The Iraq of Latin America
by Michael J. Totten
Mexico is more like Iraq than any other country in the Western Hemisphere with the possible exception of Haiti. A bewilderingly multifaceted armed conflict has been raging since 2007 between more than a dozen militarized drug cartels, the federal government and a smorgasbord of citizen’s militias.
The Mexican mafia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Soviet Proxy during the Cold War that remains on the list of international terrorist organizations, back some of the cartels, and according to the Tucson Police Department, even Hezbollah has gotten involved.
The cartels are bribing and corrupting so many government officials that the state fights them only occasionally and only in certain places, leaving citizens at the mercy of murderous criminal enterprises that don’t flinch at even ISIS levels of brutality.
A few years ago, for instance, goons from one of the cartels in the resort city of Acapulco demanded elementary school teachers cough up fifty percent of their salaries or the schools would be attacked.They left a sack of five severed heads out front on the sidewalk to show they weren’t screwing around.
The Mexican Drug War has killed more than 100,000 people in the last eight years. Think about that. That’s twice as many as the number of American killed during the Vietnam War. The conflict even occasionally spills over the border into the United States.
No one could cover all this in a single article or even a feature-length film. In a book, perhaps, but it would be as mind-bogglingly complex as Jason Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters about the impossibly tortured great war in the Congo.
Matthew Heineman covers a piece of it, though, in his searing new documentary Cartel Land, produced by Katherine Bigelow of Zero Dark Thirty fame. He embeds with militia leaders in both Mexico and the United States—Dr. Jose Mireles in the state of Michoacan, and Tim Foley in Arizona—and follows them on patrol and into battle.
Dr. Mireles leads the local Grupo de Autodefensa, a citizen’s militia that rose up to fight the Knight’s Templar cartel, a ghastly mafia/terrorist hybrid, after it took over the small city of Tepalcatepec an hour or so south of Guadalajara.
“What would you do?” Dr. Mireles says when asked why a medical doctor is moonlighting as a militia commander. “Wait for when they come to you? Or defend yourself?”
Heineman even manages to interview some of the cartel members. “We are the meth cooks,” a masked man says on screen. “We know we do harm. But what are we going to do? We come from poverty.”
Foley, meanwhile, leads the Arizona Border Recon, a vigilante group that hunts drug smugglers and human traffickers on the American side of the border. “It’s the cartels,” he says on the safer side of the line in America. “They’re the ones terrorizing their own country, and now they’re starting to do it over here.”
Cartel Land is a mostly political tale in America’s back yard punctuated with heart-stopping scenes of battle we associate more with war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq than where millions of us like to go on vacation. Most of it focuses on Michoacan’s autodefensas, a militia movement that starts out surprisingly civic-minded considering the fact that it’s…a militia. “When the government can’t provide basic security for its people,” Dr. Mireles says, “we take up arms.”
The story on the American side is, by contrast, a bit on the dull side. Heineman seems to know it, too, so most of the screen time is down there in Mexico. The American “militia” isn’t really even a militia, at least not in the Mexican sense of the word, and certainly not in the Iraqi sense of the word. The only thing Foley’s crew really has in common with Mireles’ autodefensas is that the drug cartels are the enemy.