Monday, July 27, 2015

Cartel Land [2015]

MPAA (R)  ChicagoTribune (3 1/2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (M. D'Angelo) review (D. Salazar) review (H. Garza) review* (G. Lira) review*
EFE (F. Mexia) review* [M.A. Guevara] review*

Cartel Land [2015] (directed by Matthew Heineman) is an award-winning documentary that captures, though perhaps not always intentionally, some of the obvious ambiguities present when (some) ordinary citizens decide to organize themselves into armed vigilante groups to try to do what government is, in part, established to do: to establish (or re-establish) good order for the sake of the common good. 

Two such vigilante groups, one on each side of the U.S.-Mexican border, are featured:  On the U.S. side of the border there is Tim “Nailer” Foley's quite small ad hoc Arizona Border Recon group that has set-up camp and is (with its own resources) patrolling a particularly desolate section of the frontier between the U.S. (Arizona) and Mexico.  On the Mexican side, the documentary focuses on a larger and probably to most viewers far more compelling (if also more problematic) "Autodefensa" movement, led by a small town doctor "El Doctor" Jose Mireles, that rose up in 2013 in the Mexican state of Michoacán and largely took-down the "Knights Templar" drug cartel that had been terrorizing the citizenry of the state for years. 

In both cases, _the motives_ for the groups' creation were portrayed quite sympathetically:

Most American viewers would probably be shocked at the _emptiness_ of the border section that Foley's group set itself up to patrol.  The only people that seemed to out there on the various desert bluffs were Foley's (few, heavily armed) men and then Mexican coyotes (and their scouts) smuggling people over the border.  In the entire documentary, there wasn't a single American government border patrol or otherwise law enforcement official shown to be anywhere near this seemingly vast section of frontier (tens of miles of open desert land in every direction) even as Foley's men were shown coming upon and arresting (at gun point...) several groups of presumably Latin American men trying to make their way into the country through this section of empty otherwise undefended / largely unpatrolled country.

In the case of the Autodefensa movement in Michoacán, the film gave one example after another of common Michoacanos having been terrorized by the Knights Templar drug gang -- people beheaded, set on fire, buried alive amidst the corpses of those already murdered / decapitated in those ways.  So Dr. Mireles really didn't have much of a difficulty gathering, rather quickly, a fairly large group of people to join him to take-on these thugs, especially after he reminded them at their initial meeting that the only real choice that they had before them was how they were going to die: On their knees or at least fighting.  And once they rose up, it proved not particularly hard to both get arms and then sweep the Knight Templars away.

So ... what would be the problem(s)?

Well ... I do think, also, that _a lot_ of American viewers would find it unsettling to see a bunch of heavily armed vigilantes _routinely_ "arresting" (at gun point ...) significant numbers of people, no matter what the reason.   About to lead a group of about 6-8 Latin American "illegals" arrested in this manner out in the desert mountains on the Arizona border, Foley himself tells one of his men, "And if any of them tries to do anything, put him down."  I think that just about everyone watching the film would find that kind of an instruction, no matter how "practical" it may be (Foley's back would be to the back of these "arrested" men), WILDLY DISCONCERNING to be given by a civilian, NON-LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICIAL ... (And yet, where were the law enforcement officials...?) 

Similarly, it's pretty clear that the Autodefensas were not exactly treating the captured Knights Templar members (or even suspects) with kid-gloves either.  There's a scene in the film in which the Autodefensas were interrogating one or another captured suspect in some warehouse somewhere, while behind the wall, in the next room, another captured suspect WAS HEARD SCREAMING (more or less certainly being _tortured_).

Further, while the documentary film-maker portrays Foley as a more-or-less honest Patriot, a fair number of the comments made by his men were _self-evidently_ white supremacist / racist ...

And it becomes also increasingly clear that El Doctor's Autodefensas didn't all have his high minded motives either.  Let's put it this way: Near the beginning of the documentary, the film-maker or even El Doctor himself explains that there were TWO drug gangs that were terrorizing Michoacán -- the Knights Templars and another one called the Viagras -- the Autodefensas seemed to go after ONLY the Knights Templars. Hmm...  Then the previously paid-off / corrupt and certainly ineffectual government tries to "regularize" (bring into the government) these gun-toting Autodefensas ... leaving the final status of things murky and arguably worse than before (Were the Viagras now basically "in the government ...?")

So I do believe that the film portrays BOTH the motives (at least in part "good" / "honest") as well as the more or less obvious _pitfalls_ of having armed vigilante groups stepping-in where government has proven unable to.

Indeed, the situation in both cases, comes to be as titled ... a kind of circus ... "Cartel Land."  So this proves to be one unsettling, if thought provoking film ...

* Reasonably good (sense) translations of non-English webpages can be found by viewing them through Google's Chrome browser. 

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