Cartel Land follows, with a remarkable degree of access, two different vigilante groups – the Autodefensas, a citizen’s group in Michoacán fighting against the cartels, and Arizona Border Recon, a small group patrolling the US-Mexican border. Akin to a straight profile piece, the documentary addresses the rise of each group and their inner workings.
Dr José Mireles started the Autodefensas in his own town to drive out the Knights Templar drug cartel. He then decided to move on to the next town and the town after that, often coming in armed and uninvited and performing raids on the houses of those suspected of having connections to the cartels. Meanwhile, army veteran Tim Foley has set up a small group who patrol the American side of the border, trying to catch cartels smuggling drugs into the US. Both groups need all the help they can get, which means that they do not delve too far into the motivations of their volunteers.
Cartel Land shows a fairly comprehensive picture of the Autodefensas, the main focus of the film, moving as it does from the hope of the Autodefensas’ early successes through to its inevitable corruption at the hands of both the cartels and the police. There are shorter sequences with Arizona Border Recon and even shorter sequences with a group of meth cooks. The aim of the film is to reveal how complicit everyone is in the drugs trade. The armies and governments on both sides of the border, the paramilitaries, the vigilantes, the cooks and the cartels are interconnected. The film closes as it opens with an interview with a meth cook, who learnt his trade from American chemists and whose biggest customer base is American citizens. At the end of the film, in a shocking reveal, with see also that he is wearing the official uniform of the Mexican security services. Cartel Land then is an exposé that reveals the problems inherent in Mexico and the US’ War on Drugs. It also has incredible access to the Autodefensas, creating such a full picture of the group’s rise and fall that it often feels like fiction filmmaking. However, the film isn’t without its problems.
As with The Act of Killing, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that the film is complicit in the crimes that it depicts. When the Autodefensas capture one high-level cartel member, he is beaten before our eyes, with many of the Autodefensas members seeming to play up to the camera. When the group controversially raid houses, the camera goes right in after them. Elsewhere, the film takes us into the Autodefensas’ base where they engage in torture right before our eyes. Worst of all is a sequence in which the members come under fire whilst inside a car – the camera is of course also inside the car. They run down a car with a similar description to the one that attacked them, bringing out a man and his family. Before the eyes of the family, this man is taken away. We watch as he is questioned in the back of the car, a gun to his head. While it would be naïve to suggest that these things would not have happened without the camera’s presence, it is hard not to imagine that the camera’s very presence is only making things worse for the people we see getting abused. The film does not offer any insight into how this access was granted and what the Autodefensas intend to get out of all of this.
Another issue with the film is its structure. The film examines two vigilante groups, one Mexican and one American, but we are never sure quite what has been gained by their comparison or juxtaposition. The story of the Autodefensas is of a grassroots movement that begins in reaction to a series of horrendous murders and spreads, corrupting itself and harassing the citizens. Meanwhile, Arizona Border Recon is a small group, without a clear purpose and without a clear enemy. The one group of Mexicans that we see them detain are only working people attempting to immigrate. Their members are less knowledgeable of the wider context of the drug war, more ideologically suspect and, ultimately, a lot less open to corruption. The film does give a picture of the near impossible battle to be fought against corruption and drugs in both Mexico and America, but there seems to be little value in comparing two so different groups. Meanwhile, the interviews and revelations of the meth cooks that bookend the film add some important context, but nothing important of the story of these two paramilitary groups.
Cartel Land then is a well-produced action movie style documentary with an important view on the drug war and the border war. It has fantastic access to both groups. However, it doesn’t hang together where a more sober and complex analysis might have done and it does not get away from questions of complicity. Like many documentaries these days, it is a dirty picture of a dirty war.