Cartel Land

Cartel Land is a documentary on Netfflix right now. If you’re looking for something to enthrall you and put things in perspective, watch it.

Watching this last night was not just a good break from working, but a good break from the political rhetoric of this election. When I finished the movie I was more intent on taking my life’s work seriously, less likely to judge the political decisions of others, and more determined to help people heal rather than gaining the power to lead them.

The movie starts out at a large-scale meth cooking operation in Mexico. One of the men working, his face half covered, tells the camera, “We know these drugs will go on to cause people harm. I’m not proud of that. But we came from poverty- what other option did we have? If we grew up like you, we’d have good, honest jobs too. But it is what it is. As long as God allows us to keep making the drugs, we will.”

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The Meth Cooks

The viewers next gets a taste of the power of the Mexican drug cartel, the organizations controlling the flow of drugs. We see the scene of a funeral, where a dozen people had been brutally murdered, most of them children. They had been workers on a lime farm, and because the farm owner could not pay his taxes to the cartel, his workers had been murdered. The cartel had total dominance of the region. There was no police or government stopping them.

We’re also introduced to an American vigilante- a volunteer militia at the Mexican-American border. After turning a difficult life around, he had a difficult time finding work, having to compete with illegal immigrants who didn’t pay taxes and took lower wages. He thought this was unfair, and came to the border to join the militia. Upon arriving, he realized that his job was really to stand up to the cartel, who controlled not only the drug trade but also the human trafficking across the border. He lives in a town where a call to 911 brings a response in 90 minutes. “If I don’t do something about it, then who will?” he pleads. The media’s portrayal of him as a racist or a radical did not sit with him. “Come out here and see what it’s like. If you were out here, what would you do?”

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American vigilante at work

Then were introduced the main character of the film, José Manuel Mireles. A thousand miles south of the border, the cartel were equally dominant. When members of his family were killed, he decided he’d had enough. A council of the town’s elders gathered and decided that they would take arms up against the cartel.

The townspeople killed or chased off all the cartel from their town. Then they set up defenses, moved to the next town, and did they same thing. Gaining recruits with each victory, this movement was gaining massive momentum. Soon this militia, known as the Autodefensas, had taken control of half of the state and become national icons.

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Juan Manuel Mireles recruiting in a new town

One of the most powerful scenes happens early in the film, when the Autodefensas enter  a new town and introduce themselves. There they are met by a company of the Mexican army, who do not approve of this unlicenses, illegal fighting force. The army commander tells them to disarm. A verbal confrontation ensues. The townspeople ring the church bell, and a mob surrounds the situation. Armed with clubs and machetes, the citizens defend the Autodefensas and force the soldiers to return the weapons.

Later in the film, the Autodefensas hear from the president of the country himself. He swears that the government will protect the people, and that anyone wanting to do the same must work with the government. The autodefensas are forced to choose between disarming, or joining forces with the government.

Many Autodefensas leaders do not trust their government, who had failed to stop the terror of the cartel, and had apparently not yet detained a single Knights Templar leader. Like the vigilantes on the American border, they do not believe that their government is truly looking out for them.

You get to witness a righteous effort turn into a complex political mess. As the Autodefensas gained power, they began to attract the same type of villains into their ranks as the cartel had. They began raiding houses and pillaging what they liked. Soon the were scaring the common people, themselves starting to look like the cartel they’d been fighting. It becomes difficult to understand the relationships between the cartel, the Autodefensas, and the Mexican government.

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Not sure who these guys are fighting for, actually

I’m not going to give away the whole movie to you. There’s an amazing plot.

I finished the movie with a greater awareness of my political ignorance. Who am  I to talk about politics like the ones at the Mexican border, living my life up here in Portland? I’ve never had to compete with an illegal immigrant for money. I’ve never seen members of my community murdered in public. My life here has been relatively peaceful. Everybody has motivations for behaving the way they do, and if my knowledge and experience were traded with somebody else’s I would probably feel the same way as them.

I also reaffirmed my lack of interest in politics, when defined as the struggle for power. This movie shows what happens when raw power if pursued for a just cause. Using dark means for an end clearly is not a sustainable solution to the darkness. If laws are changed or force is used, but people are not changed from the inside, the same patterns are repeated through a different means.

I’m reminded of Obama, who passed much legislation, without convincing his enemies of citizens of much, and who will now apparently have most of his work completely dismantled. To the extent that he’s passed laws to try and help the people, rather than teaching the people to help themselves, some of his actions have lacked the foundations necessary for lasting change.

Therefore, in order to create lasting change, I see value in helping individuals change on the inside- in helping to change their self-drawn conclusions. Rather than create a law to govern a person, I see value in helping a person understand and govern themselves. I see value in teaching people about their own power and helping them help themselves. This too can be done on a large scale, through media.

I believe that our thought leaders, artists of all kind, are the ones who lead human progress. Politicians are just managers by default, and only move society forward when they find ways to inspire.

A leader who says. “give me the power first, and then I will help” is doomed to fail. These people end up forever stuck in the fight for power, with their ideals held in the future, justifying any present behavior.

The autodefenses helped created lasting change when they came into towns and said, “we highly encourage you to form a council. Unless you are informed and united, any idiot can rule you.” As soon as they said, “let us rule for you,” they had become the problem.

We must see through the eyes of our enemy, and understand how they came to be the way they are.  How many times must people become the tyrants they sought to overthrown?

When we connect with people and show them how to support themselves, there is no need to rule them. People seem to need rulers when they become desperate and dangerous. Ultimately, people become dangerous because they are hungry- hungry for food, hungry for understanding, hungry for love- and willing to do whatever it takes to try and satisfy their hunger.

You can’t change other people. We can only inspire them by our example. We must be the change we wish to see, now.


Author: Dominic K

Lovin the dream

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