Cartel Land: A myopic glance at Michoacán reality

By Romeo LopCam – A number of critics have said that Cartel Land by Matthew Heineman is a good documentary, «basic for understanding what’s gone on in Michoacán in the last few years.» They exaggerate. The film shows only a small part of this reality, a fact the director consistently overlooks. He gives no context or perspective, just a sequence of dramatic scenes that grab the reader’s attention with sensationalistic details. Little research has gone into the film, and the narrative lacks depth and analysis. It’s full of holes.

The story he tells us is limited to what has happened in the Tierra Caliente (Hotlands) area —with no mention of the P’urhépecha Plateau or the Coastal Highlands region. It focuses on the charismatic figure of Doctor José Manuel Mireles Valverde, a man who has certainly played a key role in the uprising in Michoacán, but does not fully exemplify it. And here it must be said that given its complexity, no individual could do so.

Doctor Mireles is a tragic figure, marked by shadowy brilliance. He’s by no means lacking in virtues. Courageous, known for his way with words, loyal to the people, he never let himself be swayed by the siren songs federal government officials used to nullify other members of the self-defense groups. That’s why he’s still a prisoner, suffering the ill effects of poorly controlled diabetes in a federal prison.

He does, however, have several defects, and machismo is one of them. As seen in the documentary, he doesn’t hesitate to use his leadership position to seduce an underage girl. It doesn’t bother him in the least to be seen as a local political boss. He loves to be in the spotlight a little too much. And sometimes his discourse has been ambiguous. Depending on who he’s talking to, he might call for a national insurrection one day and thank the police and army for their help, the next.

And even though it’s true that in the beginning, the self-defense groups grew due to his eloquence, in the long run his prominence has become a burden. Proof of this is that lazy journalists and filmmakers like Matthew Heineman have used him as an easy pretext for not talking about what many other honest people in Michoacán are still doing today. Collectively organized with guns in hand, they’re keeping their towns free of criminals. Two of the most outstanding examples are the indigenous communities of Santa María Ostula and Cherán.

Heineman and others of his ilk are eager to expose and magnify internal discord and betrayals. They promote a conformist, disillusioned monologue circulated by status quo oriented news media and journalists every time a revolt takes place. According to them, getting organized and struggling against oppressive conditions is just not worth it. Cartel Land, for example, highlights the “repentant” or “forgiven” criminals that infiltrated the movement to undermine its unity, something they largely achieved.

Dr. Mireles
Dr. Mireles

Change is barely mentioned, this was encouraged by the federal government through the offices of the commissioner Alfredo Castillo and that whom many identify as his right hand, a woman of Cuban origin María Imilse Arrué Hernández. Even though she appears only briefly in the narrative —next to Estanislao Beltrán a.k.a. “Papá pitufo” (Papa Smurf), —, she is never mentioned as a fundamental piece in shaping the Rural Force, where many of these supposedly reformed criminals were regularized.

In fact, the counter-insurgent labor of the federal functionaries got placed in the background. As well as the role carried out by the Cártel de los Caballeros Templarios. It is striking that a man so fond of making statements to foreign media and sends out messages through YouTube, as does Servando Gómez Martínez alias La Tuta, (The Teacher), has not awaken the curiosity of the filmmaker. Also, no mention of the audited organizations with ties to several state politicians, beginning with the son of the licensed governor, Fausto Vallejo.

As if that weren’t enough, the strategic value of the territories that form Michoacan are not mentioned anywhere. Nothing about the presence of the large mines in communities like Aquila, where 45 community guards were arrested a few months into the uprising. Nor is there any mention of the corruption in the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, the most important port in the Pacific and where a large amount of contraband enters and exits. Doctor Mireles was detained, along with a group of his companions, precisely when they tried to free him.

By malice or ineptitude, the view that Matthew Heineman gives to the uprising against organized crime in Michoacan is extremely shortsighted and his conclusions are fraught with elemental mistakes. Far too many omissions for a piece that supposedly presents the raw and naked truth. Which in reality only simplifies and confuses a portion with the whole of it, reinforcing a cynical view on the attempts of honest people aimed at combating barbarism. The manipulation of the facts in which are observed, not so much in what is said, but in what is silent.

Finally, the intention to counterpoint history to this side of the border with that of white fascists who create war against ghosts in Arizona would be amusing, if it didn’t end up resulting in giving them publicity. For many the ridiculousness of their arguments are obvious, but let us not forget that characters like Donald Trump are receiving large support among North Americans for saying equally ignorant statements.

To compare them with people who have legitimately wanted to shake up the criminals, without subjecting its premises to a thorough analysis, somehow gives them praise.

Of course critical views of social movements are lacking, whether they be pacifist or armed, that explore their virtues just as well as their flaws. None the less, the approach to them must be one that allows for the understanding of all its dynamics. Portraying a few actors to draw general conclusions is clearly a mistake. To not consider the economic, political, geographical and historical environment is not acceptable. Cartel Land fails in all of those categories. It seeks to entertain and shock, and achieves it, but ultimately explains nothing.

All images taken from
All images taken from

One comment

  1. The reference to ¨the son of the licensed governor, Fausto Vallejo¨ betrays an ignorance of an aspect of Mexican society on the part of whoever either wrote this in English or translated it. Lawyers, and often other college graduates, are said to be ‘Llicensiado’, generally with the abbreviation ‘Lic.’ before the person’s name. So the governor in question is ‘Fausto Vallejo Figueroa, Licensiado en Derecho [law]’, or ‘Lic. Fausto Vallejo Figueroa’, although, as a known politician, he is probably often referred to simply as either ‘Fausto Vallejo’ or ‘Vallejo Figueroa’ in news reports, especially headlines. But it is hard to imagine a situation where a Mexican writer would use the phrase ‘Gobernador licencsiado’.

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