Sartre's existential classic “No Exit” described Hell as someplace you didn't want to be, and you can't make it better, and from which there is no escape.
That's pretty much the situation right now with millions of people living in Mexico, and along the U.S. Border with Mexico. The drug cartels have taken over. Violence, extortion, and heavily-armed criminals running rampant, because either the government is powerless to do anything about it, or, in the case of too many places in Mexico, the police are actually part of the corrupt system.
It is at times like these that citizens are likely to begin taking matters into their own hands, and Director Matthew Heineman chronicles this in his heart-sickening documentary, “Cartel Land.”
It begins with a group of armed and masked men are cooking meth in the darkness, somewhere in Mexico. The spokesman for the group, unidentified, says that they would like to have soft, good-paying jobs, such as the filmmakers themselves have, but there aren't any. The demand for drugs primarily comes from the United States. The supply is available. The people desperate enough to sell it and transport it are numerous, virtually unlimited. Because, ironically, they want a better life for their families.
On the U.S.side of the border, Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, leads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, which seeks to patrol the 52-mile-long desert corridor known as cocaine alley. He says he's not giving in to the cartels. But what gives him the right to declare himself a vigilante? What about the right to arrest, interrogate, seize property, and engage in the exchange of gunfire?
On the other side of the border, a Mexican small-town physician named Jose Mireles heads ups a group called “Autodefensas,” citizens arming themselves against the Knights Templar, a drug cartel which has been terrorizing the region for years. He's intelligent and charismatic, and is able to capture people's imaginations, but alas, his organization is too loose, and attracts plenty of undesirables. Some commit crime, others are informants for the drug cartel itself, and still others, in the power vacuum which follows their initial success, establish yet another drug cartel.
Meanwhile, the Mexican government, exasperated with the way the “Audodefensas” group runs off the federales, claiming they aren't trusted, cleverly manages to deputize some of them, which causes a rift in their leadership. Dr. Mireles is jailed on a weapons charge, somewhere deep in Mexico City. And in the end, nothing much changes: the guns still rule, the violence still reigns, and people are afraid to speak out for fear of the safety of their families.
Yes, it's a complicated quagmire. But though Director Matthew Heineman has given us plenty to think about, he offers us little to hope for.
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Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas