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Cartel_Land_posterLUMPENPROLETARIAT—Dubious politics abound in the motives driving the narrative agenda behind Matthew Heineman‘s Oscar-nominated Cartel Land.  And this, whilst ostensibly letting the vigilantes speak for themselves.  Cartel Land has no narrator whatsoever beyond the narration cobbled together by the filmmakers’ documentary footage.

To earn an Oscar nomination, Heineman insidiously paired a narrative of the Grupo de Autodefensas, or Self-Defense Group, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which developed organically out of the people’s frustration with drug cartel tyranny, with the white supremacist border vigilante groups and militias.  But the two are very different things.  Yet, the filmmakers seem determined to conflate the two, almost as if justifying the agenda of white supremacist xenophobes by conflating them with the organic people’s resistance to drug cartels, which developed after some twelve years of drug cartel rule, replete with torture, beheadings, and terrorising of the public with the grisly carnage.  One involves xenophobia in a relatively orderly society.  The other involves a people’s revolt to a narco state.  Everywhere I looked illegals were taking construction jobs, said one border vigilante, featured as the solitary figurehead for the armed, anti-immigrant, self-appointed border troops dressed in military fatigues and armed with automatic rifles.

The filmmakers filmed, among other locations, in downtown Apatzingan, Michoacán, a central city in Michoacán’s central valley, known as tierra caliente, or hot land, a double entendre, connoting, both, the hot climate in the valley, and the heat resulting from drug cartel violence.  Although the filmmakers didn’t identify a memorial of the signing of the Constitution of Apatzingan, it is easily recognisable in the film.  (Your author recalls the last time he was down in Apatzingan back in 1998 on a trip to visit a grandmother.  Back then, although there was cartel activity, it hadn’t reached the chaotic level it would soon come to reach.)

The founder and initial leader of Michoacán’s Grupo de Autodefensas, or Self-Defense Group, Dr. José Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician who initially led the Autodefensas is followed by the camera crew to a swimming pool park outside of Apatzingan, which my family and friends would also visit.  It’s heartbreaking to see the city, from which one’s family hailed, become plagued with wanton violence.

Soon, after being shown to be a womaniser, Dr. Mireles is shown being taken by ambulance after a mysterious plane crash, as dissension within the anti-drug cartel group festered due to ideological differences, or apparently infiltration and sabotage.  Dr. Mireles, left with half his face paralysed, designated a man called “Papa Smurf” to be his substitute while he convalesces.  But “Papa Smurf”, who is shown later to be incapable of rallying community support, as Dr. Mireles had done.  Crowds at a public rally took “Papa Smurf” to task, complaining that some of the Defensas Ciudadanas, or Citizens Defense, had been abusing their powers, raiding innocent homes, and behaving inappropriately with the local women.  This was a less-than-happy crowd, which seemed unconvinced of the sincerity of Dr. Mireles’ leadership and the Autodefensa forces.  (Pitfalls abound; Ralph Nader once testified before the US Congress that one shouldn’t have to live like a saint to work in the public interest; one shouldn’t have to be celibate just to avoid being seduced and fall prey to designs of entrapment.)

Absent in all of this rather strange documentary is any type of narrative or analysis.  The only notable coverage of state officials is showing some news footage of politicians making empty promises, as the Autodefensa forces come to wrest control over half the state.  The next politician is Michoacán’s State Security Commissioner who comes to glad-hand “Papa Smurf” for his agreement to legitimate the Autodefensa group by becoming an appendage of the state, which soon seems to lead to a corruption of the group.  But no indication is made that any attempts were made by the filmmakers to directly contact state officials, or to question the politics behind the policies, which lead to drug prohibition and, then, cartels.

The footage captured by shadowing and trailing Dr. Mireles, the Autodefensa  forces, their rise and apparent fall, or cooptation, as well as of the towns of Michoacán and their initial solidarity against the barbarisms of the drug cartels is compelling.  But mutely intertwining the parallel story line of armed US-Mexico border vigilantes, Border Recon, making armed citizen arrests of migrants crossing the border conflates xenophobic immigrant scapegoating with sincere people’s anti-drug cartel efforts, which seek to restore the rule of law in a failed state.  But, then, this documentary film is executive produced by Kathryn Bigelow, a non-journalist mainly known for her works of fiction.



Cartel Land (2015)


[Last modified 3 FEB 2016  02:09 PDT]