The debate over border policy in the United States has reached levels of nonsense worthy of Lewis Carroll. On the right, you have presidential candidate Donald Trump tarring all immigrants from south of the Rio Grande as “rapists and murderers,” and pledging to build a “huge” wall to keep them out. On the left, you have Democrats so high on the warm and fuzzy feeling of “embracing diversity” that they imagine an open-border policy of uncontrolled immigration is sustainable. (Hey, EU! How did that work out for you?)
While coastal-state liberals assume that illegals are all like that nice Honduran boy who mows their lawn, border-state Tea Partiers think they’re all MS-13 or Zeta gangbangers. Really, though, it can never be one or the other — an open border is indiscriminating, letting in both the good and the bad. The question lingers: Is America really being infiltrated by Mexico’s ultra-violent drug cartels, or have we all been watching too much “Breaking Bad”?
Into this mess comes “Cartel Land,” a chilling documentary that challenges glib ideological beliefs and forces people to confront the complexity of the situation. Director Matthew Heineman follows a “concerned citizen” named Tim “Nailer” Foley, a rugged and bitter army veteran who formed his own militia-style group to patrol the Arizona border with Mexico.
Foley, contrary to stereotype, is no racist — although the same can’t be said for some of his comrades — but rather a former addict, driven in a one-man crusade to stop the flow of meth and coke smuggled out of Mexico by the cartels. Foley insists, contrary to what the Obama administration claims, that the border is out of control — a lawless and dangerous area.
This is certainly the narrative that America has been fed by the entertainment industry; ever since Steven Soderbergh’s lucid drug war critique “Traffic” in 2000, cartel killers have increasingly become the bogeyman du jour. Their kidnapping and butchery can be found in both high-profile Hollywood films like Oliver Stone’s “Savages” and Ridley Scott’s “The Counsellor,” and art-house fare like “Sin Nombre” and “Maria Full of Grace.” TV series like “Weeds,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Narcos” and “Better Call Saul” also highlight the cartels, and that’s only the English-language side of the spectrum; turn to Spanish-language channels like Telemundo or Univision and you will find a wave of “narconovellas” — drug-gang soap operas — such as “La Reina del Sur” or “El Senor de los Cielos,” which draws more than 2 million viewers daily.
Perhaps no single film encapsulates the Trump narrative as well as the Coen Bros.’ “No Country For Old Men.” While the Coens clearly had other ideas, a simplistic viewing shows a white American male played by Josh Brolin — a cowboy, no less — struggling to get by in his trailer home. He is corrupted by a chance contact with narcos, and then finds that even the police cannot protect him and his loved ones from their retribution, personified by sicko assassin Chigurh (Javier Bardem). The local sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) can only reflect miserably on how times have changed for the worse.
Good honest Americans terrorized on their own land — back in “Cartel Land,” that’s certainly how Foley sees it, but while the filmmakers are embedded with him, it feels like he is chasing shadows. His heavily armed squad storms recently abandoned look-out points and stalks scouts (point men for larger smuggling groups — the cartels’ “air traffic control”), but all Foley manages to catch are a hapless bunch of unarmed migrants.
It’s true that unlike in Juarez or Tijuana, nobody in Phoenix or San Antonio is getting beheaded yet, so some will view Foley and his fellow militiamen as playing soldier against a nonexistent threat. But it’s also true that nobody knows the full extent of narco activity inside the United States. How many murders in America are related to cartel activity? How many disappearances? No one in the government can or will answer that question, although the Drug Enforcement Administration cites cartel presence in more than1,200 U.S. towns and cities. But if you look strictly at one indicator — homicides along the major drug-smuggling routes into the U.S. — the numbers indicate steady increases.
Certainly, the threat is real enough: When “Cartel Land” moves south of the border to follow another vigilante, the doctor-turned-militia-leader Jose Mireles, Foley’s fears seem far from irrational. Filming and dodging bullets in the province of Michoacan, Heineman captures a failed state, its people at the mercy of killers as inhuman as the Islamic State group. Heineman starts with the burial of 13 children, murdered by the Knights Templar gang simply because they worked on a lime plantation where the owner wouldn’t pay up. We see a row of severed heads delivered as a message, and a traumatized rape victim describing how her husband was chopped up and burned to death before her eyes by narcos who couldn’t stop laughing.
Fed up with the brutality, and with government corruption and incompetence, Mireles leads his “Autodefensa” militia against the narcos, taking back the province one town at a time in furious shoot-outs. Success is fleeting, though, and Mireles turns out to be — like Foley — less a white knight than a gray one.
Will Mexico’s out-of-control violence cross the border? “Cartel Land” seems to suggest it could, but endorses no solution, only showing that the current policy of drug prohibition is failing massively. The film wraps up with the words of a gang-connected meth cook (wearing an Autodefensa T-shirt!) who sees things as they are: “Some way, somehow, everyone gets corrupted. It’s a never-ending story.”
“Cartel Land” is now showing in cinemas in English and Spanish.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.