Cartel Land: The Drug War Is the Elephant in the Room

Cartel Land
The people of Michoacán grew tired of cartels murdering their families, so they fought back. (Cartel Land)

EspañolWhat would you do if gangs threatened to torture and kill your family? You can’t turn to the police, because they might not be on your side. Would you request help from the state and risk the loss of your loved ones, or would you take up arms against the mobsters?

That is the heart of the matter in Cartel Land, a powerful documentary about two different vigilante movements on both sides of the Mexico-US border. On one side, you have townspeople organizing to kick out drug cartels from their communities; on the other side, self-styled patriots patrolling vast swaths of land and mountains against cartel coyotes.

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While remaining as gripping as any action movie, Cartel Land skews the easy stereotypes and takes the time to know the men and women caught in the middle of a failed drug war. In the Mexican state of Michoacán, a charismatic physician named José Mireles leads the civilian uprising against the vicious Knights Templar cartel, taking back city after city.

In Arizona, a paramilitary group which feels that the US government has failed them begins to “uphold the law” in the desert. But we don’t hear the ugly xenophobic remarks which the mainstream media has accustomed us to. Instead, we hear army veteran Tim Foley explain that his group’s primary goal shifted from grabbing illegal immigrants to “keeping cartel activity out of the country.”

However, it’s hard not to feel more sympathy toward the Mexicans trying to keep their families from being dismembered or burnt alive than toward the American lone wolves who patrol the border in SUVs while speaking about protecting “the nation” in the abstract.

Indeed, award-winning director Matthew Heineman devotes most of the film’s 98 minutes to the rise and fall of Mireles’ Self-Defense Group. The story teaches lessons about self-organizaton and the corrupting nature of power.

Initially, in 2013, the Michoacán militias were received with applause wherever they went. Mireles easily recruited townsfolk and handed them t-shirts and guns. They succeeded in expelling the Knights Templar from 28 municipalities and cities — roughly half the state — in just one year.

One of the most powerful scenes shows how a whole town stood up against the Mexican army, who had come in to confiscate the self-defense group’s weapons. Men, women, and the elderly came out of their houses to block the roads and force soldiers to return the guns.

Dr. José Mireles used to easily convince people to join him. (Cartel Land)
Dr. José Mireles easily convinces people to join his paramilitary group. (Cartel Land)

But the so-called Michoacan Revolution eventually went awry. Mireles is caught on tape ordering what seems to be the execution of a cartel member who had previously been turned in to federal authorities before being released. Leaders began raiding houses, stealing goods, and torturing suspects.

People are bound to make mistakes in such a messy war, but corruption beyond repair became evident after Mireles almost got killed in a mysterious plane crash in early 2014. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto urged the self-defense groups to depose their arms and join a state-sanctioned body called the Rural Police, so the new leadership took the opportunity to negotiate.

When Mireles recovered, the movement had fractured into two opposing camps. Heineman secretly recorded a meeting where leaders claimed President Peña Nieto offered to forgive all their past crimes if they became a “legal” police.

“What about our people? The ones who supported and believed in us? That’s not fair … I don’t trust the federal government,” Mireles is heard saying. He was eventually kicked out of his own movement and went into hiding, afraid that his former companions had put a bounty on his head.

In June 2014, the federal police arrested Mireles and dozens of his supporters and charged them with the illegal possession of guns. Mireles remains in prison to this date although he claims he had a valid permit to carry his gun. He also says that the self-defense groups became just another cartel. In fact, the documentary ends with a drug dealer acknowledging the Rural Police’s involvement in the narcotics trade.

Cartel Land dispels the myth about the drug war being a battle between good and evil more than any recent documentary I have seen. What many commentators and reviews fail to see is that vigilantism is not a phenomenon that arises from an allegedly absent or failed state.

The authorities are very present and aware of what happens in the territories under their control; willingly, they abstain from intervening, which is different. Also, state action is responsible for prohibition, monopolies, gun control, and borders.

In cartel land, the elephant in the room is the senseless drug war. Ending it would relieve both the families struggling to survive violence and the patriot types worried about the exodus of illegal migrants into their country.

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