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May 02, 2017

Movie Review: Cartel Land [Warden]

This is movie review is part of an ongoing series of reviews focusing on documentaries. Cartel Land is a documentary directed by Matthew Heineman that focuses on two groups of vigilantes,one American and one Mexican, that are fighting the Mexican drug lords.

Cartel Land was released in 2015, winning Best Director and Best Cinematographer in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. It was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Cartel Land opens with Heineman's crew embedded with a group of meth cooks. The cooks, faces covered by bandannas, tell the filmmakers that they were taught to make meth by an American chemist. They know that what they're doing harms people, but they're poor and need the money. Besides, they say, if they don't do it then someone else will. This is not going away, ever.

Heineman then introduces us to Tim "Nailer" Foley, a leathery, down-on-his-luck Marine veteran who runs the Arizona Border Recon. Tough, wiry and sunbaked, Foley looks almost too perfectly cast for this role. He started the border patrol after he started losing construction jobs to illegal immigrants, but quickly realized that the real enemy is the Mexican drug lords. Now he and a small band of compatriots, some with white nationalist leanings, stalk the drug gang members along the border in order to turn them over to police.

We don't see much in the way of conflict as Foley and his group patrol the barren and scrubby desert. They do manage to run down one group of illegal border crossers. It's not clear who they are. During the outings, Foley fills us in on how violent and dangerous the drug gangs are and asserts that anyone who has a problem with what he's doing should come on down to where he lives and take a stroll at night before passing judgment. In this area, Foley notes, a call to the police means a 25 minute response time.

These scenes foreshadow a nightmarish reality playing out a thousand miles south of the border, where we find ourselves riding along in a funeral procession for a small Mexican village. Adults and children wail and shriek as thirteen bodies are put into the ground--men, women, children, babies.

A local lime orchard owner hadn't played his protection money to the drug cartel, so they retaliated by killing all his workers along with their families.

The men of the town have had enough. They've joined a vigilante group called the Autodefensas, led by a fearless and charismatic surgeon named Jose Mireles.

What follows is intense, edge-of-your-seat filmmaking as Heineman captures raids, gunfights, and what appears to be an off-camera execution of a captured drug gang member. Heineman and his other cinematographer's courage is only overshadowed by the bravery of Mireles and his gang as they liberate town after town, battling not only the vicious drug gangs, but also a corrupt Mexican government that seeks to disarm them.

It's an intense and graphic experience. In one scene, the street is littered with beheaded bodies that have been dumped in the streets by the Mexican drug lords--a a warning to anyone who might cross them.

As the Autodefensas grow in power, we begin to see the same, timeless human conflict begin to creep in and muddy the purity of the cause--internal power struggles, corruption, paranoia, infiltration by the government, etc...

The neat and clean good vs evil plot structure soon breaks down into something more ambiguous. Though these lines are blurred it's still something NOT distinctly evil vs evil, which perhaps is the real struggle most of us deal with daily.

Whether or not it was the intention of Heineman, this documentary stands as a powerful and visceral argument for the 2nd amendment. Prior to arming up, these townspeople were victimized mercilessly by a gangs every bit as brutal and terrifying as ISIS. Poor and without a voice, they had no help from the government, no resources, and no hope.

I found myself in awe of the courage that the Autodefensas displayed. Being captured by the drug gangs means torture and death, both for them and their families. But it was the guns that gave them that choice--to choose a path other than one of compliant slaughter.

As one of the Autodefensas remarked, "They're going to kill us anyway. We may as well die fighting."

Cartel Land is available for free on Netflix.

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posted by Open Blogger at 08:41 PM

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