The BBC’s long-running and consistently-excellent TV series Storyville has showcased some fine documentaries this year, with Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land following hot on the heels of Dreamcatcher, A Syrian Love Story and Orion: The Man Who Would Be King (the latter of which I hope to watch and write about soon, though it has become rather doc-heavy here during the past few days).
Cartel Land is a deceptively simple film about an incredibly complicated situation; one that I know little about outside of occasional news articles and cinematic dramas such as Traffic or the more recent Sicario. Generally-speaking it’s about the drug trade in central Mexico and, to an extent, about the way in which it has affected communities both in Arizona near the US-Mexico border and in Michoacán to the south. More specifically it’s about the operations of vigilante groups in these two areas: in America there’s the Arizona Border Recon, an armed group that states its primary aim – as an NGO, and very firmly not as ‘a militia’ – is to gather information on trafficking (drugs, humans), and which mainly consists of former soldiers, law enforcement officers and private security employees; over in Mexico Heineman gained access to the senior members of the Grupos de Autodefensa Comunitaria, colloquially known as the ‘Autodefensas’, who have taken the battle directly to the drug cartels.
Heineman smartly contrasts and compares the work undertaken by both the Autodefensas and the ABR. Both groups have formed because members feel that their governments have failed them. The Autodefensas soldiers seen here regularly engage in deadly shootouts with their brutal enemies, and make some arrests, with rough justice violently dished out on camera to the cartel members captured. We also see attempts made by senior members – including charismatic leader Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde, who has spent most of the time following the making of this film in prison – to engage with local communities who are either suspicious or openly hostile to the Autodefensas; some citizens caught on film here suggest that they’re better off under cartel rule, as the presence of the vigilantes means their town will be turned into the latest battleground in a long-running war. The Autodefensas have also clashed with federal forces, too, though by the end of Cartel Land we see that they have been partly legitimized, either through absorption into the Mexican Army or by being given uniforms and turned into a semi-official rural police force. By comparison over in America the day-to-day operations of the ABR, though still fraught with danger, look relatively safe.
Cartel Land certainly highlights just how many (related) problems there are in both regions, though the impression I get is that it would be an impossible task to make a documentary feature that fully explains the ins-and-outs of the cartel problem in Mexico and the associated trafficking issues in America (there are of course other documentaries that have tried to get to grips with the subject, and I guess a factual TV series would probably be able to do so comprehensively, but if one has been made already I apologise as I don’t think we’ve had it over in the UK). As such the decision to focus primarily on the two vigilante groups offers an interesting perspective on the mess, and makes the flow of information manageable for those of us without much prior relevant knowledge. Heineman’s effort in gaining access to both groups and his bravery behind the camera (presumably along with co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll) is as obvious as it is commendable; at one point one of the two men gets caught up in a shootout, which puts the stylistically-delicious but ultimately safely-constructed set pieces of Sicario in perspective. Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of Heineman’s film is that we rarely see the actual law enforcement agencies working in either state, and their absence from Cartel Land speaks volumes; a group of Mexican crystal meth producers are even filmed for the prologue and the epilogue ahead of the state police, the FBI, the DEA or anyone from local or national government, and when ‘legitimate’ forces do appear they seem relatively toothless. What a mess.
Directed by: Matthew Heineman.
Cinematography: Matthew Heineman, Matt Porwoll.
Editing: Matthew Hamachek, Matthew Heineman, Bradley J. Ross, Pax Wassermann.
Music: Jackson Greenberg, H. Scott Salinas.
Running Time: 100 minutes.