Title: Cartel Land
Rating: 4 Stars
This documentary tells the story of two thematically related stories of vigilantes fighting against the drug cartels.
One takes place near the border in Arizona. The leader is a person who has had a hard life, has made some mistakes, and has found his calling, which is trying to interdict the drugs coming into his little corner of the border.
This was less interesting to me. On a personal level, I can understand his desire to do good. It just seems like such a quixotic quest guaranteed to fail. It was simply hard to take his rag tag collection of people and treat them in any way seriously, despite their uniforms, weapons, and radios.
The more interesting story is on the other side of border (way on the other side, deep in the Michoacan part of Mexico). That state appears to have been taken over by the cartel.
One man, a doctor, decides to make a difference. He raises a group of men, they come up with whatever weapons they can muster, and they take over a town and kick out the cartel (the Templars). The town greets them as liberators.
They secure this town and go after the next town. And the next. And the next. Soon, they have a good chunk of the state liberated from the cartel. In each town, the leader, Dr Mireles, tells the town that the Autodefensas are there to help, but it is the people’s town and they need to control it. He asks for volunteers to join him, of which there are many.
In one unbelievable scene, the federal police come to confiscate the weapons from the Autodefensas. The church bell is rung, and the townspeople, equipped with sticks and other crude weapons, descend upon the authorities in defense of the Autodefensas. In the face of such an uprising, the authorities back down and return the weapons.
Dr Mireles is shown relaxing as an attentive, loving husband and father.
He then gets into a mysterious plane crash that leaves him seriously injured. In the aftermath, his right hand man (with the unlikely but utterly appropriate nickname Papa Smurf) tries to lead. Under his leadership, the discipline disintegrates. People from the Autodefensas steal from houses, they abuse their authority, and alienate the locals. In one scene, Papa Smurf is effectively shouted down in a town square meeting by the townspeople.
It also comes out that one of the other leaders in the Autodefensas is himself a member of the Templars. Several other members of the Templars have infiltrated them. In one of the final scenes, a meth cook casually mentions that money from drug sales are used to buy weapons used by the Autodefensas.
Dr Mireles tries to come back. He himself is now shown to be a tarnished figure. In front of cameras, he blatantly starts an affair with a woman half his age. In one aside, he pretty clearly orders the execution of a suspected cartel member. He fights to regain control of Autodefensas but ultimately he loses and the Autodefensas is brought under the authority of the federal government as a Rural Defense Force, with all of the possibilities of official corruption now available.
Dr Mirelese ends up on the run, in fear of his life. In a note at the end, it is mentioned that he has been arrested and is incarcerated in a federal facility.
This tragedy shows the possibly impossible difficulty of trying to bring justice to a country that has really never known civil justice. A power rises up to free the people, but the actual acquisition of the power ends up itself corrupting.
The leader on the Arizona border talks about how all it takes to break a cycle is someone to actually act to break it. The story of the Autodefensas shows how hard that really is to do.