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Laramie Movie Scope:
Cartel Land

Cycle of corruption turns full circle

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 21, 2015 -- This documentary film tells two related stories: Violence and corruption had gotten so bad in Michoacán, Mexico that a doctor, Manuel Mireles, led a team of vigilantes to clean up his town and a number of surrounding towns, killing or chasing off members of drug cartels operating in the region. At the same time, other vigilantes are operating north of the U.S. border, trying to stem the tide of drugs and people flowing northward.

This film about these vigilantes shows us scenes like something out of the Old West. Only the guns and cars are different. The film opens with a scene of people in Mexico making crystal methamphetamine in a remote area, while explaining that people from the United States taught them how to do this dangerous chemistry.

Then the film moves on to a Mexican funeral for men, women and children murdered by members of the drug cartels. Gruesome pictures of severed heads and dead bodies show the extent of the lawlessness in the Michoacán region.

The vigilantes, armed with impressive automatic weapons, ride into towns and are hailed as liberators. They storm drug strongholds and drive the cartels out. Mireles tells the locals they must form their own vigilante organizations, called autodefensas groups, and remain vigilant so the cartels don't move back into their towns. At one point, government forces take away the guns from the vigilantes, but then give them back, at the urging of the townspeople, who do not trust the government.

This effort seems to work remarkably well until Mireles is injured in a plane crash. The autodefensas organization is taken over by Estanislao “Papa Smurf” Beltrán. After more than a year, the organization evolves into something very different. It begins to look like criminals are operating within the organization. Acts of theft, murder, kidnapping and torture are carried out. In the film, it appears that communities no longer regard the autodefensas as liberators, but just another band of thugs.

North of the border, Tim “Nailer” Foley, a wiry, grizzled veteran, leads a small band of vigilantes on border patrols along the rugged Altar Valley (also called “cocaine alley”) in Arizona. It is clear that Foley blames illegal immigrants from south of the border for his inability to get a job, but his passion has evolved into a hatred for the drug cartels. The cartels, he says are smuggling both drugs and people into the United States. Cartel violence is moving north of the border as well, he says.

Foley and others are shown scaling rugged slopes, trying to catch up with spotters for drug smugglers, but the spotters sneak away before they can be caught. Later in the film, Foley leads a larger group which does capture seven men, led by a “coyote” who speaks English. The group turns the men over to the border patrol. The attitude of the “coyote” is one of minor annoyance. He gives Foley a “yeah, whatever” look when he is told to march.

The vigilantes are playing a game of whack-a-mole, holding back a drop in the flood of people and drugs pouring into the country. We could build a big, fancy border wall, at a cost of billions or trillions, but the smugglers would just tunnel under it. There are already lots of tunnels under the border. Smugglers are also getting drugs, and possibly people too, into the country by submarine. Then there are airplanes, helicopters and drones. Good luck with the wall idea. At least it would provide some jobs for those illegal immigrants.

Vigilantes are a famous part of local history where I live in Laramie, Wyoming. Over a hundred years ago, crooks and murderers had taken over this city, but vigilantes killed them or drove them away. The vigilantes cleaned up the town. As a temporary solution, vigilantes can solve problems like this, but it isn't a permanent solution. Eventually, there has to be rule by law and corruption must be eliminated. Right now, the enormous profits from the illegal drug trade are beginning to corrupt our entire legal and law enforcement system. The same thing happened during Prohibition.

According to insinuations in this documentary, the drug trade has already corrupted the Mexican government, and life is clearly hell for many people in Mexico. Maybe we ought to do what famed conservative William F. Buckley proposed years ago, legalize drugs, and thereby take the profits out of the hands of criminals. The illegal drug trade is pure capitalism, and capitalism is a powerful force. You can try to fight it, or you can try to harness it.

This documentary includes some impressive hand-held camera work, indicating bravery during firefights and stamina while tracking people through very rugged terrain. While this shows impressive work and dedication in capturing what is going on at the local level, this documentary doesn't back up, prove, or disprove claims made by people speaking on camera.

Watching this film is like viewing raw footage of a battle without the broader context, the big picture. What is lacking is research, journalism and analysis. That is not to say what is on screen and on the soundtrack is not impressive, it is. But it looks like a raw, powerful, unfinished, undocumented documentary product. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2015 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)