I’m not sure if would recommend Matthew Heinemann’s dark and disturbing documentary Cartel Land, which I saw last night, because one thing you can say is that is not a pleasant or life-affirming evening at the movies. But for those who believe that cinema should do more than entertain you or send you home with a warm glowing feeling, this is an unmissable and terrifying journey into the nightmare of violence and corruption that Mexico has become as a result of the cartels that feed America’s insatiable drug habit.
The film is on one level a study of the follies and moral ambiguities of vigilantism. It traces the parallel stories of two vigilantes on each side of the border. On the American side there is Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, former drug abuser and child abuse victim for whom the adjective ‘lived-in’ barely begins to describe the ravaged features and wounded eyes, as he stalks the Arizona border in military fatigues with a team of the spooky-looking military types who seem to abound in America.
Like many of the vigilante groups on the US-Mexico border, Foley began these patrols in an attempt to stop migrants from crossing the frontier, before focusing on the drug cartels instead. Foley is a kind of Western hero-cum-Rambo, who sees himself as David versus the cartel Goliath and characterizes his self-appointed mission battling evil as an attempt to uphold law and order in a land where law has ceased to exist.
Apart from wandering around the desert with guns and walkie-talkies, it is not clear what Foley has actually achieved through these patrols. The same cannot be said of the other subject of Heinemann ‘s film; Dr José Manuel Mireles Valverde, who formed an armed group called the Autodefensas in 2013 to take on the Knights Templar cartel in a series of townships in the state of Michoacán.
Valverde’s group appears to have initially been quite successful, driving the cartel out of a series of towns, and establishing itself as a parallel authority to rival the corrupt and inept police and army. In one of the film’s many extraordinary scenes, he and his group are disarmed by the army, which is then driven away by the local population after handing back the confiscated weapons.
As the film progresses, it becomes disturbingly clear that the Autodefensas are not the ‘good guys’, to say the least, and their relationship becomes increasingly strained, before the shocking revelations that I won’t reveal in case you see it. Mireles himself is a tricky and bizarre character. Courageous to the point of foolhardiness, he risks his life and nearly loses it in his battle against the cartels.
At the same time he is extraordinarily narcissistic, macho, and self-aggrandizing, and really quite astonishing in what he is prepared to reveal on camera. At one point he tells his men, who have just captured a suspected narco ‘ get everything you can out of him and put him in the ground’, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that there could ever be any consequences for giving such an order.
Of course in Mexico there often aren’t any consequences for anything, and perhaps Mireles knows that. Perhaps that is one reason why the Autodefensas begin to behave like a cartel, killing and torturing suspects, raiding and stealing from houses, before it becomes horrifically clear that they, the police, the local authorities and the Mexican government are playing a darker game than Walter White could ever have dreamed about.
Mireles describes his organization as a ‘social movement’, but civil society is clearly only peripherally involved in an armed movement which is too easily dominated by armed men with ambiguous agendas and unaccountable powers, and which offers no long term institutional or societal answers to the problems it was created to address.
These complex stories are brilliantly-told, without narration, in a film that relies heavily on ‘cinematic’ techniques, from its haunting cinematography of a Cormac McCarthy-like Mexican border, to its night drives to places that few documentary filmmakers have ever visited, and chaotic and brutal raids and gunfights that Heinemann and his team can consider themselves lucky to have witnessed and lived to talk about.
These effects aren’t just gimmicks to ramp up the entertainment value. There is really nothing entertaining about this journey into the Mexican heart of darkness. Heinemann’s film is on one level, a portrait of a particular society – Mexico – whose institutions have become completely co-opted and subjugated by the drug trade, and the violence and corruption that the trade engenders. The result is a catastrophic systemic failure that is moral, political and social, and which offers no easy or convenient solutions.
That failure is not unique to Mexico. After all, the horrors of ‘Cartel Land’ have been repeated in other Latin American countries, and also in some American cities, in Naples and Palermo. The vast profits from the drug trade have been laundered into the international financial system, mixing ‘dirty’ with clean money to the point when it is difficult to know if anyone knows – or cares – what the difference is.
To some extent the drug trade is kind of hyper-capitalism, which as the Italian sociologist Pino Arlacchi once argued, echoes the early period that Marx identified as ‘primitive accumulation’, through raw violence, piracy and slavery. But the world that Heinemann depicts is also a testament to the crazed greed that drives global capitalism; to the terrible futility of the drug war, with its concentration on supply rather than demand, which has boosted profits to the point when those who pursue them have absolutely no moral scruples about what they do to get them, and which feeds on the poverty of a country that borders the richest country on earth.
The result of all this is the dystopian society depicted in Cartel Land. But whereas most dystopias take place in the near or far-distant future, this one is unfolding right now.