Released last week, Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land has been roundly lauded for its harrowing, on-the-ground chronicle of the Mexican drug war. Heineman trains his lens on two vigilante groups. One is the Arizona Border Recon (ABR), a small militia-like force that patrols the Arizona/Mexico border led by veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley. The other is a much larger Michoacan vigilante organization known as the Autodefensas, led in charismatic fashion by physician Jose Manuel Mireles. Both Foley and Mireles were driven to create their groups by a sense that their respective governments weren’t doing enough to confront drug cartels head on. While Foley and Mireles never meet face-to-face in the film, Heineman joins then narratively to compare and contrast these two faces of vigilantism.
Danger is palpable throughout much of Cartel Land, a testament to Heineman’s embedded approach and his commitment to it. The camera is there in the thick of shootouts and drug raids south of the border, and we’re given ample access to the inner workings of the Autodefensas, both good and bad. Heineman also tags along with Foley in tense and often silent stakeouts to spot border crossers who are purportedly drug mules and/or drug smugglers. (The Arizona Border Recon was originally founded to stop illegal immigrants; the Southern Poverty Law Center considers the ABR an extremist group. Make of that what you will.)
In Manohla Dargis’ mixed/negative review of Cartel Land at The New York Times, she said that for all of Heineman’s bravery behind the camera, he needed to exercise more of directorial point of view about the war on drugs and vigilantism. Heineman has a point of view, though I think it’s quietly articulated in his comparison of the ABR and the Autodefensas, and also the overall narrative trajectory of Cartel Land. The point of view, as it seems to me, is that vigilante groups are ill-suited to address the greater challenges posed by the war on drugs, and that the war of drugs may ultimately be unwinnable (unless you’re a drug cartel).
As vigilantes, Mireles and Foley seem to embody different heroic ideals in order to propel and even legitimize their groups. Mireles is like some romantic revolutionary of old, coming from the common folk and armed with a compelling personal narrative, the proper face for a populist uprising. Watch him make a speech to a crowd besieged by drug violence, see him interact with fellow members of Autodefensas–there’s the air of the charismatic leader, the sort of person who attracts followers through lofty rhetoric and force of will. Mireles’ second-in-command is more like Santa Claus than Che Guevara, and he doesn’t have nearly the same amount of respect or command of the group. Foley, by contrast, seems taken by the Wild West idea of the cowboy and the gunslinger, even citing old-time notions of vigilantism as a way of justice and making it a way of life. (The spirit of the open frontier may be something inherent in the ideologies of most militia or paramilitary groups.) In that regard, Foley and the ABR posse are the only law left when the fellas with tin stars can’t get the job done themselves.
These vigilante and revolutionary ideas are potent fuel for a movement, but they can become complicated by the compromises required to put ideas into meaningful action. That makes up the meat of Cartel Land‘s second half. We first watch the Autodefensas make major strides against the Knights Templar drug cartel in individual raids, but the purity of the group begins to falter as it becomes bigger and better known. Mireles becomes a media figure for the movement, and as a consequence he and his family are placed in real danger by drug cartels looking to retaliate or to strike first before the Autodefensas get to them. Power grabs within the Autodefensas, malfeasance by its members, abuses of power, and increased interest by the Nieto government in co-opting the movement mean that the Autodefensas may be destined to fail regardless of those initial good intentions.
Foley’s group, by contrast, always remains small in scale, and Foley himself never becomes the face of a movement for the media. The operation is small, manageable, and seemingly incorruptible in that regard, but its size means a limited impact on the drug war. The ABR don’t seem to win battles in the war on drugs. They don’t even necessarily win skirmishes, for that matter. It’s unclear what lasting effect they have, if they’re a stone thrown in a lake making ripples, or just hail dropping in a pond and vanishing.
If governments and large institutions are ineffective or ineffectual, and if vigilante groups are either hobbled by growth or limited in impact, what solutions are there to the drug war? Similarly, if there’s a constant demand for drugs, and if cartels will fill their ranks with new members and new leaders when one of their own is incarcerated and killed in order to meet that demand, is the drug war even worth fighting in the current way it’s being fought?
Heineman doesn’t present any solutions, but that’s not a mark against the things Cartel Land does so well, which is to say its embedded journalism. Documentaries aren’t always meant to answer questions. If they can, that’s great, but like good philosophers, the primary role of a documentary filmmaker may be to ask the right questions, or to reframe the questions we’ve been asking, or to reconsider the underlying reasons we ask the questions that we ask.
Eric Kohn points out something important in his Cartel Land review at IndieWire. The film opens with Heinemen watching masked men cook meth in the nighttime. The meth cook says he knows that the drugs will harm people when they’re smuggled over the border. That admission seems to acknowledge that the cartel violence in Mexico claims innocent lives and he knows it’s just part of the trade. Later in Cartel Land, we hear some of these stories. There’s one about babies being murdered, and one about laborers killed at a lime farm because the landowner didn’t pay a cartel protection money.
“But what are we going to do?” the meth cook asks. “We come from poverty.”