“Cartel Land” Documentary Completely Misunderstands Mexico’s Autodefensa Movement

Image of autodefensas from the book cover of Hermanos en Armas: Policías Comunitarias y Autodefensas (Brothers in Arms: Community Police and Self-Defense Movements) by Mexican journalist Luis Hernández Navarro.
Image of autodefensas from the book cover of Hermanos en Armas: Policías Comunitarias y Autodefensas (Brothers in Arms: Community Police and Self-Defense Movements) by Mexican journalist Luis Hernández Navarro.

Violence in Mexico is surging back into the headlines – if current trends continue, deaths in 2017 could hit 30,000, making it the deadliest peacetime year on record (WSJ July 5, 2017). Attempts to stem the violence by Mexican and U.S. governmental agencies have failed spectacularly, and corruption reigns. In the face of this crisis, what alternatives exist? How do people living in the areas most affected negotiate the violence?

One of the most important and, in the United States, least-understood answers can be found in the emergence of the autodefensas, or self-defense, movements. The world of the autodefensas in Mexico sprang vividly onto the silver screen in the United States with the 2015 documentary “Cartel Land,” directed by Matthew Heineman. The film was given a major boost in visibility when the Oscar-winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, joined as an executive producer. Although the movie lost the best-documentary Oscar for which it was nominated, it picked up numerous other awards, including three Emmys and a special jury prize and best director at the Sundance film festival.

The documentary makes an extremely forced parallel between the vigilantes who have decided to patrol the southern border of the United States and the autodefensas of the Mexican state of Michoacán, who are fighting to protect themselves from the cartel violence, dominated by the Knights Templar, that has taken over the region. The documentary focuses on two charismatic leaders, Dr. José Manuel Mireles in Michoacán and Tim “Nailer” Foley in Arizona, with incredible footage from both sides of the border. However, its forced attempt to highlight the similarities between the men skips over the complexity and context that actually make the stories worth telling in the first place. The ultimate incompatibility of the two narratives – what perhaps should be two separate movies, forced uncomfortably into one – and the film’s aggressive lack of analysis together erase the most fundamentally interesting aspects of both stories.

In interviews, Heineman has described stumbling upon a clipping about the autodefensas after he had already started a documentary about the vigilantes on the US border. Admitting that he knew nothing about the context (and does not speak Spanish), Heineman found a well-connected fixer, local journalist, Daniel Fernández, and eventually spent months embedded with autodefensa leader, Mireles, in Michoacán.

In its attempt to create an equation between vigilantes on both sides of the border fighting the “same enemy,” the documentary avoids hard questions about power imbalances and corruption. It simplistically challenges the viewer with images of men “taking the law into their own hands” after “losing faith in their government’s ability to protect them,” thus perpetuating dangerous assumptions about the causes and effects of cartel violence. The film raises multiple ethical questions as it ends up dissolving into what appears to be an almost prurient interest in manhood, violence and guns. The filmmaker’s lack of understanding means the chance for a deeper exploration of questions about social movements and self-defense is missed. Heineman concludes that the situation is complex and cannot be understood in terms of black and white. This insight would have been a good place to start. Mireles has expressed disappointment in Heineman’s film and regret for having participated in it, citing misleading statements made by the filmmaker in the pre-production phase of the documentary (Excelsior, May 16, 2017).

In contrast, the deeply informed book Hermanos en Armas: Policías Comunitarias y Autodefensas (Brothers in Arms: Community Police and Self-Defense Movements), by renowned Mexican journalist Luis Hernández Navarro and published in 2014 in Mexico by the non-profit press Para Leer en Libertad, is the antidote to the worrisome oversimplifications of “Cartel Land.” The book traces the contemporary self-defense movement to its roots in the indigenous and campesino movements of the second half of the 20th century, and details the multiple ways people have come together to confront the violent crisis created by the Mexican government’s 2006 declaration of a “war on drugs,” and the Pandora’s box of civilian insecurity it opened.

Hermanos en Armas is an exploration of rural Mexico’s complexity and the intertwined issues—poverty, education, health, corruption, farming and governmental policies—from which the community police and autodefensa movements have emerged. An important distinction is that community police are anchored in indigenous communities whose governing bodies appoint and monitor them, while autodefensas are autonomous armed groups. Active in many different ways throughout the country, these social movements draw on connections to indigenous resistance movements and networks of small producers of coffee and corn. These movements are clear examples of new processes and identities emerging in rural Mexico, combining tradition and innovation, in the context of the profound changes that indigenous and rural people have experienced from the advance of “modernity” over the past 50 years.

Hernández Navarro traces the moment when community policing burst onto the national stage, symbolized by a widely-publicized photo of 50 fully armed community police marching into Chilpancingo, Guerrero on April 7, 2013 to lend their support to a teachers’ strike in protest of drastic cuts to public education. Notably, some 120 education students from the nearby college, Ayotzinapa, joined in this march – 43 students from this same college disappeared on September 26, 2014, after a brutal attack by the local cartel and, apparently, state and federal troops, which also left six people dead.

Hernández Navarro further outlines the Mexican government’s intensifying fight against the autodefensas, indicating the crackdown reflects the perception of the threat these movements represent to the status quo. In a recent interview, Mireles, after serving an almost three-year prison sentence after refusing to join a government-formed and endorsed rural police force, affirmed his commitment to the autodefensas, noting these were the only way to achieve social harmony (Proceso, July 4, 2017). Most importantly, the potential strength of these civilian uprisings far outweighs the government’s attempts to control them. And therein may lie the biggest potential for successfully combatting the waves of violence that threaten to engulf Mexico and the United States. The violence cannot be separated from all the other political-economic issues confronting Mexico, and the rural movements that combine these deeply connected matters pose a significant threat to governmental corruption.

As a new wave of violence threatens to engulf Mexico and the United States, or where it has plagued communities for decades, such as in Chicago, understanding social movements that present complex alternatives and challenges to failed state interventions is more urgent than ever.

Alice Brooke Wilson (UNC-CH Anthropology PhD, 2015) is an affiliate of the independent Mexico-based think tank Centro de Estudios para los Cambios en el Campo Mexicano (Center for the Study of Rural Change, http://www.ceccam.org/), co-founded by Luis Hernández Navarro and Ana de Ita in 1992.