Heineman explores the morality of citizens taking the law into their own hands and asks, What would you do, if violence and evil comes knocking on your front door?
The film focuses on two different vigilante groups fighting a common enemy in the murderous Mexican cartels on opposite sides of the American/Mexican border. The Autodefensas in Michoacán state, Mexico and Arizona Border Recon in Arizona, USA.
Cartel Land begins with what seems to be the traditional ‘Good vs Evil’ narrative; the white hatted heroes vs the black hatted villains being an apt comparison considering the lawless, wild west nature of rural Mexico. However as the film progresses, the lines between good and evil, right and wrong, vigilante and cartel become increasingly blurred.
The Autodefensas formed in response to the unbearable living conditions under the deadly Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar Cartel), and frustration at the ineffectivity of the authorities to do anything about it. Sick and tired of the violence they have endured and led by the charismatic and courageous, Dr. Jose ‘El Doctor’ Mireles, the Autodefensas aim is to stand up to the cartel and remove them from Michoacán, one town at a time.
Mireles asks: ‘What would you do? Wait for when they come for you? Or defend yourself?’
In an extraordinary moment, Dr Mireles reveals a gruesome photograph of his beheaded neighbours, a grim example of the cartel’s barbarism. Emotional, down the lense testimonials of harrowing acts inflicted by the Knights Templar on the Michoacán people make for captivating, yet difficult viewing. A traumatized and broken woman tells of how her husband was cut up and burned in front of her, the only reason she is alive, a cruel punishment with the knowledge that she has to live the rest of her life with the memory of what she has witnessed.
Heineman captures scenes of the Autodefensas driving into rural towns and with the support of the local people, hunting down and removing cartel members from the community. The filming of the ensuing gun fights as the group chase down criminals is testament to the audacity and courage of Heineman and his crew, as feelings of genuine concern for the filmmakers' safety begin to grow.
However, is it moral for the Autodefensas to do this? It is a difficult question. Although conflicted, it is hard not to take some enjoyment in seeing Mireles lead the people’s fight back against the distinctly evil cartel. As two Templars accused of murder are captured, although nothing absolute happens on camera, it is ultimately known that the culprit's fates are not going to be pleasant. Do they deserve it? Should they be handed over to the often corrupt law enforcement? Is this right? Is this wrong? What would you do?
In response to the group's vigilante actions, the Mexican army descends on one town and removes their weapons; the local people are scared of them they claim. A truly eye opening scene is the apparent success of the infuriated Autodefensas supporting townspeople in forcing the army to give the group their guns back.
The simple ‘Good vs Evil’ narrative changes after Dr. Mireles is severely injured in a plane crash rumoured to be an assassination attempt. The doctor’s second in command, Estanislao Beltran nicknamed ‘Papa Smurf’ due to his large white beard takes over his leadership duties. A meeting headed by Beltran with the people of another town has a very different tone to previous interactions. This time the Autodefensas are not met with smiles and cheers - this time they are met by outraged citizens, they are accused of breaking into peoples homes and stealing property, one furious resident states, ‘We can’t believe in criminals… If we don’t believe in the institutions of the state, we are finished as citizens!’ The metaphorical white hats of the ‘Autodefensas’ seem to take on a greyer tone.
Meanwhile, on the American side of the border former military man and meth user, Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley founder of the Arizona Border Recon patrols the US-mexico border lands with his expanding group of concerned volunteers. Foley left home when he was 15, the result of the physical and emotional abuse he suffered from his father. He abused alcohol and drugs for a period of time before a life changing car accident made him reassess his life and he decided to go clean.
Abstaining from drugs and working construction, he got his life back on track until he lost his job after the American economic downturn. Finding it difficult to find a job and witnessing what he claims to be illegal immigrants working on construction sites, he sold all his possessions and moved to Arizona and began Arizona Border Recon.
Foley’s group patrols Altar Valley, a 52-mile long desert corridor nicknamed ‘Cocaine Alley’ in an attempt to thwart the Mexican cartel’s human and drug trafficking across the border and helping to prevent the violent Mexican drug war seeping into the United States. Foley claims: “There’s an an imaginary line out there between right and wrong, good and evil, I believe what I’m doing is good and I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.”
However, his belief that he is doing good is not believed by all; the Southern Poverty Law Center brands the Arizona Border Recon an ‘Extremist Hate Group’. Foley himself admits that he doesn't always agree with the views of his volunteers but he needs the help. One member states:"You can't put two races in the same nation and expect them to get along." Back in Mexico, it becomes increasingly more disconcerting witnessing the actions of the ‘Autodefensas’, and any line between good and evil becomes barely visible.
A big turning point in the film is the interrogation, some would say torture of a suspected cartel member at ‘Autodefensas’ headquarters, it is particularly uncomfortable viewing as he denies everything over a chorus of bone-chilling screams coming from elsewhere in the building. These are not the good guys anymore, what happened to the doctor’s noble cause?
Recovering from his crash, talking with Beltran, Dr. Mireles orders: ‘We can’t become the criminals we’re fighting against,' however, now questions are raised concerning Mireles himself, his weakness for women presents him as not the flawless leader he may be believed to be. Leaving him for his numerous affairs with women his wife is quoted: “Jose Manuel Mireles is not who we all think he is. He has the same power to convince people that all the best movie characters have.”
Worried by the growing influence of the vigilante movement the Autodefensas are told by the government to give up their weapons and join a federal force known as the Rural Defense Corps. This is rejected by Mireles referring to the government's failure to uphold agreements in the past but it is too late. Mireles is no longer in full control, his say is challenged with others making deals with the government against his wishes. The Autodefensas join the Rural Defense Corps
The film ends with men sporting their government issued Rural Defence Corps uniforms cooking up large batches of crystal meth. This is a bitter pill for the viewer to swallow but perhaps not as bitter as it is for ‘El Doctor.’
In Cartel Land, the drug cartel problem seems to be trapped in an extremely frustrating cycle of violence and suggests that any well intentioned cause in an attempt to tackle it is doomed from inception and destined to be corrupted. Dr. Mireles’ cause seems to have morphed into a government sanctioned drug cartel and success of Foley's intention to protect his country from the cartels seems hopeless unless he welcomes extremists and racists into his ranks.
Unfortunately Cartel Land does not offer any answers, which can feel disheartening, however, it does offer some hope. The drug cartel cycle of violence is mirrored by Foley’s reflection on his troubled relationship with his father. In reference to a meeting his father later on in life and his father’s observation of how well adjusted, and intelligent his grandchildren turned out, Foley shares:‘I told him I had him to thank because everything he did to me, I did the exact opposite, so the cycles can change,’
‘It just takes somebody to change them.’
‘What would you do?’
Cartel Land is being screened at FACT on Tuesday 6 October. Book tickets here.