Cartel Land [Movie Review]

Cartel Land recently garnered Best Director Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography at Sundance. Andrew Arnett explains why you should see it.

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By Andrew Arnett

A man looks into the camera and tells the audience: “The United States is where most of the drugs are sold.”

“We will do this as long as God allows it. As long as He allows it, we will make drugs. And everyday, we make more. Because this is not going to end, right?”

“We know we do harm with all the drugs,” he says, “But what are we going to do? We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we would be like you. Traveling the world or doing clean jobs like you guys.”

His face is hidden by a bandana, and he’s clutching an AK-47. His compatriots, also with faces covered, stir chemicals into a large vat.

“But if we start paying attention to our hearts, then we’ll get screwed over.”

“It’s reacting,” he says as the mixture starts to bubble and smoke.

“We will do this as long as God allows it. As long as He allows it, we will make drugs. And everyday, we make more. Because this is not going to end, right?”

He turns to his partners and asks “What do you think guys?”

“No, I hope not. Of course not,” they all say.

“The good stuff is about to begin,” he says, gesturing to the boiling stew of methamphetamine.

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This is the startling opening scene to director Mathew Heineman’s Cartel Land,  a sobering documentary about two vigilante groups, one operating inside Mexico, the other on the America side of the border. Though both groups are of different nationalities, they are fighting a common enemy: the Mexican drug cartels.

“The people who benefit most from the War on Drugs are the traffickers(…)”

One story line follows Jose Mireles Valverdo, charismatic leader of militia group Autodefensas, operating deep inside Michoacan State, Mexico. They are on a mission to take back territory from the drug cartels, one town at a time.  The camera crew is given unprecedented access to the group as the story takes unexpected twists and turns, ultimately blurring the line between good and evil.

The second story line follows Tim Foley, leader of the vigilante group Arizona Border Patrol, as he roots out cartel smuggling activity through the porous border region.

The two stories mirror each other, showing how those north and south of the border are struggling against the same enemy, and no one is safe. The film depicts the disintegrating social structure in Mexico which threatens to make it go “feral.”

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Richard Norton’s definition for a “feral” city is an apt description for the situation occurring inside Mexico today.

A feral city, he explains, is in “a state the government of which has lost the ability to maintain the rule of law . . . yet remains a functioning actor in the greater international system.”

In such a place, all social services, like basic health and security, are non existent. However, the city does not descend into random chaos. Groups of gangs, criminals and armed insurgents exert various degrees of control. Corruption, violence and disease are rampant, yet the majority of occupants refuse to leave and the population could continue to increase.

“(…)Every dollar we spend on drugs and every dollar we spend trying to interdict them raises the profits of the Mexican cartels and makes them more powerful”

Norton states that “Feral cities would exert an almost magnetic influence on terrorist organizations. Such megalopolises will provide exceptionally safe havens for armed resistance groups, especially those having cultural affinity with at least one sizable segment of the city’s population.”

The film perfectly illustrates how the trillion dollar War on Drugs is ultimately a failure.

Writer Don Winslow, author of the novel The Cartel, explains in an open letter to Congress that “The people who benefit most from the War on Drugs are the traffickers. Every dollar we spend on drugs and every dollar we spend trying to interdict them raises the profits of the Mexican cartels and makes them more powerful.”

Regarding the close proximity of the threat, director Matthew Heineman states “That is the most insane thing. We live in America and this is our neighboring country, and this is happening right next to us. I think that is a lot of what drives the vigilantes in Arizona for better or worse, and they fear that this bloodletting of the Mexican drug wars is going to seep across our borders.”

In addition to its timeliness, Cartel Land is a fine piece of filmmaking. Shots featuring sweeping vistas of the Mexican/Arizona landscape make this documentary a true cinematic experience. It is no wonder that it garnered Best Director Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography at Sundance.

You’ll want to check this movie out.