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The good, the bad, and the complicit: Two films challenge Trump on Mexico

'Cartel Land' and 'Kingdom of Shadows' reveal a complex world of crime – and justice.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Vigilantes, or members of the community police, ride in a vehicle through the streets of Apatzingan, in Michoacan state, February 9, 2014. Vigilantes entered Apatzingan, considered the center of operations of drug cartel Knights Templar. The vigilantes guarded the borders of the city along with the police and army to prevent the escape of members of Knights Templar, according to local media.

If we take Donald Trump at his word, Mexico is a country of criminals and rapists. 

He’s wrong, of course. And in recently making (and still trying to defend) such inflammatory statements, for which he's been pilloried, he's cast Mexico’s security and migration challenges in stereotyped, black and white terms.

It would certainly make it easier to understand violence and crime here if the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were so clearly defined. But, as two recent documentaries on Mexico portray, that’s far from reality.

"Cartel Land," which comes out in Mexico and the United States this week, takes viewers into two separate worlds of vigilante justice where it is citizens who step up to fill what they see as a void in public security. 

One group is made up of Americans on the border in Arizona, who take it upon themselves to keep those they identify as criminals from crossing into the US. The second is situated in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán, where community members band together to do what the police have failed to: keep cartel violence under control.

Good intentions

The film vividly introduces the audience to personalities and places they aren’t likely to encounter on their own, and the film’s footage of natural beauty, intimate daily life, and up-close violent confrontations is striking.

"Cartel Land" highlights just how hazy the relationship is between good intentions and final results in environments where citizens take the law into their own hands.

In one scene, the US vigilante leader patrols the border in order to keep out drug traffickers and criminals. But as his team of camo-clad American civilians halts a group of migrants, it becomes obvious that there’s really no way of knowing which of these men hiding in the mountain-side brush is a trafficker, versus a victim fleeing violence back home or a father looking to reunite with loved ones in the States.

This theme carries over into Michoacán, as well, where vigilantes break into people’s homes or hold individuals hostage in their cars, all in the name of ensuring a safer community. To the vigilantes, these targets are criminals. But, as one member of the self-defense group forces a man away from his sobbing daughter and into a car, holding a gun to his head and demanding information on which cartel he’s aligned with, it is hard not to wonder where the criminal begins and the community protector ends.

A second film, "Kingdom of Shadows," which premiered in March, complements "Cartel Land," zooming in on the human toll of the drug war. 

The film unfolds three main perspectives: that of a human rights activist, a US border patrol agent, and a Texan who used to traffic drugs from Mexico into the US.

So many disappeared

"Kingdom of Shadows" raises searching questions about who is complicit in the violence swamping Mexico and parts of the US border, and who are the victims. Tens of thousands of Mexicans have disappeared over the past decade, and this film floods the screen with images of marching and mourning families desperately seeking answers.

The idea that dealing with such human loss would be easier – for the government and the Donald Trumps of the world –  if drug war casualties were defined without shades of gray is a question lying in the background. The film challenges the notion that those who have been killed are automatically criminals and that efforts to find lost loved ones are less important. 

There are no quick solutions to the insecurity south-of-the-border portrayed in both films. But viewers might leave the theater feeling a need to dig deeper and reexamine their assumptions about the good, the bad, and the complicit.

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