There’s a lot of potential for outbursts in Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman’s documentary about power, community, and violence in the Mexican Drug trade. Every once in awhile these fireworks break out and develop into shootouts on crowded streets and the unwarranted storming of houses. Cruelty of the worst kind makes its way to the screen often, alongside an overview of the politics of the drug war (both the kind seen on CNN as well as the less transparent version of politics seen in Mexico). Early on, Cartel Land features the human toll of the war-the families and children caught in the senseless crossfire. Why then can’t this documentary say what it wants to say?
All of this sounds very compelling. However, Cartel Land has a deep structural problem that is rather impossible to ignore . . .
We first meet “Nailer”, AKA Tim Foley, who founded and leads a group called the Arizona Border Recon. They who once adopted the term “vigilantes” now abhore it, mainly because they often get cited as armed citizens targeting illegals, cartel connection or not. You can decide. On the other side of the fence, we meet Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde. A doctor by trade, Dr. Mireles leads the Autodefensas, a Mexican paramilitary group whose main aim is to suppress and eradicate the Knights Templar Cartel from their state of Michoacan. They do this by carrying out intelligence and military operations in the place of the government, whom they believe are either corrupt, misguided, or both.
All of this sounds very compelling. However, Cartel Land has a deep structural problem that is rather impossible to ignore, and intent becomes almost as engrossing as the content itself. In interlaying scene from these two separate groups (the Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas), Heineman sets up a parallel structure that immediately begins to feel like a false equivalence, and eventually seems deeply misguided. Is this a lazy equivalence, or is there a larger point that we’re perhaps missing? It’s very unclear, and it begins to muddy whatever message Cartel Land is trying to make. Because the two stories are so discordant, the scenes following Foley near the Arizona border region seem misplaced at best, and a waste of time at worst. When we start to realize that these two sides will never actually meet in any form (around the time you discover that the Mexican state of Michoacan is about 1,000 miles south of the Arizona border), it’s harder and harder to grasp what we’re supposed to really take away from the picture.
The chaos that reigns in the world of Mexican cartels does not require a chaotic documentary, but unfortunately that’s exactly what Cartel Land is.
However, the film can adequately keep you grasping at the threads of the many stories which are partially told, in a way that is at times both frustrating and intriguing. Leading the Autodefensas is Dr. Mireles, who is seen as both a legend and a flawed man, having had a positive impact on his region while still failing in other aspects of his life. Cartel Land illuminates many details in his life in an odd and often contradictory fashion. It’s a pity to see a charismatic leader in a fractured state documented in such a patchy way. There’s also plenty to be said about the relationship between this grassroots defense group and the powerful government, but these issues are hardly acknowledged until the film is coming to an end. By the time they do arrive, they feel ill suited to truly conclude such a meandering journey.
The chaos that reigns in the world of Mexican cartels does not require a chaotic documentary, but unfortunately that’s exactly what Cartel Land is. There’s no doubt there must have been a struggle for relevant footage, what with some of it being taken in the most dangerous of circumstances. Unfortunately, what is really needed is more contextualization away from the violence, or perhaps more footage from the United States side of the border with the Arizona group. Regardless, Cartel Land has a lot of potential, and it’s frustrating to see such an intriguing topic have such a scattered result.
Cartel Land has a lot of potential, and it’s frustrating to see such an intriguing topic have such a scattered result.