Perhaps the single most important factor explaining the power of organized crime in Mexico is government dysfunction. It is appropriate, then, that official missteps are the mostly unspoken core of “Cartel Land,” a new documentary from Matthew Heineman that divides its time between a vigilante group in Arizona and the self-defense militias of Michoacan.
The star of the movie is José Manuel Mireles, the Michoacan physician who founded the self-defense groups in Michoacan in 2013 and proceeded to run the Knights Templar drug cartel out of one town after another.
In Heineman’s portrayal, Mireles comes across as a fundamentally decent man undertaking a fundamentally good challenge; he feels like a genuine hero. The film tracks how Mireles’ sudden rise to prominence is ultimately undone by a combination of factors — his own ambition and missteps, sabotage and lack of commitment from within his group, and government co-option. Mireles is now imprisoned on weapons charges in a federal facility in Sonora. While he was reportedly on the verge of being released this summer after Mexico’s Justice Department dropped the original weapons charges, a new sentence issued weeks later means he will remain behind bars for the foreseeable future.
The officials who periodically drop into “Cartel Land” — whether local army commanders, Michoacan’s federal security czar Alfredo Castillo, or President Enrique Peña Nieto — come across as puppeteers who are dumbfounded when the puppets refuse to move as instructed. When one of Mireles’ subordinates labels the president a “pendejo” (roughly translated as dumbass) during a speech on Michoacan that was particularly divorced from reality, it is hard to disagree. Peña Nieto’s and Castillo’s public comments on the issue are trite and meaningless — at times going so far as to insult the intelligence of the people listening.
Overall, officials’ appearances leave viewers with the impression that they are either deluded or corrupt. In responding to the vigilantes, the government is only searching for easy alternatives to a status quo that threatens to relegate it to the sidelines, rather than paying anything more than lip service to the grievances that gave rise to the militias.
The film’s portrayal is profoundly discouraging and pessimistic. One character talks of breaking the cycle, but there is no evidence that this is remotely plausible in Mexico. Loosening the grip that organized crime has on communities in places like Michoacan will require diligence and determination from the government at all levels. As is made clear in “Cartel Land,” and in countless other pieces of reportage and analysis, such an official commitment doesn’t exist.
As disheartening as the film’s message is, it is nonetheless an exhilarating work born of the astonishing access secured by Heineman. Seemingly attached to the hip of Mireles and his subordinates for months at a time, Heineman captured several gunfights between purported members of the Knights Templar and the vigilantes, which are far more gripping in their chaos and palpable sense of panic than any acrobatic slow-motion set piece emerging from Hollywood studios.
Though the topic delves into depravity, “Cartel Land” displays an abundance of humanity.
Many of the movie’s most jarring and memorable moments occur when the militias manage to arrest their adversaries. At one point, this brings a vigilante face to face with the author of a massacre who killed his uncle. Later, a young girl becomes hysterical as the militiamen insist on taking her father away for interrogation. Another sequence at an ad hoc interrogation center, repeatedly interrupted by off camera screams, overflows with anxiety.
Though the topic delves into depravity, “Cartel Land” displays an abundance of humanity. The combination of fear, anger and feelings of impotence that motivates Mireles’ supporters is overwhelming. It will surely strike a chord with anyone who has lived in a city overrun by criminal groups and is the emotional wellspring that generates the subsequent satisfaction when Mireles’ successes manifest themselves.
At the same time, any demonization of the Templars is fleeting. The two scenes of interviews with Templar meth cooks, which serve as bookends framing the rest of the picture, portray them as pawns who are justifiably (albeit problematically) looking for a way to improve their material well-being. Over and over again, we see people committing acts of aggression big and small for reasons that are entirely understandable.
And most human of all is Mireles, a charismatic string bean of a man with an enormous gray moustache. He is not without his flaws; we see him carry on an affair with a woman decades younger, earning the ire of his wife in the process, and at one point he appears to order the summary execution of a Knight. But he is a fascinating onscreen presence, a figure who is as compelling while talking security with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder as he is when treating patients for stomach ailments.
There are fair complaints to be made about the film. Heineman’s sympathies may be a bit too evident for some, and others may complain that he presents little about the situation that was not already known. He undersells the inevitability of the vigilantes’ demise, treating it as the avoidable product of human failures. He also arguably fails to fully grapple with the disaster that the militias’ emergence represented for the rule of law and the strength of Mexican institutions. In particular, the Arizona border vigilantes fail to justify the substantial screen time they receive. Their misguided and occasionally racist motivations will repel many viewers, but the biggest problem is that, in comparison to Mireles and the Mexican militias, their essentially fruitless forays through the Arizona brush are simply boring.
But measured against the movie’s strengths, these are mere nits. “Cartel Land” is a stunning work and is among the most vivid depictions of organized crime and its effects on Mexico in any medium.