by Bill Stamets

Cartel Land: civilian outliers versus outlaw capitalists

Posted in Uncategorized by Bill Stamets on July 22, 2015

Cartel Land
directed, co-produced, co-shot, co-edited by Matthew Heineman
scored by H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg
presented by A&E IndieFilms
distributed by Orchard Films


Like a sequel to his January 19, 2001 prison break from Puente Grande, the July 11, 2015 escape of Joaquin Guzman Loera (aka, “El Chapo”) from Centro Federal de Readaptación Social Número 1 upped his props as a Mexico’s primo narco folk hero.

“[I]t’s totally bad ass,” says Mario Alfonso Valenzuela, mayor of El Chapo’s hometown of Badiraguato. Reuters also quotes a 15-year-old local marijuana planter: “The honest truth is, when I found out about it, I got drunk for three days, and I tell you I cried, I’m not ashamed to say it.”

Jose Mireles (aka, “El Doctor”) and Tim “Nailer” Foley are deemed heroic too. For opposing Mexican cartels. In his cogent documentary “Cartel Land” Matthew Heineman depicts two vigilantes, a thousand miles apart, with a common enemy.

Charismatic leaders of heavily armed civilians, Foley and Mireles started, respectively, Arizona Border Recon and Grupo de Autodefensas in Michoacán. Heineman– who captained soccer and lacrosse teams at his Connecticut prep school– readily admits to interviewers that he’s never covered a war, but that’s certainly how his subjects see their struggle against traffickers in drugs and illegal immigrants.

Heineman devoted a year to observing Foley and Mireles. He and his co-editors deftly alternate between five Foley segments and four longer Mireles segments. “Cartel Land” begins and ends with night scenes of meth cookers wearing bandanas and carrying guns.

“What can I say?” the leader of the crew asks Heineman in the film’s opening. “We know we do harm with all the drugs that go there [U.S.] 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.”

Foley, a vet and laid off construction worker, patrols the U.S. border in the unforgiving Altar Valley with a handful of volunteers in paramilitary paraphernalia. Treks to find scouts for cartel traffickers in hilltop lairs are largely futile. In one scene they accost a few Mexicans and radio the U.S. Border Patrol to take custody. At the start of their single-file march, Foley orders one of his men to “Drop him” if a cartel suspect “tries anything.”

Mireles’ followers number in the hundreds. They treat their countrymen with extra-legal harshness. One night an Autodefensas roadblock nets a man with incriminating cartel tattoos. Mireles orders one of his men: “Get everything you can out of him and put him into the ground. Immediately.” A later scene at a base of operations shows his interrogators bloodying detainees. Screams from more brutal unseen sessions echo off the bare concrete walls.

“There’s people all around the world trying to make a difference,” declares Foley, as we see him raise a flag. “They’re all just like me… They’re tired of nobody doing anything so they take the law into their own hands.” In another scene, his girlfriend shows him news about Mireles on her laptop. “I hope they kick some ass down there,” urges Foley. “That’s the way it should be done up here too.”

“It’s the cartels,” explains Foley. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country and now they’re starting to do it over here.” Elsewhere in the film Mireles tells Heineman that Mexicans cannot depend on the authorities: “There is no government. The government is often working with the criminals.” The filmmaker never indicates if Mireles knows about Arizona Border Recon, a much smaller group than his.

Heineman says he started making “Cartel Land” after reading Damon Tabor’s article “Border Of Madness: Crossing The Line With Arizona’s Anti-Immigration Vigilantes.” Heineman notes in his end credits that “Arizona storyline inspired by” that reportage in the December 20, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone. Tabor encountered a gamut of vigilantes. Foley’s group is the least extreme. Among the details not making it into “Cartel Land”: Foley mixed the ashes of his late dog Budwerd into the black ink for tattooing his likeness on his back.

Two other “story consultants” besides Tabor appear are credited. Ever since premiering his documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Heineman has emphasized his priority is storytelling– “without outside experts or text cards,” as his Director’s Statement underscores.

In 2007 filmmaker Jonathan Demme told the New York Times that “in fiction you are trying to make it seem as real as possible, and in documentary you are seeking to make it as dramatic as possible.” Westerns are a natural genre for framing the drama of “Cartel Land.” Foley and Mireles happen to be ruggedly handsome figures in frontier sagas on both sides of the border.

“This is what I consider to be the wild wild west,” relates Foley. “They have more guns. They have more people. It’s kind of like a David and Goliath story out here. We’re David and they’re Goliath.”

Mireles is a bigger media celebrity than Foley. Mexico’s press initially valorized the vigilante. Apart from internal discord in Autodefensas, his wife has her own grounds for doubting his image: “Jose Manuel Mireles is not who we all think he is. He has the same power to convince people that all the best movie characters have.” She leaves him for his infidelity.

“I became even more motivated, almost obsessed, as the lines between good and evil became ever more blurred,” writes Heineman in his A&E IndieFilms press kit. “It is this moral ambiguity that intrigues me.” Extra-legal, not extra-marital, activities ultimately compromise the image of Mireles.

“We can’t become the criminals we’re fighting against,” Mireles instructs his second in command, known as Papa Smurf. Farflung self-defense groups he organizes in the region lack discipline. Over time some members turn to thuggery and theft. Cartel infiltrators and collaborators join. For bad irony, cartel-like criminal activity occurs in Autodefensas, especially after the Mexican government co-opts the movement.

As popular trust erodes, Papa Smurf implores townsfolk: “We’ve given you security, we’ve given you peace. We’re not the bad guys.” A man in the crowd retorts: “We can’t believe in criminals… If we don’t believe in the institutions of the state, we are finished as citizens!”

Arizona Border Recon, by contrast, comes off as straightforward. “There’s an an imaginary line out there between right and wrong, good and evil,” says Foley. “I believe what I’m doing is good and I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.” Adding no nuance, Heineman reiterates this simple dichotomy with a second Foley soundbite: “I believe what I’m doing is good. And I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.” There is no blur on Foley’s side of the border.

“The more time I spent down there, the more complex the story became,” discloses Heineman. Yet he superficially treats the contradictions he uncovers in the Mireles narrative. A 2012 documentary Heineman made with Susan Froemke– “Escape Fire: Lessons for the Future of Healthcare”– grappled with complexity. They skillfully crafted a persuasive critique of interlocking crises in the U.S. medical policy and practices. (Fromke is one of the story consultants for “Cartel Land.”)

“I have faith in an audience being able to interpret complex material,” Heineman told the Los Angeles Times earlier this month.

“It’s just a never-ending story,” offers a meth cooker wearing his government-issued Rural Defense Force uniform. “This war is to protect a lot of people’s business interests… Some way, some how, everybody has gotten corrupted… The Autodefensas and the people cooking meth, we’re pretty much the same team. We’re actually helping fund the Autodefensas. And we find them with whatever we can. Even drugs to sell to get guns, get trucks, get people to work.” 

“We will do this as long as God allows it,” continues the head of the meth crew. “As long as He allows it, we will make drugs. And every day we make more because this is not going to end, right? We’re the lucky ones, for now.”

If “Cartel Land” cannot circumscribe the two-nation terrain its title names, Heineman notes one cycle that is not intractable. Foley reveals that as a teen he fled his abusive dad. Years later he met his granddaughters and complimented his estranged son for raising them well. “I told him I had him to thank because everything he did to me, I did the exact opposite, so the cycles can change,” Foley shares. “It just takes somebody to change them.”

A&E IndieFilms touts “Cartel Land” by alluding to Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella “Heart of Darkness”: “Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embeds himself in the heart of darkness.” Except Heineman is no Marlow; neither Tim “Nailer” Foley nor Dr. Jose Mireles are Kurtzes; and the states of Arizona and Michoacán are hardly like the Congo Free State.

“Cartel Land” does score ethnographic insight that recalls lines Conrad wrote two years earlier in his preface to a different novel: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel— it is, before all, to make you see.”

If Heineman’s lens never captures the cartels in all their obscene cruelty, the testimony of victims makes it clear why the Mexico’s Minister of the Interior is offering a 60 million pesos bounty for El Chapo, which is no doubt far more than it cost him to break out.

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