Film Review: Cartel Land – Competitive Control, Vigilante Justice and Autodefensas
John P. Sullivan, Khirin A. Bunker and Robert J. Bunker
Written and directed by Matthew Heineman, “Cartel Land” (run-time 98 min.)—also available in Spanish as “Tierra de carteles,” is a timely and graphic documentary chronicling the extreme violence and conflict between drug cartels and the state in Mexico. Specifically, the documentary tracks the rise of contemporary vigilante groups that face drug cartels on both sides of the frontier. From a production team with experience documenting contemporary conflict—including Executive Producer Kathryn Bigelow (producer-director of “Zero Dark Thirty” and Oscar winning “The Hurt Locker”), the stage is set to explore the rise of vigilantes in Mexico’s drug war zone. Their efforts paid off and the film tells an important story of the battles for security and turf being waged throughout Mexico and much of Latin America.
Drug cartels are clearly a significant security threat in Mexico and the documentary effectively illustrates this threat. Director Matthew Heineman indeed shows how Michoacán became “Cartel Land,” an area dominated by warring drug cartels, gangs, and corrupt police. In Michoacán, he follows the rise and fall of the autodefensas (self-defense) movement led by Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde. Mireles—aka ‘El Doctor’—emerged as the iconic leader of the autodefensas movement in the municipios of coastal Michoacán, notably Apatzingán and Tepalcatepec.
In the film, the significant rise of Mireles and the autodefensas in the Tierra Caliente is juxtaposed with the case of the Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary citizen’s border patrol unit led by Tim “Nailer” Foley. While the parallels show the ascendancy of new non-state security actors rising from the cartel’s illicit flows and competition with the state, the situation along the border is somewhat tame when compared with the outright lawlessness in Michoacán. Moreover, the Arizona Border Recon appears to have mixed motives in patrolling the border, with one member advocating for a complete separation of races.
Mireles addresses a crowd in Michoacán in an attempt to recruit and garner public support for the autodefensas
In Mexico, the documentary follows the rise of the autodefensas as a reaction to extreme violence and barbarism by the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios). The film depicts the aftermath of the brutal killing of an entire family, including young children, as the impetus for community self defense. Mireles himself had been previously kidnapped by the Templarios and several members of his family had been murdered. The rise of the autodefensas (Grupos de Autodefensa Comunitaria, also known as comunitarias) came about after a period of extreme insecurity in areas of Mexico led to a vacuum of power. Coming out of this struggle, the Templarios themselves were the latest gangster splinter group having roots in the Michoacán Family (La Familia Michoacana) who had themselves split from the Zetas. The film shows Mireles and his lieutenant, Estanislao Beltrán (Papa Pitufo ‘Papa Smurf’), pacifying the region. Running gun battles with cartel sicarios are punctuated with scenes of ineffective police and military intervention. Graphic footage of cartel activity and political rallies is interspersed with ride-alongs and interviews of autodefensas and gangsters while they are brewing methamphetamine.
Essentially, the film validates the concept of “competitive control” articulated by David Kilcullen in Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla wherein narcos, vigilantes, and elements of the police compete for control of turf and the monopoly of violence in an area characterized by insecurity and impunity or a state of criminal insurgency as seen in Ioan Grillo’s El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. The chronic insecurity led to what essentially amounts to an uprising by the autodefensas. This is seen in rising public support for the autodefensas, but also by the increase in impunity when the autodefensas adopt a hard line; such as when Mireles alludes to what amounts to an order for an off camera extrajudicial execution (effectively a violation of both Mexican law, and in the case of internal conflicts, Article 3—common to the four Geneva Conventions). The rise of Mireles and his autodefensas is stalled and then effectively checked when he is injured in a plane crash, followed by the Federal government’s move to establish a Fuerza Rural (Rural Force). As a result of this governmental shift, leadership of the autodefensas distanced themselves from Mireles. Following a meeting between local leaders of the autodefensas, Mireles remarks that they are “fucking each other under the table” in regards to mixed loyalties and mounting corruption within the group. Soon after, there is a split amongst the leadership with those who joined the Fuerza Rural receiving amnesty while eventually Mireles, along with 45 followers, is arrested.
Further, Mireles’ home life has also imploded, with his wife of many years separating from him and taking their children with her after he blatantly pursues a young female supporter, part of which is caught on camera to the utter astonishment of the reviewers. The image of Dr. Mireles as a saint—a healer and protector of the community—with that of a sinner—a womanizer and involved in extrajudicial justice—makes for a complex character that can be considered a noble yet simultaneously flawed personage.
The film suggests that many of the new paramilitary Rurales, like some corrupt police, are cartel gangsters and sicarios who use their position as cover for cartel activities. In multiple scenes in the film, members of the autodefensas are shown in possession of gold-plated handguns, in the style of those prominent among high-ranking cartel members. In another scene, a link to the ‘Viagra’ cartel is strongly indicated in conversation with leaders of the autodefensas who have since joined with the Rural Forces.
“Cartel Land” won the Sundance 2015 Directing and Cinematography Awards for U.S. Documentary. It is likely to win additional awards but, like all documentaries, its significance transcends cinematography as it tells an important story. Drug cartels and gangsters victimize people. Impunity and violence challenge, and at times co-opt, the state. These threats demand action. This film helps tell the story necessary to forge that action.