I am not quite sure how I feel about Cartel Land, a documentary film I watched last night. The film follows two groups of vigilantes, one on the U.S. side of the Arizona-Mexico border and one deep inside the Mexican state of Michoacán, with considerably more footage devoted to the Mexican group.
From one perspective, I think I have a better understanding of the frustrations of the “leader” of the American paramilitary group that’s ostensibly trying to seal the border against a flood of illegal immigrants and drug-human traffickers and, ultimately, the spilling of cartel activities into Arizona’s Altar Valley. That having been said, the leader of the group, Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley strikes me as a committed right-wing narcissist more dedicated to his own aggrandizement and gathering support for his personal political views than to truly solving a problem.
However, from another perspective, I feel much greater empathy for the Mexicans’ uprising against the Knights Templar drug cartel that so devastated the cities and towns of Michoacán. However, the leader of that group (the Autodefensas), a doctor named Manuel Mireles, seems to allow his own growing fame to overtake his good sense from time to time. But Mireles was successful in organizing locals to come to their own defense and he successfully (except, in the end, for himself) showed communities they have a chance against the cartel; as long as corrupt government agents don’t stand in their way.
While telling the story of both groups would require more time and energy than I am prepared to give this morning, suffice it to say that the documentary offers enough insights to both that the viewer is apt to finish the film with deeply mixed feelings. Both Nailer and Mireles are portrayed, through what I can only describe as an astonishingly honest lens, as dedicated to a cause in which each believes deeply. Yet both of them are filmed without blinders; each has his own personal agenda that, unfortunately, transcends the goals he suggests drive his actions.
Mireles’ arrest and imprisonment in Mexico sounds to me like he became a victim not only of his own self-importance but of a corrupt and impossible-to-successfully-fight Mexican government/bureaucracy. Foley continues to sell his fanaticism (I learned on doing some checking after viewing the documentary) online through his Facebook page and in other ways fed, in part, by his documentary “fame.”
Ultimately, the film left me deeply sad. I see no possibility of solutions that would turn the tide so that both sides of the border can move on from such horrendous ugliness. The cartels will continue to terrorize Mexicans and move drugs and people to the U.S. The Arizona Border Recon (Foley’s group) will continue its paramilitary activities and will be ceaseless in blathering its right-wing propaganda. However, I finished the film with gratitude that the director had sufficient enthusiasm to make it.
After watching Cartel Land (which I stumbled across on Netflix while looking for something of interest to watch), I learned that the director, Matthew Heineman and the film (and others involved in its making) have received various awards since its debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.