Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman’s Academy Award nominated documentary, is the story of two men, and two countries. Tim “Nailer” Foley is the leader of an organization in the United States called Arizona Border Recon. Dr. Manuel Mireles is the founder of a group of paramilitary self-defense groups, or “Autodefensas” in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán. Both claim to be dedicated to the defense of their people against the Mexican drug cartels. Neither might be exactly what he claims.
Tim Foley is the less consequential of the two. Heineman probably could have left him out of the documentary altogether, but I suppose he does offer some insight into the kind of men who like to dress up like soldiers and patrol the border between Mexico and the United States looking for “illegals.” In the opening scene of Cartel Land, Heineman interviews to Mexican meth cookers. We know that what we do harms people in the United States, one of the men says, but we come from poor families so we don’t have any choice. If I were from a rich family, he adds, pointing at the cameraman, I’d have a nice clean job like you people in the media. Tim Foley is one of the people in the United States the meth cooker has harmed. He’s a former meth addict. Arizona Border Recon is part of his redemption narrative.
After a near death experience, Foley tells us, he kicked drugs and started working construction, only to be put out of a job by illegal immigrants from Mexico. When he came to the border, however, he decided that the real enemy wasn’t the illegal immigrants who put him out of a job, but the Mexican drug cartels, all of whom smuggle people as well as meth. Foley indignantly talks about how the Southern Poverty Law Center lists Arizona Border Recon as a hate group, and strongly denies that he’s a racist, and I believe him, but it still doesn’t make his group worthy of half the documentary. All Foley and his followers seem to do is dress up in fatigues and try out new weapons and new electronic gadgets. We see absolutely no sign of the “invasion” that Foley, or Donald Trump, talks about. We don’t even get to see an armed member of any of the cartels. Tim Foley, I think it’s safe to say, can be summed up as a broken man who likes to play soldier.
Dr. Manuel Mireles is another story altogether. A very tall, charismatic womanizer with a big, bushy mustache and a black cowboy hat, you can easily imagine Mireles as the next Fidel Castro or Poncho Villa, as the leader of a violent revolution that overthrows the Mexican government. In fact, on a smaller scale, he does just that, travelling with an ever expanding group of Autodefensas, and liberating town after town in the southern southern Mexican state of Michoacán from the “Knights Templar,” an offshoot of the Zetas. It’s here where Matthew Heineman’s documentary really shines. Some of the camera work is on the level of some of the great photography of the Vietnam War. When the Mexican Army arrives and tries to release a group of Knights Templars that Mireles and his Autodefensas have detained, and the townspeople drive the soldiers away, it feels like the beginning of a revolution. When Mireles instructs one of his men to execute one of the Templars, to “put him in the ground,” and allows Heineman to continue filming, it feels a bit like watching Eddie Adams take his famous photo of the Vietnamese communist being shot through the head in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. Holy shit, we think, is this actually happening?
Soon, however, you begin to get the impression that it all looks just a little too easy. You wonder if Heineman is writing propaganda for the NRA. Why else would he bookend the story of Manuel Mireles with the story of Tim Foley. All you need to get rid of bad men with guns, the film seems to be saying, are a few good men with guns. The story of Manuel Mireles and the Autodefensas is far more complex than right wing propaganda. Soon the Mexican government begins to resent the loss of authority in Michoacán. They send agents provocateurs to infiltrate and undermine Mireles’ organization. Mireles is gravely wounded in a plane crash, and has to spend over a year in the hospital with traumatic brain injury. When his lieutenants, men with nicknames like “Papa Smurf” and “El Gordo,” take over the day to day operations of the Autodefensas, the line between the cartels and the vigilantes, between organized crime and organized resistance to crime, is blurred. Papa Smurf allows rank and file Autodefensas to rob the houses of cartel members, supposedly to get back what the cartels stole from the people, but more likely than not, we realize, to line their own pockets. After Mireles returns to Michoacán, the Mexican government begins to play “divide and conquer,” offering Papa Smurf and El Gordo amnesty and incorporation into the Mexican army in exchange for agreeing to disarm. Mexico may be close to a failed state, but Mexican politicians are surprisingly good at counterinsurgency. El Gordo and Papa Smurf accept the deal and force Mireles into hiding, effectively breaking up the Autodefensas, and restoring the old order in Michoacán. Cartel Land ends with Mireles in prison on weapons charges, and with the viewer wondering what exactly just happened. Is Mireles a fake? Were the Autodefensas just the latest re-branding of the cartels? Or has Heineman been working to discredit Mireles all along?
In the end, Cartel Land raises more questions than it answers.