Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2015: ‘Cartel Land’ and the Never-Ending Story of the Drug War

Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land reveals the false opposition between good and evil in the drug wars.

I definitely did not carry a gun. It is unethical. I am an outside observer observing them. I wore a bulletproof vest and we had all sort of security precautions in place. We had teams of people who always knew where we were at all times, and what roads we were driving on in case we got kidnapped. There was a whole security apparatus that we had set up beforehand.

Matthew Heineman,

“The United States is where most drugs are sold.” The Mexican meth cooker is working at night, his face covered by a bandana, protection against both smoke and any sort of identification. “We know we do harm with all the drugs that go there,” he goes on as you watch one of his colleagues stir a huge blue vat and another documents amounts with a cell phone camera. Their arms and hands swirl in smoke, rising as if from a witches’ brew, “But what are we going to do? We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we would be like you, traveling the world or doing good clean jobs like you guys.”

Beautifully filmed and fiercely evocative, this first encounter in Cartel Land sets in motion any number of complications. Most obviously, the cooker reminds you of the interlocked culpabilities of the US and Mexican governments, the effects of poverty and lack of hope, but he also points out his own relationship with the crew wielding cameras, lights, and boom mics out there in the desert so late at night. It’s a relationship that shapes this remarkable film, screening at the 2015 Human Rights Watch Film Festival, as Matthew Heineman is granted access to all manner of illegal and dangerous activities. Recording raids and shootouts, secret meetings and embarrassments, the film looks at multiple effects of the forever drug war.

The film makes clear that these effects are all bad, even given the hopeful stories told by those who believe they’re fighting against the bad guys, the cartels. “There’s an imaginary line out there between right and wrong, good and evil,” explains Nailer Foley, head of Arizona’s Border Recon (a paramilitary group the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as “extremist”). “I believe what I’m doing is good and I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.”

Nailer, a war veteran, describes himself undergoing a conversion, asserting that he’s grateful for his own father’s abuses, so severe that Nailer left home at 15, found and lost work, then turned to meth and alcohol until a horrific car accident set off whatever alarm needed to be set off for him. In lieu of addiction, he found a mission. He sees a context and has found his place in it: “Technically, we’re vigilantes, upholding the law where there is no law. But the phrase ‘vigilante,'” he adds, “It’s been given a bad name by the media.”

However beset by “media”, Nailer’s vigilantes are outfitted with camo uniforms, Kevlar vests, and assault rifles, present a kind of order as they patrol the border along Altar Valley, 52 miles of corridor also called Cocaine Alley, looking for smugglers of humans and drugs, smugglers they then turn over to US authorities. During one such adventure, Nailer climbs a hill in search of an advantageous view. As happens more than once in this movie, the camera follows the action, looking for a moment like a stalker camera, coming up on Nailer as he pauses to survey the expanse of imminent trouble before him. Turning to the camera, he says, “This is my third time up this fucking thing, and they get away every time, so I got a bone to pick with these motherfuckers.” He does find a few, pointing out the leader for the camera and engaging in a rudimentary interrogation (“You sabe English?”). Turning to leave, Nailer instructs his men, “Anybody touches me, drop him,” looking directly the young man he’s identified as the coyote leading the group, whose ability to speak English and Spanish makes him instantly suspicious.

As they walk back down the hill, captives in tow, the fading light obscures the team’s camouflage, so it doesn’t look so different from that worn by some of the prisoners. Poignant and disturbing too, this image recalls that “imaginary line” Nailer believes in so fervently. It serves similar functions in Mexico, the very place Nailer identifies as the source of all the violence.

In the province of Michoacán, the film follows Dr. José Mireles, another vigilante, righteous in his condemnation of the cartels and the Mexican government, resolved to provide “the people” with a force for good, for protection, for something like self-determination. When he arrives in a town, he says and the film illustrates, at least at first, the citizens cheer and join in, they take training and guns, they make their way through the streets, weapons cocked. The camera trails behind, video-game style, ducking and jogging to avoid fire while keen to reveal what’s beyond the next corner.

Like Nailer’s group, the Grupo de Autodefensa distrusts the government, disdains its abject failure to establish order, in particular against a cartel known as the Knights Templar. Both groups point out the corruption that allows cartels to flourish, their community from law enforcement, their unofficial participation in the government that’s supposed to police them. Yet the Border Recon — so far — is still organizing mostly by social media and patrolling at the edges of where “the people” might live, borrowing when convenient from familiar American racism. As one recruit explains himself, the frame fills with a campfire (and a girl’s back in silhouette, as if at a beach party): “You wouldn’t put two pitbulls in the same pen and expect ’em to get along and not fight. Why would you put two races in the same nation?”

Though Nailer’s rationale is less knee-jerk, both he and his recruit deal in imaginary lines, assuming their side is the right one. Mireles, who is shot and seriously injured partway through shooting, embodies a series of crises that make plain the absurdity of the lines. As he cedes control of his group, temporarily, he sees it from inside and out at once, and begins to worry about consequences of vigilantism. “We can’t become the criminals we’re fighting against,” he cautions, but he’s too late even before he starts.

So too is the movie. But, and to its great credit, Cartel Land identifies that dilemma immediately, during the first surreal scene with the meth cookers. The oppositions can’t hold; the differences are also always similarities, and the claims to morality are means to ends. As the meth cooker identifies his own relationship to his interviewers, “doing good clean jobs”, he hints at what can never be clean, the relations between nations, between classes, between documentary filmmakers and their subjects.

In framing this predicament so vividly, in its gorgeous first scene, Cartel Land ensures that you worry about it throughout follows, that you might ponder how cookers and vigilantes might want to be on camera, what stories they believe about themselves, how they understand the “media” as a tool in their efforts.

Then, too, you might think again about the cycles they represent and act out, perhaps the part you play, as consumer and observer, or the seeming inevitability of what happens next. “The cartels, mafia, whatever you want to call it, are involved in this, they’re involved in everything,” says the meth cooker, reappearing at film’s end. “The Autodefensas and the people cooking meth, we’re pretty much the same team.” Though his face is still masked, he now wears a cop’s shirt, with insignia. “As the cooks, we gotta lay low now that we’re part of the government,” he explains. But no matter. “It’s just never gonna stop. It’s just a never-ending story.”

RATING 9 / 10