Cartel Land is one of the documentaries that are nominated for an Oscar this year and it’s easy to see why. It’s well filmed and explains a most complicated issue with clarity. The border wars between the US and Mexico has evolved way beyond than just illegal aliens racing across the border at night. It’s about drugs – meth in particular. Manufactured in Mexico, smuggled into the US to bring top dollar.
The movie starts on the US side of border with a small band of men armed to the teeth with AR-15s and binoculars to stop it. Of course, it takes a while to realize, these are Homeland Security guys. They aren’t Army guys. They aren’t local police either. It’s basically your local neighborhood watch on steroids. They aren’t getting paid, they aren’t going to get medals. In fact, they could very well be arrested for what they doing but this is a regular occurrence all for the sake of protecting the borders.
The film then quickly moves to the Mexican side of the issue and this is where things get a bit more complicated. The drug cartels have their own militia to protect their product, provide intimidation to local police and communities, and if necessary engage in turf wars with other cartels, law enforcement agencies, or a relatively new enemy – the local militia.
Dr. Mireles has gone from community to community in his state establishing these militia to fight crime, human trafficking, and the intimidation from the drug cartels. At first, the communities embraced these mercenaries. As the film evolves, they become just as corrupt as the drug cartels. He and his organization becomes a classic study in the proverb “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The militia becomes drunk on the power of being feared as well as being infiltrated and compromised by the drug cartels. Adding another layer of complexity is the response of the federal government. While they (the government) can point to no direct action against the mob and drug cartels, they call the establishment of these militias a threat to national security.
The solution? Federally established militias – made up of the very same people – instead of local ones. It’s a not so hidden money grab by the federal government and what is at risk in the middle of these games are the law-abiding people in the communities.
This to me is where the film could have improved. We get an inside look at these militias and how the cartels work. We get a great look at the militia on the US side of the issue as well as the meth cookers on the Mexican side. What we don’t get to see is the effect or feeling of the neighborhoods where all of this is playing out.
It is a gritty, raw film – not for the faint of heart but it’s a fascinating look inside what is going on around our borders.