banded together to drive the cartels out. The public face of the Autodefensas is Jose Manuel Mireles, a charismatic doctor who organizes the Mexican civilians and rallies the citizens to resist the cartels. Mireles is a fascinating figure but he’s simultaneously the Mexican militia’s greatest asset and greatest liability; when he’s temporarily forced out of public life due to an injury the tenuous alliance begins to fall apart. Cartel Land is well shot and contains some extraordinary footage. At one point the Mexican authorities show up to stop and disarm the Autodefensas and the community rallies to the militia’s defense, running the authorities out of town. But at another stop, a spokesman for the Autodefensas is berated by other civilians who question the legitimacy of what they are doing. And it is in this respect that Cartel Land is about more than the immediate issues of drugs and illegal immigration. This documentary captures something profound about society and government and rule of law. The vigilantes are outlaws and the moral distinction between them and the cartels is sometimes slippery. But the militiamen, particularly the Mexican Autodefensas, are responding to institutions that have failed them. This film captures the crisis of authority that plagues contemporary society.

What Doesn’t: Cartel Land is a movie about vigilantism and the structure of the movie draws a parallel between the Mexican and American civilian groups. This is a false equivalence. In Mexico, cartel violence is an immediate threat and these criminal organizations have corrupted the government and infiltrated law enforcement. The American side of the border has state sanctioned border patrols and antinarcotics groups that, while far from perfect, retain their integrity and operate under the oversight of legitimate democratic institutions. The irony of Cartel Land is that this issue is addressed in the Mexican section of the film but not in the United States portions. Also, as seen in this documentary, the American civilian border patrols have been called racist organizations and indeed some of the militiamen interviewed in Cartel Land espouse white supremacist views. The filmmakers don’t remark upon that, which is in keeping with the film’s observatory style, but that particular part of this topic merits a deeper examination.

DVD extras: Interviews and a featurette.

Bottom Line: Cartel Land is an extraordinary documentary that provides a stark look at the violence of Mexican drug cartels. But the movie cuts much deeper than that. Cartel Land is a portrait of a society in crisis and how that crisis strains the foundations of a democratic state.

Episode: #708 (July 22, 2018)