Cartel Land

I’m not sure if would recommend Matthew Heinemann’s dark and disturbing documentary Cartel Land, which I saw last night, because one thing you can say is that is not a pleasant or life-affirming evening at the movies.  But for those who believe that cinema should do more than entertain you or send you home with a warm glowing feeling, this is an unmissable and terrifying journey into the nightmare of violence and corruption that Mexico has become as a result of the cartels that feed America’s insatiable drug habit.

The film is on one level a study of the follies and moral ambiguities of vigilantism.  It traces the parallel stories of two vigilantes on each side of the border.  On the American side there is Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, former drug abuser and child abuse victim for whom the adjective ‘lived-in’ barely begins to describe the ravaged features and wounded eyes, as he stalks the Arizona border in military fatigues with a team of the spooky-looking military types who seem to abound in America.

Like many of the vigilante groups on the US-Mexico border, Foley began these patrols in an attempt to stop migrants from crossing the frontier, before focusing on the drug cartels instead.    Foley is a kind of Western hero-cum-Rambo, who sees himself as David versus the cartel Goliath and characterizes his self-appointed mission battling evil as an attempt to uphold law and order in a land where law has ceased to exist.

Apart from wandering around the desert with guns and walkie-talkies, it is not clear what Foley has actually achieved through these patrols.  The same cannot be said of the other subject of Heinemann ‘s film; Dr José Manuel Mireles Valverde, who formed an armed group called the Autodefensas in 2013 to take on the Knights Templar cartel in a series of townships in the state of Michoacán.

Valverde’s group appears to have initially been quite successful, driving the cartel out of a series of towns, and establishing itself as a parallel authority to rival the corrupt and inept police and army.  In one of the film’s many extraordinary scenes, he and his group are disarmed by the army, which is then driven away by the local population after handing back the confiscated weapons.

As the film progresses,  it becomes disturbingly clear that the Autodefensas are not the ‘good guys’, to say the least, and their relationship becomes increasingly strained, before the shocking revelations that I won’t reveal in case you see it.   Mireles himself is a tricky and bizarre character.  Courageous to the point of foolhardiness, he risks his life and nearly loses it in his battle against the cartels.

At the same time he is extraordinarily narcissistic, macho, and self-aggrandizing, and really quite astonishing in what he is prepared to reveal on camera.  At one point he tells his men, who have just captured a suspected narco ‘ get everything you can out of him and put him in the ground’, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that there could ever be any consequences for giving such an order.

Of course in Mexico there often aren’t any consequences for anything, and perhaps Mireles knows that.  Perhaps that is one reason why the Autodefensas begin to behave like a cartel, killing and torturing suspects, raiding and stealing from houses, before it becomes horrifically clear that they, the police, the local authorities and the Mexican government are playing a darker game than Walter White could ever have dreamed about.

Mireles describes his organization as a ‘social movement’, but civil society is clearly only peripherally involved in an armed movement which is too easily dominated by armed men with ambiguous agendas and unaccountable powers, and which offers no long term institutional or societal answers to the problems it was created to address.

These complex stories are brilliantly-told, without narration, in a film that relies heavily on  ‘cinematic’ techniques, from its haunting cinematography of a Cormac McCarthy-like Mexican border, to its night drives to places that few documentary filmmakers have ever visited, and chaotic and brutal raids and gunfights that Heinemann and his team can consider themselves lucky to have witnessed and lived to talk about.

These effects aren’t just gimmicks to ramp up the entertainment value. There is really nothing entertaining about this journey into the Mexican heart of darkness.  Heinemann’s film is on one level, a portrait of a particular society – Mexico – whose institutions have become completely co-opted and subjugated by the drug trade, and the violence and corruption that the trade engenders.  The result is a catastrophic systemic failure that is moral, political and social, and which  offers no easy or convenient solutions.

That failure is not unique to Mexico.  After all, the horrors of ‘Cartel Land’ have been repeated in other Latin American countries, and also in some American cities, in Naples and Palermo. The vast profits from the drug trade have been laundered into the international financial system, mixing ‘dirty’ with clean money to the point when it is difficult to know if anyone knows – or cares – what the difference is.

To some extent the drug trade is kind of hyper-capitalism, which as the Italian sociologist Pino Arlacchi once argued, echoes the early period that Marx identified as ‘primitive accumulation’, through raw violence, piracy and slavery.  But the world that Heinemann depicts is also a testament to the crazed greed that drives global capitalism; to the terrible futility of the drug war, with its concentration on supply rather than demand, which has boosted profits to the point when those who pursue them have absolutely no moral scruples about what they do to get them, and which feeds on the poverty of a country that borders the richest country on earth.

The result of all this is the dystopian society depicted in Cartel Land.  But whereas most dystopias take place in the near or far-distant future, this one is unfolding right now.


The Sorrows of Mexico

There aren’t many countries where bodies are discovered in a mass grave believed to be the known victims of a known massacre,   only for it to turn out that the bodies were actually the unknown victims of an unknown massacre, but Mexico is one of them.     Three weeks ago 43 teaching students disappeared from the town of Iguala, in the southern state of Guererro after they were attacked by local police and unidentified gunmen during a protest.

Even by Mexican standards, Guererro is a rough place, outside its capital Acapulco anyway.     This was the state depicted by the Mexican director Francisco Vargas Quevedo in his bleak depiction of military violence, poverty and oppression El Violin – a must-see film for anyone who wants to understand contemporary Mexico.   In 2013 Guerrero was the most violent state in Mexico, with 2,087 homicides and 207 reported cases of kidnapping, and the US Embassy advises its citizens not to even travel by daylight on certain roads.

The state is a lot more dangerous for Mexicans.     The students are believed to have been attacked while returning home on buses by local police acting in collusion with the local drug cartel Guerreros Unidos, who are also believed to have been linked to the local mayor.

When a number of mass graves were discovered last week, the Mexican media originally reported that they contained the bodies of the missing students.     Now the Mexican attorney general has said that DNA tests on the first 28 bodies do not match the students after all, which leaves the question of who these new victims are, and also the still unanswered question of what happened to the students themselves.

The range of   victims and possible perpetrators will surprise no one with any familiarity with Meixco.       This is a country in which thousands of people simply vanish every year.   In 2012 Mexico suffered an estimated 105,682 kidnappings; only 1,317 of which were reported to the police.   In 2013 it was reported that 26,000 people had disappeared during President Felipe Calderon’s catastrophic ‘war on drugs’ between 2006 and 2012.     Today the number of missing people is estimated by the government at more than 34,000.

That figure doesn’t include the 100,000 murders that have taken place during the wars between Mexico’s savage drug cartels.  To put these figures in perspective, up to 30,000 people may have been ‘disappeared’ during the six-year dictatorship in Argentina – in a merciless slaughter that is rightly remembered as one of the great state crimes of the 20th century.

In Mexico people disappear so frequently and for so many reasons that the phenomenon has acquired a depressing   normality, both nationally and internationally.   They might be Mexican and Central American migrants, murdered, raped or enslaved during the dangerous journeys from Chiapas and across the US-Mexico border that Oscar Martínez described so brilliantly in his journalistic masterpiece The Beast; unacknowledged casualties of Mexico’s drug wars; trafficked women on slave workers; victims of extorsion…and students protesting the corruption of the local state authorities.

Some of them can be found on government and non-official websites, with photographs and brief biographies and descriptions, last whereabouts and sometimes grim messages of last conversations with unnamed kidnappers who didn’t call back.

Too often they disappear without any explanation and their disappearances remain unexplained,   because the police and state authorities have no interest in finding them, and may actually have colluded in their disapperance.  Writing of his research into 300 disappearances in 11 Mexican states, Nik Steinberg of Human Rights Watch noted that   ‘if these disappearances share anything in common, it is that the government has done almost nothing to try to find the missing.’

Back in the 1970s that the Latin American ‘national security states’ gave rise to a new semantic term los desaparacidos – the disappeared – to describe the people who were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the security forces, whose disappearances the state refused to acknowledge.     The term was often accompanied by the transformation of the verb desaparacer – to disappear – into a sinister new transitive verb, as in ‘to disappear someone’ or ‘he/she was disappeared’.

The Latin Americans borrowed this strategy from the French army in Algeria and implemented it with such devastating effect that as many as 100,000 people may have been disappeared during the Cold War.     From the point of view of the security services, this strategy had various advantages;   It enabled them to terrorise their political opponents or critics with an image of implacable and omnipresent power, while avoiding any political or legal consequences for the murders they carried out.   No bodies, no paper trail, no trial.

The ‘ disappeared’ were therefore a key component in the concept of ‘impunity’ that so many human rights and civil society organizations struggled against in Brasil, Argentina, Guatemala and other dictatorships that used such methods.   The regimes that did this believed, or claimed to believe, that they were fighting a ‘dirty war’ against ‘international communism’ that required such methods – a defense that was rejected out of hand during some of the trials and investigations that followed the collapse of these regimes.

Mexico was also part of this tradition.   To this day it has never revealed the names of the students killed by security forces during the October 1968 Tlatelolco massacre.     With their range of motives and perpetrators, Mexico’s new desaparacidos do not even have the flimsy pseudo-justification of Cold War exceptionality, but they do share in common the wall of impunity that the ‘national security states’ of the Cold War attempted to build around themselves.

Not only are the disappeared not found, but the people who ‘disappeared’ them are not revealed or charged, and indifference has become the entrenched principle of a state that is corrupt from top to bottom, and which has shown staggering indifference to the welfare and safety of its own citizens.

In this context, the struggle against impunity has been fought by a handful of courageous civil society and local family groups and NGOs like Fundem (Fuerzas Unidas por Nuestros Desaparacidos en Mexico – United Forces for Our Disappeared in Mexico) and H.I.J.O.S Mexico ( Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia, contra el Olvido y el Silencio – Children for Identity and Justice, against Forgetting and Silence).

But they shouldn’t have to fight it alone.   The world ought to wake up to the horror that has been unfolding in Mexico’s narco-democracy and put some serious pressure on the government to act more like a democratic government and less like Pinochet. It’s become a truism of the new ‘humanitarian’ school of international relations that the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to act when governments are perpetrating serious human rights violations against their ‘own people’.

This is a principle of faux-solidarity and faux-human rights, which western governments like only when it can used as a justification for the latest war du jour.     Because the Mexican state may not be ‘killing its own people’, but the ‘missing’ students in Guerrero are one more reminder that it has very little interest in stopping them.

Too often the world has only shown any interest in   the sorrows of Mexico, when they can be translated into violent popular entertainment like No Country for Old Men or Breaking Bad.   But Mexico deserves better than that,   and the men and women who are beating against Mexico’s institutionalised corruption and impunity deserve our recognition and support.

They want to know where the disappeared have gone, and the world should help them find out.



Beauty and the beast: Miss Bala and Mexico’s drug war

I’ve just watched Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo’s superb thriller Miss Bala: the bullet queen (2011).   It’s the searing and utterly tragic tale of Laura Guerrero, a young woman from a poor family in Baja California, who enters a beauty pageant only to find herself sucked into a terrifying vortex of violence and corruption, when she inadvertently becomes involved with the ruthless narcotrafficante Lino.

Within two days her life is completely destroyed and  she becomes a hapless counter in the brutal struggle between the local narcos and the Mexican police and agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).   In this corrupt world there are no good guys, the police and even the army are often in league with gangsters and drug traffickers, and it’s often impossible to tell who is hunting who or why.

Naranjo tells this bleak and terrible tale with real verve and skill, as the kitsch fakery of beauty pageants alternates with hallucinatory scenes of gun battles and murders, and the constant crackle of walkie talkies provides  a nightmarish soundtrack to the drug-ravaged dystopia that his innocent protagonist blunders into and cannot escape from.

The film was loosely based on the story of Laura Zuniga, a former preschool teacher who won the Miss Sinaloa beauty contest in July 2008.  Zuniga was expected to enter the 2009 Miss International contest.   In December 2008 however, she was arrested with members of a local narcotraffic gang riding in a truck filled with guns and ammunition.    Naranjo also weaves in the story of Enrique ‘kike’ Camarena Salazar, the DEA agent who was murdered by narcotrafficantes in 1985.

Much of the film’s emotional power derives from the terrific performance by Stephanie Sigman as the would-be beauty queen, whose youthful innocence gives way to terror, desperation and ultimately resignation.  To call  Miss Bala  a thriller doesn’t really do it justice.   On one level it’s a story of innocence defiled.  But it’s also a passionate and incisive indictment of the devastating impact of the US/Mexican drug war on Mexican society.

Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on the drug trade in 2005, an  incredible 47, 515 people    have  been killed,  nearly 13,000 of whom died last year alone.  Most of them have been killed in turf wars between rival cartels, competing for the extraordinarily lucrative US market.

But murder has now become such a routine phenomenon that migrant workers trying to cross the US-Mexico border have been massacred  because they refuse to act as smugglers or work for the cartels, teenagers have been shot dead at parties in order to transmit ‘statements’ to the authorities, and drug addicts in the border city of Juarez have been killed for reasons that no one appears able to explain.

Like the Sicilian Mafia wars of the early 80s, these narco-wars are a form of criminal ‘primitive accumulation’ on a massive scale, whose profit margins are magnified by prohibition and defended through violence, killing and all-pervasive corruption, and whose perpetrators can always find willing foot soldiers in an impoverished society where there are often no other ways  to make a living.

In Mexico however, the wartime intensity of the violence is fuelled by the trade in heavy weaponry from the United States.  The result is a symbiotic cross-border trade in which recreational drugs cross the frontier to feed the US market, while guns and ammunition are smuggled into Mexico from the United States to enable the cartels to kill each other – or anyone else they think necessary.

This two-way traffic may be logical from the point of view of the cartels, but it has had catastrophic consequences for Mexican society, which is now trapped in a futile and unwinnable ‘war’ on drugs that was launched largely at the behest of the US governments and which has entirely failed on its own terms.

All these consequences are laid bare in this brilliant and unmissable film.   Where The Wire explored the impact of the drug war on American inner cities, Miss Bala looks at the equally dysfunctional Mexican ‘battlefield’.    And if it doesn’t have a happy ending, that’s probably because Mexico hasn’t had one either.