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.
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.
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.
The legal battle for Galt’s Gulch Chile (GGC), the development project inspired by Ayn Rand’s dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged, is heating up. The case, which dates back to 2012, now has as protagonists a group of investors and former employees of the project who call themselves the GGC Recovery Team. Security-consultant Thomas Baker and marketing-specialist Cathy Cuthbert are two of the investors leading the legal effort against GGC founding-partner Kenneth Dale Johnson. According to the GGC Recovery Team's website, "through a series of fraudulent maneuvers, [Johnson] was able to gain 100% ownership and control of the project and defrauded 73 investor families of [US]$10.45 million." Baker and Cuthbert, supported by lawyers Francis Lackington and Carlos Cáceres, have filed a complaint for fraud against Johnson and partners Mario Del Real Castro and Pamela Del Real Vergara. The criminal charges were accepted on November 24 by the criminal court in Curacaví, Chile. If found guilty, Johnson and the Del Reals could face up to 10 years in prison. “A group of us investors [have] been working diligently for 18 months to resolve our differences with Johnson and negotiate a settlement outside of the criminal courts,” Thomas Baker stated, an investor and GGC Recovery Team member. “When all else failed and our forensic evidence seemed overwhelming, we were regrettably forced to file charges in Chile,” he added. Moreover, Baker asserted that in addition to criminal charges, the GGC Recovery Team submitted a 130-page forensic report on Johnson and GGC to the FBI White Collar Fraud Division, as well as to the IRS Criminal Investigations Division. Ken Johnson Has Another Story For Ken Johnson, however, the story is completely different. In an interview with the PanAm Post back in April, Johnson asserted that a group of "short-sighted and self-serving individuals took illegal possession of the GGC offices, clubhouse, farm and land," in October 2014. According to Johnson, both Baker and Cuthbert were part of the attackers. He further stated that the raiders stole “accounting, bookkeeping, receipts, invoices and corporate files pertaining to most of 2014.” In the same vein, in a recent interview with Chilean newspaper El Mercurio, both Ken Johnson and Mario Del Real accuse each other of irregularities in the management of the project. Nonetheless, there are no clear answers on what the real version of the story is. "We Believe Justice Will Prevail" In an exclusive interview with the PanAm Post, investor and now GGC Recovery Team member Cathy Cuthbert asserted that despite the bickering around the case, she and her colleagues believe justice will be served, although their attorneys suggest that it will take about six months for indictments to be made. Regarding the alleged attack previously mentioned by Johnson, Cuthbert states that the GGC founding partner "is a congenital liar. He lied about this incident." "The truth is that investor Tom Baker, with our friend and advisor E.J. Lashlee, wanted to negotiate with Johnson to leave the project." According to Cuthbert, Baker and Lashlee traveled to Chile and asked the local police to accompany them to the property. However, no officer agreed to it. "Tom and E.J. then went to the property with two former employees of GGC. When they arrived, Johnson was not there. The night watchman let them in and called Johnson. [They] were invited onto the property by the night watchman. This is not breaking and entering," she continues. According to Cuthbert, Johnson later arrived to the property, but avoided any contact with Baker and Lashlee. "It took two days to coax Johnson to meet E.J. When they finally met, E.J. offered Johnson $20,000 and the promise of no prosecution to exit the project, but Johnson refused." Cuthbert further said that Johnson went to the police station the next day and made a complaint about the incident, but the police asserted that no crimes were committed. "This was an affinity scam aimed at Western libertarians. That's the bad news. The good news is that Johnson, the Del Reals, and Ramirez likely committed several crimes and left a paper trail and witnesses. More good news is that most of the money was used to buy the properties, so we can recover some value," she added. "We believe justice will prevail, these people will be removed from our affairs, and one day soon, we'll be able to begin building," Cuthbert concluded.