REVIEW: Cartel Land [2015]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: July 3rd, 2015 (USA)
Studio: The Orchard
Director(s): Matthew Heineman

“As long as He allows it, we will make drugs”

With the success of “Breaking Bad” on TV, Sicario in theaters, and wannabe politicians like Donald Trump on the campaign trial, now’s the perfect time for Matthew Heineman‘s documentary Cartel Land. But while it begins as a glimpse at the vigilante militias forming on both sides of the US/Mexico border to show the troubles citizens face every day as a result of the drug cartels in a way that makes us want to join the fight and help keep illegals out of our country, it ends up presenting a pretty good moral case to let them in with open arms. We can only witness so much uncensored violence and dismemberment before realizing this issue must be looked at on a human level beyond politics and thinly veiled racism.

To do this the film delivers parallel stories of two idealistic rebels working to protect their homes in Dr. José Manuel Mireles of Michoacán-based Autodefensas and Tim “Nailer” Foley of the Arizona Border Recon. Both men sought to form and lead their organizations upon seeing that their governments were doing nothing to stop the corruption and abuse being practiced by the cartels. What drove them to this point, however, differs greatly simply because of what nation they lay their heads. Whereas Foley bounced around city to city seeking work in construction only to notice the number of illegals taking those jobs from him, Mireles’ goals were seemingly pure and selfless. The former looked to “take back his country” while the latter hoped to protect his.

Just because their journeys differ, however, doesn’t mean they aren’t similarly motivated or just. Foley didn’t begin that way, but he eventually saw it wasn’t the illegals themselves who were the problem. The cartels were the ones smuggling them in with drugs and guns. Unfortunately, while he adapted and evolved to see the real enemy, not everyone on his team did. Heineman has no trouble showing the bigots under his leadership—those with the mindset that “two different races shouldn’t coexist in the same land” as though America’s history of invading a foreign race (Native Americans) and bringing another as slaves never occurred. Foley is quick to say he doesn’t agree with all the reasons his men fight; he’s just happy they’ve arrived to help.

Mireles’ isn’t without his recruitment problems either once the men he’s given guns to become as ruthless and violent as the cartels they oppose. But isn’t that how it goes? Absolute power corrupts absolutely and when you battle “legal” authorities—even for the right reasons—you form a gang as volatile as those wreaking havoc simply because you also exist outside the law. Looking at the Autodefensas’ war shows a rebellion with the capacity to change a nation and give a scared populace confidence and hope in a safer future. But it also shows an entity embracing its power so much that the government can diffuse it with legitimization. Mireles’ men fight corruption only to join because it means their guns are legal and the adrenaline rush sanctioned.

It’s impossible to look away from the evolution of the Autodefensas because it happens so swiftly. Where cities overrun by the Knights Templar Cartel welcomed them with open arms at the beginning, those deeper into Michoacán without as bad a problem start to speak against them because their former peace has now become populated by vigilantes they didn’t need. An assassination attempt on leadership is thought to have occurred and you wonder if it was the cartel, the government, or perhaps the Autodefensas itself looking to usurp Mireles’ purity in rebellion so it may be replaced by greed. Not that Mireles is a saint himself: Heineman keeps secrets about him from view until the implosion too. What do you expect from a nation whose policemen moonlight cooking meth?

The inner-workings of this battle in Michoacán is so complex that you can’t help yourself from getting bored with Foley and the fight along the fence in Arizona. Heineman’s goal from the start was to show the two sides, but they never converge at any point. Mireles is fighting pretty far south, nowhere near the border, so there’s no overlap despite each bringing the pain to the cartels. This means Foley’s story needs to stand on its own, but it struggles doing so until around halfway through. I blame the fact that we never see what brought him to Arizona. He speaks about illegals overrunning the country, but there’s no evidence such statements are anything but racist, self-serving comments. We’re supposed to take him at his word.

We can do this to a point (he doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later, but instead captures and turns over), but what’s he really doing? A couple scouts and coyotes are taken off the board. These aren’t people killing for no good reason. There must be a better way. While I get the government isn’t delivering one and therefore forcing citizens to take it upon themselves, the need isn’t as time sensitive as in Michoacán. Mireles and his men are victims with family and friends murdered by those they seek. The cartels are a malignant cancer there, moving fast with impunity. It’s already a warzone the Autodefensas simply joined to protect the innocents. You could argue it’s Foley’s group that’s making Arizona’s border into its battlefield.

And this is where I wonder whether Heineman has actually molded Foley’s compassion and the Autodefensas’ corruption into an argument for better immigration policies. Just as Foley realizes the men taking his jobs aren’t violent, so too should the nation. These people are literally running for their lives as civilians mowed down in Mexico for not paying bribes to those “in charge” while the government is paid off to look the other way. Maybe if we found a safer, legal way to give them refuge there wouldn’t be as many aliens coming with the cartel’s assistance. They do so because they have no other choice—the same as Mireles and Foley’s fight. This whole situation is comprised of those with backs against the wall. Survival is inherently brutal.

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