Although I had plans to eventually write about the 2015 documentary “Cartel Land” at some point, I’ve decided to put it on the front burner now that the recapture of Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán and Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with the drug baron has become the lead story in the NY Times.
“Cartel Land” is now the fourth documentary I have seen about the Mexican drug wars. The first was the 2013 “Narco Cultura”, a film that was focused on the Narcocorrido—the songs that blend the traditional Norteño style with lyrics that toast the drug lords after the fashion of American gansta rap. I found much of it compelling but regretted that there was “not much in the way of analysis.”
Only two months ago, I reviewed “Kingdom of Shadows”, a personality-driven documentary that profiled a Texas rancher who smuggled marijuana when he wasa young and a Mexican cop who was noteworthy for being an exception to the virtually universal rule of corruption. It too was far more interested in “story-telling” than analysis.
Sandwiched between the two films chronologically was the 2014 “Drug Lord: the Legend of Shorty” that described the futile search by a young and obscure director for an interview with the elusive drug lord (chapo means shorty). Apparently he lacked the clout of Sean Penn. Once again I found the film sorely lacking in analysis:
Although I can recommend “Drug Lord”, I am still looking for a documentary on the Mexican drug trade that focuses on the political and economic aspects (what else would you expect from me?) It would be important to hear what Mexican radicals, especially those trained in sociology and history, have to say about the viral growth of drug syndicates over the past couple of decades.
Following suit, “Cartel Land” once again could not be bothered with anything so dry and dusty as a sociologist explaining why Mexico’s major industry is now the production and sale of illegal drugs. Even more than the three films mentioned above, it is intent on drama and action after the fashion of narrative films such as “Traffic” or “Sicario”.
Its saving grace was having access to the autodefensas in Michoacán, the state on the west coast of Mexico that was as ravaged by drug gangs as Guzman’s Sinaloa. The autodefensas were anti-drug paramilitaries initiated in late 2013 by a physician named José Valverde who allowed the film crew to accompany him on raids against members of the Knights Templar cartel that dominated the region. Your initial impression is that the vigilantes were popular with the community and effective. When the Mexican military began to crack down on them, there were protests that successfully defended their right to bear arms and to use them against the gangs.
Like “Kingdom of Shadows”, “Cartel Land” includes a personality from Texas, this time a 56-year old man named Tim “Nailer” Foley who is obviously seen as a complement to Valverde since he too is the leader of a vigilante group known as the Arizona Border Recon whose members, including Foley, patrol the border with Mexico assault rifles in hand. They claim they are trying to prevent drugs from flowing into the USA but mostly they serve as an auxiliary to the border patrols that are trying to keep desperate jobseekers from crossing over. Indeed, you see Foley and his henchman training their guns on some hapless Mexicans whose only hope is to get a job in construction or gardening. The film makes no effort to interrogate the role of Foley’s goons given the obvious evidence that drug cartels use submarines, planes, trucks, and tunnels to get drugs into the USA, not in the backpacks of poor people swimming across the Rio Grande.
The final third or so of the film chronicles the downfall of the autodefensas as its raids begin to target the innocent just as many DEA raids in the USA have done over the years. There are also allegations that the Knights Templar have penetrated the autodefensas to turn them to their own advantage. Eventually Valverde is arrested and sentenced to a long prison sentence cheek by jowl with those who he was supposedly trying to eliminate.
The obvious lesson is that you should not take the law into your own hands although the American vigilantes have a much easier time of it as the armed occupation in Oregon might indicate.
Mostly the film exploits the visceral experience of being embedded with Mexican vigilantes who are taking the fight to the bad guys. We are treated to a front row seat of men firing assault rifles into Knights Templar hideouts as Valverde or his deputies cry out “Surrender, motherfuckers.”
Perhaps the intent of director Matthew Heineman can best be gleaned from the inclusion of Kathryn Bigelow as Executive Producer. Bigelow was the director of “Zero Dark Thirty”, the atrocious reenactment of the raid on Osama bin-Laden’s hideout that provided vicarious thrills to many film reviewers—except me. Shortly after Bigelow came on board, she told Entertainment Weekly that the film would be “potent, raw and visceral”, the same adjectives that could apply to “Sicario”, a narrative film I found cliché-ridden and obvious.
The appeal of the drug wars for people like Kathryn Bigelow should be obvious. They allow her and those attuned to her aesthetic like Matthew Heineman to make a lurid entertainment with social questions getting short shrift. After all it is not the job of a filmmaker to make judgments unless of course you are some obscure Marxist whose work will be screened at the Film Forum for a week or so and then disappear into oblivion.
This leads us to the Sean Penn/”Chapo” Guzman saga. You can read Penn’s article on the Rolling Stone website. Most of Penn’s article is about himself, written in the vein that this commercially “edgy” magazine has made famous. For example, after he gets off a plane flown by one of Chapo’s henchmen, he takes care of some personal business:
I throw my satchel into the open back of one of the SUVs, and lumber over to the tree line to take a piss. Dick in hand, I do consider it among my body parts vulnerable to the knives of irrational narco types, and take a fond last look, before tucking it back into my pants.
Obviously we are in Hunter Thomson territory. Not that I mind gonzo journalism so much, but I keep looking for some discussion of why Sinaloa is so poor or some other matters that could help put the drug wars into perspective.
After thousands of words of prelude that has the aura of an Oliver Stone movie, Penn finally sits down to interview the world’s leading drug dealer. As might be expected, Guzman is given ample opportunity to express by what now seems self-evident, namely that as long as there is a demand for drugs, Mexico will supply them. He got involved in the drug business in Sinaloa when he was 15 years old because there were no other jobs available and hopes to continue for as long as he can in his chosen trade.
Showing that he has absorbed the best techniques of an Oprah Winfrey, Penn asks the gangster about his relationship to his mom. His reply: “My relationship? Perfect. Very well.”
The interview, which probably took all of 15 minutes, is noteworthy for its deference to its subject.
Years ago I tried to come to terms with the Colombian drug trade since there was a time when the public was fascinated with Pablo Escobar, another Robin Hood figure who rose from poverty. My research convinced me that rather than turning Colombia into a jungle, there was evidence that it was a stabilizing factor:
It is important to understand that the cocaine industry also has the effect of fueling the transformation of the peasantry into a proletariat and petty proprietors at the very same time it is displacing it from subsistence farming. In the early 1980s, according to Johns Hopkins Political Science professor Bruce Begley, over 500 thousand Colombians had jobs in the drug trade. In addition, Begley argues that the drugs have actually served to stabilize the Colombian political system and specifically compares their role in the economy to the introduction of the coffee industry in the mid-1800s:
Due to marijuana and cocaine a new nouveau riche has developed in Colombia much as in the late and early twentieth centuries a coffee oligarchy developed in the country. Parts of the civil wars which were fought in the latter part of the nineteenth century, particularly the War of 1000 Days in Colombia, had something to do with the introduction of coffee and the socioeconomic changes that followed. Today, fairly conservative, often right-wing individuals link themselves frequently with MAS, with the military and with other organizations moving to legitimize themselves within the Colombian system, moving to gain status within that society, buying political power, Into the system if you like, but not to disrupt that system in any fundamental way. Nonetheless, there is this sense that the old families in Colombia which have controlled the politics since the late nineteenth century introduction of coffee are now gradually incorporating and absorbing the nouveau riche, the Carlos Lehders that rise, not necessarily in the first generation but rather in the second and third generations. The children of the drug dealers now join the major social clubs and marry into some of the more prestigious families. Many of these old families are precisely those families who were declining economically, and hence politically. With the introduction of coffee in the nineteenth century the new coffee barons also gradually married into more traditional, land-owning families, joining money and commercial agricultural exports with status within the society.
If you look at American history, you will see the same tendencies. The Robber Barons used illegal means to create the vast wealth that is now enshrined in the names of universities like Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. Who knows? Maybe years from now there will be a Chapo University.
Even more to the point, just as the prohibition of cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana lead to huge but illicit profits in Mexico, alcohol played the same role in American society. And perhaps nobody had more of a meteoric rise to respectability based on racketeering than Joseph Kennedy, the father of the JFK. Some years back I wrote about our country’s Chapo—of course he was a lot taller than Guzman but by no means no more benign:
In keeping with Balzac’s epigraph to “Pere Goriot” that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,” the Kennedy dynasty owed its place in history to the ongoing criminal activities of Joseph Kennedy.
In “The Outfit,” Gus Russo’s definitive study of the Chicago mob, we learn that Joseph Kennedy made his millions through a combination of white-collar crime and bootlegging. Using the same kinds of illegal insider trading that people like Michael Milken made infamous, Kennedy sold short just before the 1929 crash and walked away richer than ever. As a banker-investor, Kennedy plundered the stock of Pathé Films in the 1920s, giving insiders like himself stock worth $80 per share, while leaving common stockholders $1.50 per share. When Kennedy attempted a hostile takeover of the California-based Pantages Theater chain in 1929, he paid a 17 year old girl $10,000 to falsely claim that she had been raped by the chain’s owner, who then served part of a fifty-year prison sentence that was ultimately reversed. Kennedy got control of Pantages at a bargain basement price.
With respect to bootlegging, Russo reports:
Kennedy was up to his eyes in illegal alcohol. Leading underworld bootleggers from Frank Costello to Doc Stacher to Owney Madden to Joe Bonanno to Meyer Lansky to Lucky Luciano have all recalled for their biographers or for news journalists how they had bought booze that had been shipped into the country by Joseph Kennedy. On the receiving side of the booze business, everyone from Joe’s Hyannis Port chums to the eastern Long Island townsfolk who survived the Depression by uncrating booze off the bootleggers’ boats tells tales of Joe Kennedy’s involvement in the illegal trade.
Connections made in this period would prove useful during JFK’s 1960 Presidential bid. Murray “Curley” Humphreys, the brains behind Al Capone, and his chief executioner Sam Giancana (nicknamed “Moony” because of his psychopathic reputation) had inherited control of the Chicago mob after Capone’s death and built up powerful alliances in the trade union bureaucracy all around the country that helped to tip the balance in Kennedy’s favor in the 1960 primaries race.
Using mob lawyer and ex-state attorney general Robert J. McDonnell as a liaison, the Kennedys met with Giancana in Chicago in 1960. According to Russo, a quid pro quo was worked out at this meeting. In exchange for the mob’s help, a Kennedy Justice Department would go easy on them. According to Humphreys’ widow, the mobster was leery of making a deal: “Murray was against it. He remembered Joe Kennedy from the bootlegging days–called him an untrustworthy ‘four flusher’ and a ‘potato eater.’ Something to do with a booze delivery that Joe had stolen. He said that Joe Kennedy could be trusted as far as he, Murray, could throw a piano.”