Movie Review: Cartel Land Investigates Vigilantism on the Mexican Border

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One of the year’s most important documentaries, Cartel Land is so difficult to get a handle on that I’ve struggled with my own responses for weeks, and even now I hesitate to put them out there. It’s a film that centers on vigilantism on the U.S.-Mexican border and deep within Mexico itself, where some citizens take up arms against the drug cartels that murder people willy-nilly, often with macabre exhibitionism. What’s difficult to parse is director Matthew Heineman’s attitude toward his subject — one question being whether it needs parsing or whether we should be grateful that Heineman has just put everything out there.

The first thing to say, though, is that while vigilantism is one of the most prominent themes in American culture and has been since the country’s founding, it hasn’t manifested itself much in the real world — and only then in demonstrably terrible ways, as in Ku Klux Klan lynchings. (The Klan was the hero of Birth of a Nation, one of the seminal American movies.) In popular culture, Nixon’s America had Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and, as the end of that presidency neared, Charles Bronson in Death Wish, both explicit reactions to the crumbling of cities and the Great Society’s emphasis on shifting blame for minority crime from personal responsibility to social inequality. The floodgates then opened in movies (and eventually TV) for heroes to pursue private agendas, acting as judge, jury, and executioner in the presence of unambiguous evil. But the truly righteous vigilante (as opposed to lone nuts like Bernie Goetz or sundry psychopathic terrorists and assassins) remains a figure of fantasy.

Cartel Land is about people who translate that fantasy into reality, and Heineman begins from a position of sympathy. (That the distributor has hyped the machismo-worshipping Kathryn Bigelow as an executive producer is not a coincidence.) The film opens with Mexicans cooking crystal meth in the desert, telling Heineman that they know their product wreaks havoc in the U.S., but, hey, it’s business. The scene has two functions: to show that these men, while human, have no moral compass, and to suggest that Heineman himself has the cojones to risk going where few gringos have gone before.

Then he introduces one of his two protagonists: veteran Tim "Nailer" Foley, who runs a paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon that roams Arizona’s Altar Valley looking for both people who attempt to cross over illegally and drug smugglers. Foley complains that vigilantism has a bad name in the media and that what he and his makeshift squadron do is protect the U.S. in the absence of effective government policing. He rejects the Southern Poverty Law Center’s label of Arizona Border Recon as an “extremist hate group.”

It’s to Foley’s credit that what began as an attempt to keep immigrants out of the country became also a mission to capture cartel-employed smugglers. But that doesn’t mean that he and his men are going to stop rounding up scared, haggard families at gunpoint. One man does say that when you put two races in the same country, you can’t “expect them to get along,” but Heineman otherwise refrains from probing the political inclinations of these men too deeply. I imagine some of us would lose our sympathy too quickly if we heard their thoughts on Obama, the Second Amendment, the role of government, etc.

More of Cartel Land — the most compelling footage — happens in the Mexican state of Michoacán, the “gates of hell” where physician José Mireles becomes a national hero for creating a citizen group called the Autodefensas to take on the Knights Templar drug cartel. Our first glimpse of the Autodefensas comes after we hear about an entire farm-worker family, including an infant, gruesomely murdered by the Knights Templar in retaliation for their employer’s refusal to pay up. The even-tempered, exceedingly rational “El Doctor” seems more laudable than Eastwood and Bronson combined, especially in light of the Mexican government’s notorious ineptitude and corruption.

Cartel Land chronicles the disintegration of the Autodefensas and the power of “El Doctor,” which begins while Mireles is recovering from a plane crash that might have been an assassination attempt. Some of his vigilantes become nearly as brutal as the cartels — and become allegedly allied with those cartels in a startling twist. Two especially loathsome creatures — one called El Gordo, the other a smiling little man known as Papa Smurf — are decorated by the regional governor for helping to make the Autodefensas part of a government-cartel coalition. My fantasy of "Nailer" Foley and his men heading to Michoacán to help out — just like the Expendables! — is a nonstarter. Heineman shows an article on Mireles to Foley, who nods in approval and says he hopes the Autodefensas will “kick some ass.” But would his men enjoy an alliance with Mexicans — any Mexicans?

Just as Bigelow got caught up in the excitement of the Bin Laden hunt (I’ve heard experts say that Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal drank the CIA’s Kool-Aid), Heineman clearly loves rushing after the U.S. vigilantes through the desert with night-vision lenses — it’s great movie fodder. He lets the question hang whether vigilante groups are inherently destined to become quasi-fascist entities or whether the Autodefensas only did in this particular case. He doesn’t follow up on the fates of accused Knights Templar members, among them a man whose young daughter breaks down as her father is handcuffed, weeping and insisting that she’ll get a knife and kill herself — one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever seen. His position seems to be that in the absence of government, citizens have every right to take arms against threats to their society. Most Americans, I suspect, would agree, though it’s an open question whether individuals can be trusted to decide what exactly constitutes a threat.

That said, that Cartel Land even calls this question makes it vital to our national dialogue. I think even setting it down next to The Expendables is useful, insofar as it makes vivid the gulf between our collective fantasies (if not wet dreams) of vigilante heroism and how they might translate into action on the ground. If you come away not knowing what to think, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing after all.