WASHINGTON, March 21, 2016 – “We come from poverty,” says the man behind the mask. “If we were doing well, we would be like you,” he tells the camera crew filming him, “traveling the world or doing good clean jobs like you guys. But if we start paying attention to our hearts, then we’ll get screwed over. We will do this as long as God allows.”
The man behind the mask begins supervising his team in mixing chemicals that by morning will become crystal meth. He proudly declares his meth cooks are “number one here in Michoacán, Mexico.”
And so begins the critically-acclaimed “Cartel Land,” nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary, which is now available for streaming on Netflix.
In the U.S., meanwhile, armed with assault rifles and dressed in military desert fatigues, we follow militia leader Tim Foley and a hand-ful of volunteers as they patrol Arizona’s Altar Valley near the U.S.-Mexico border. Scanning the desert landscape with night-vision goggles, they hope to interdict Mexican smugglers bringing drugs and human traffic into the U.S. through a border barrier that in places is nothing more than a few strands of rusting barbed wire.
Back in 2009, President Obama’s new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano released a report signaling the administration’s change in focus. The menace of Islamic terror would give way for plans to deal with threats posed by domestic “rightwing” militias.
“Rightwing extremists have capitalized on the election of the first African American president, and are focusing their efforts to new members… Proposed imposition of firearms restrictions and weapons bans likely would attract new members into the ranks of rightwing extremist groups, as well as potentially spur some of them to begin planning and training for violence against the government,” said the DHS report.
“Technically we’re vigilantes upholding the law where there is no law,” says the sunbaked and gaunt Foley. “But the phrase ‘vigilante’ – it’s been given a bad name by the media… when people hear that phrase, they think a vigilante is somebody with white sheets over their head and they’re going to hang… people from trees. That’s bullshit.”
He dismisses the usual criticism that says citizens should leave law enforcement matters to the police or immigration authorities. “I’m supposed to be able to pick up my telephone and dial 911, ‘Come help us.’ But it’s an hour and a half out of Tucson,” says Foley.
And it’s at this point that director Matthew Heineman engages in a masterful bit of bait-and-switch, deceiving viewers who thought the documentary was about America’s dangerous “rightwing” militias into something quite different.
More than a thousand miles south of the border, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, a community of poor lime pickers dig graves for family and friend – ages 60 years to 3 months old.
Unlike the meth cookers of their province, these mourners don’t use poverty as an excuse to perpetrate unspeakable evil.
The 15 victims were murdered when their employer failed to make his monthly extortion payment to the Mexican drug cartel known as the Knights Templar.
“I would like the government to bring forward the men who did this,” says a traumatized widow, “but no. This is the situation in Michoacán. All we want is justice.”
Enter Dr. José Manuel Mireles.
You might call him the alter ego of Arizona’s Tim Foley. Outraged by cartel murders and their corrupting influence on local and federal officials, Mireles formed the Autodefensas, an armed militia, in late February of 2013 to provide some semblance of safety and justice for the poor people of Michoacán.
He holds up his cellphone screen to show a disturbing image – three severed heads in a neat row on the hood of a pickup truck.
“The Templars beheaded them for being from Tepalcatepec, Mireles explains. “We were next. What would you do? Wait for them to come for you? Or buy a thing like this and defend yourself?”
He lifts his assault rifle, picks a practice target down range and fires.
“When the government can’t provide basic security for its people, we can take up arms in legitimate defense or our lives, our families, our properties. We are all survivors – they’ve attacked all of our families. They’ve killed, kidnapped, or raped someone we love. Every single one of us in this battle. So, it’s time to decide how we wish to die. Do we want to die tied up like animals or dismembered like they have been doing for more than 12 years? We decided the best way to die was to die fighting,” says Mireles.
Going town to town, Mireles and his militia meet with townspeople, begging them to join the fight. Mireles is charismatic and persuasive, sounding much like a modern Thomas Jefferson.
“Gather around,” he tells townspeople in a village park. “We came to give you help because of the things the cartel has been doing to you. You are at the gates of hell. You know this. Because They’ve hit us where it hurts the most,” he points to his heart. “That’s why we’re here. Those of you who want to volunteer… Arm yourselves! Unite!”
The Autodefensas strategy is simple: In vehicles packed with armed men, militia volunteers sweep into towns and hunt down cartel members. Securing a township, they guard it for several days while arming local citizens, expanding the ranks of the Autodefensas and extending territory free from cartel influence. They establish roadblocks within this zone to prevent cartel minions from re-establishing their deadly presence.
A telling moment comes when in the midst of helping the townspeople of Apo, the Mexican army suddenly appears, helicopters overhead.
“Corrupt government – we don’t want you here!” yells a man.
The military commander assures a militia member that “If people tell us to leave, we’ll leave.” Shortly thereafter, he says to an underling, “Disarm them all.”
As church bells sound the alarm, townspeople begin swarming around the soldiers.
“Give them back their weapons,” yells one unarmed man.
“You are dogs!,” yells an outraged young woman. “If what happened to us had happened to you, you would all be on our side. Why? Because of the pain we carry!”
“Out with bad government!” yells another woman, who wields a machete.
“I’ve decided to give back your weapons,” the army commander tells a vigilante.
To the cheers of the townspeople, the army withdraws.
This documentary is disarming in the way it subtly but effectively attacks the bizarre insistence by the leftist fringe that a militant belief in one’s right to self-defense and in one’s “unalienable” right to “bear arms” are expressions of “extremism” and not a natural desire to survive in a world run by dangerous drug and political cartels.
“We signed our independence with blood,” said Dr. José Manuel Mireles at a rally celebrating the one-year anniversary of his militia’s founding, “our independence from organized crime. But it’s more important than ever not to lower our guard.”
And the fate of Mireles is a cautionary tale for Tim Foley and the men of Arizona Recon.