Cartel Land: Confusing documentary on Mexico loses its way

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This close-range, in-the-trenches documentary is filmed against the backdrop of the sham “war on drugs,” cooked up by corrupt politicians and agencies of Mexico and the United States. Its stars are real Mexican civilians rising up in armed self-defense against a thriving multi-billion-dollar drug industry — one that has killed more than 80,000 in Mexico since 2007.

As the cameras roll, you learn early on about the notorious drug cartel Knights Templar, which has brutally ruled much of the state of Michoacán for years. Horrific tales of kidnappings, torture, rape, and murder are told by the victims and family members. One anguishing scene takes place at a graveyard as lime pickers, some of them young children, are laid to rest. They were murdered and disposed of in a mass grave, because the owner of the orchard failed to pay the Knights Templar protection money.

Self defense swells. The cartel’s viciousness and the government’s utter failure to protect the people is what spurred the rise of the autodefensas (self-defense) militias in 2013. Cartel Land shows Dr. José Mireles, a small-town doctor, going from town to town to inspire people and organize armed training so that they can stand up to the cartels. Right away they gain ground against the drug thugs, and the civilian defense movement rapidly advances from town to town.

In one particularly thrilling incident, soldiers or police move in and order the defenders to disarm and pile up their guns. Someone yells “Hell, no!” someone else starts ringing the church bell to call for help and suddenly hundreds of villagers come out of their homes with sticks to defend the autodefensas against this federal raid. The feds back off, and the stack of guns disappears back into the hands of the civilian defenders.

But as their success grows, so does a government-led backlash. When Mexican officials’ attempts to disarm the autodefensas fail, they instigate a campaign to change them into their state-sanctioned Rural Defense Force. This divide-and-conquer strategy works somewhat as some of the men are filmed swapping their white shirts for black-shirted military outfits.

Flawed film. Confusingly, a quite separate story is taking place simultaneously in the harsh Arizona desert. There, another armed group is operating. Producer Matthew Heinmen attempts to frame a parallel between the two groups — one, a few self-appointed vigilantes on the Arizona side of the border, the other, hundreds of community defenders engaged in a life-and-death struggle in Mexico that has taken tens of thousands of lives.

Presenting the two as equivalent is just plain inaccurate. For one thing, the two groups are at opposite ends of the political spectrum with entirely different goals. The U.S. vigilantes, headed by a down-and-out vet named Tim Foley, are right-wing racists who blame Latino immigrants for their own woes and hate the government for not doing anything about “those illegals.”

They’re not out to catch dope smugglers or to defend themselves against a blood-drenched drug war. They’re out to make life more miserable for a group of dark-skinned refugees they’ve tracked down who risk their lives crossing the border in order to eke out a living in the United States.

Although the documentary touches on the Mexican government’s complicity in the drug business, it stays far away from some basic political truths. For decades both Mexican and U.S. governments have been deeply immersed in the profitable and powerful drug-smuggling business in the Western Hemisphere. I urge readers to get the true story from investigative journalist Anabel Hernández’ hard-hitting book, Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers.

Not the end of the story. The movie begins and ends with meth cookers working in a dark night. Says one, “We know we do harm with all the drugs. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.” At the end, the film announces that Mireles has been arrested, but doesn’t mention that scores of his comrades were also arrested. And the film leaves the hopeless impression that autodefensas have petered out.

But that’s not the end of this real-life story. The power of the Knights Templar cartel was weakened, because the government was eventually forced to arrest some of its biggest leaders. And a growing number of outraged Mexicanos continue to organize autodefensas in Mexico. Thousands took to the streets to call for Mireles’ release, and international protests have erupted for Nestora Salgado — imprisoned comandante of the community police in Olinalá, Guerrero — and the return of the 43 missing Ayotzinapa teachers college students.

As this popular movement spreads, struggles against the cartels and state corruption are connecting to the battles to end free-trade agreements and halt the phony war on drugs. It is a story of stirring solidarity across borders.

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