Mexico is more like Iraq than any other country in the Western Hemisphere with the possible exception of Haiti. A bewilderingly multifaceted armed conflict has been raging since 2007 between more than a dozen militarized drug cartels, the federal government and a smorgasbord of citizen’s militias.
The Mexican mafia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Soviet Proxy during the Cold War that remains on the list of international terrorist organizations, back some of the cartels, and according to the Tucson Police Department, even Hezbollah has gotten involved.
The cartels are bribing and corrupting so many government officials that the state fights them only occasionally and only in certain places, leaving citizens at the mercy of murderous criminal enterprises that don’t flinch at even ISIS levels of brutality.
A few years ago, for instance, goons from one of the cartels in the resort city of Acapulco demanded elementary school teachers cough up fifty percent of their salaries or the schools would be attacked. They left a sack of five severed heads out front on the sidewalk to show they weren’t screwing around.
The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people in the last eight years. Think about that. That’s twice as many as the number of American killed during the Vietnam War. The conflict even occasionally spills over the border into the United States.
No one could cover all this in a single article or even a feature-length film. In a book, perhaps, but it would be as mind-bogglingly complex as Jason Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters about the impossibly tortured great war in the Congo.
Matthew Heineman covers a piece of it, though, in his searing new documentary Cartel Land, produced by Katherine Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty fame. He embeds with militia leaders in both Mexico and the United States—Dr. Jose Mireles in the state of Michoacan, and Tim Foley in Arizona—and follows them on patrol and into battle.
Dr. Mireles leads the local Grupo de Autodefensa, a citizen’s militia that rose up to fight the Knight’s Templar cartel, a ghastly mafia/terrorist hybrid, after it took over the small city of Tepalcatepec an hour or so south of Guadalajara.
“What would you do?” Dr. Mireles says when asked why a medical doctor is moonlighting as a militia commander. “Wait for when they come to you? Or defend yourself?”
Heineman even manages to interview some of the cartel members. “We are the meth cooks,” a masked man says on screen. “We know we do harm. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.”
Foley, meanwhile, leads the Arizona Border Recon, a vigilante group that hunts drug smugglers and human traffickers on the American side of the border. “It’s the cartels,” he says on the safer side of the line in America. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country, and now they’re starting to do it over here.”
Cartel Land is a mostly political tale in America’s back yard punctuated with heart-stopping scenes of battle we associate more with war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq than where millions of us like to go on vacation. Most of it focuses on Michoacan’s autodefensas, a militia movement that starts out surprisingly civic-minded considering the fact that it’s…a militia. “When the government can’t provide basic security for its people,” Dr. Mireles says, “we take up arms.”
The story on the American side is, by contrast, a bit on the dull side. Heineman seems to know it, too, so most of the screen time is down there in Mexico. The American “militia” isn’t really even a militia, at least not in the Mexican sense of the word, and certainly not in the Iraqi sense of the word. The only thing Foley’s crew really has in common with Mireles’ autodefensas is that the drug cartels are the enemy.
The Arizona Border Recon is filling an American Border Patrol gap rather than liberating conquered cities. They’re not fighting pitched battles. They’re just wandering around in the no-man’s land of the desert and making occasional citizen’s arrests.
Dr. José Mireles, on the other hand, actually liberates cities. That’s how bad it is in some parts of Mexico. The government sits on its ass while entire cities need to be liberated from armies of killers.
The first time we see the Mexican government, the army rolls into town and disarms not the cartel members but the citizen autodefensas. Furious residents chase the army away and ensure the militia gets its guns back.
In another town, though, the autodefensas are met with an icy chill. A huge throng of concerned citizens gathers in the town square and insists that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force, that unaccountable militiamen could all too easily become the very monsters they’re fighting against.
It’s an interesting moment, and it’s initially not obvious who we should side with. So many state officials have been bought off by cartel money that the government won’t do its job. The government at times even facilitates the cartels. The concerned citizens are surely right on general principle, but Mexico is a place where foxes guard the henhouse. What are regular people supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?
The autodefensas, however, lose their moral authority over time. Dr. José Mireles is shoved aside by his bodyguard, a fat man with a beard known as “Papa Smurf,” who lacks Mireles’ civic-minded decency. “We can’t become the criminals we are fighting against,” Dr. Mireles warns Papa Smurf, but to no avail. Under new leadership, the autodefensas begin running roughshod over people.
Papa Smurf initially hated the cartels for the same reasons as everyone else, but he likes power a little too much. It’s an old story. It predates even antiquity.
Mireles flees and Papa Smurf agrees to transform the autodefensas into a deputized wing of the state security apparatus. That’s exactly what should have happened, in theory. In a better world, in a better Mexico, militias would be either disarmed or integrated into the government. The state really does need a monopoly on the use of force. We’ve all seen what happens in countries elsewhere in the world—Somalia, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—where military power is dispersed among various factions.
There’s a moment of hope, then, when the autodefensas become part of the government The problem is that nothing else changes beforehand. The state is as corrupted by cartel money as ever. And now the autodefensas—led by a Papa Smurf drunk on his own newfound power—have become a part of that corrupt state.
Cartel Land ends on a note that’s positively Middle Eastern in its bleakness. The cartel-government hybrid swallows the citizens’ movement as if it’s the Borg. The deputized autodefensas are now working with rather than against the cartels while Dr. Mireles languishes in prison on weapons charges.
It’s clear as glass by the end that Mexico is no more prepared to emerge from its quagmire of crookedness, crime, armed conflict and poverty than it was when I was a kid. Yet somehow, despite it all, the enormous tourism industry is still flourishing.
You can still go down there on holiday if you want, but don’t watch Cartel Land on the plane, and don’t take the kids.