Kingdom of Shadows


The price of recreational drug use isn't always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

The price of recreational drug use isn’t always paid just by drug users and drug dealers.

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Sister Consuelo Morales, Oscar Hagelseib, Don Henry Ford Jr., Nik Steinberg, Diego Alonso Salazar, Auden Cabello, Leah Ford, Virginia Buenrostro, Luz Maria Duran, Joshua Ford, Dina Hagelseib, Diana Martinez. Directed by Bernardo Ruiz

It is no secret that the drug cartels have turned northern Mexico into a war zone. Violence from the cartels has escalated and in the city of Monterrey, a beautiful municipality that is the center in a war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel which has escalated so that innocent civilians who have no connection with the drug trade whatsoever are disappearing, murdered by one faction or the other which was unheard of just a decade ago.

Director Bernardo Ruiz looks at the problems created by this violence from three distinct viewpoints from three different people; Sister Consuelo Morales is an activist/nun who advocates for the families of those who have disappeared, acting as a liaison between the families and the police who are perceived to be (and actually are) corrupt – in fact, some of the kidnappings are performed by officers of the law, further deepening the mistrust the people of Mexico have for their own government and its institutions.

Don Henry Ford Jr. is a convicted drug smuggler from Belmont, Texas who worked on his own family farm, but deepening debt forced him into a need for quick cash and there are few instances of cash that are quicker than bringing drugs from Mexico to the United States. Although he was eventually caught and served time in prison, he was already disillusioned by what he saw as escalating violence by new players in the game who disregarded the rules and has since left the life to concentrate on his legitimate farm work.

Oscar Hagelseib grew up in Socorro, Texas, the son of illegal immigrants in a neighborhood that was infected by the drug trade. A cousin’s house was used as a stash location for the cartels and those who entered the trade were far more prosperous than those who didn’t. However, as it turned out, Oscar would go into law enforcement, first with the Border Patrol and later with the Homeland Security Agency. Once an undercover agent but now in charge of drug-related offenses in the El Paso office, he is unafraid to show his face in the media, arguing that he was in less danger than would a snitch or someone within the cartels who betrayed the cartels.

All three look at the disappearances primarily – those civilians who one day just aren’t there. More often than not they turn up in narco kitchens – mass graves. These disappearances haven’t been seen in Latin America since the days of Pinochet in Chile and those at the time were done by government military forces. The corruption is so rampant that nearly every candidate for office in Mexico has to include overhauling their local police force as part of their platform, but few ever get around to actually doing it.

The documentary suffers a little bit from a lack of focus; there is no coherent storyline here, more like a series of interviews entwined together. The statistics are sobering and so are the stories being told here, but because there really isn’t any kind of unification between those stories they are wasted somewhat, floating on the wind instead of being given a larger context. That does those stories a disservice, although they do remain powerful.

It is well-known that the cartels in Mexico are outrageously violent, but we don’t see much of the violence here except for some news footage of bodies being cut down from places where they will be seen as an example of what happens to those who cross the cartels, and one family member of a disappeared one recounts tearfully how her daughter had been raped for three days straight before being executed according to an eyewitness, although she prayed it wasn’t true – you can see in her eyes that she knows that it is.

It is in fact the faces that are the most haunting thing. The end of the movie is simply a montage of faces, faces of the victims and the faces of the families. Some can barely hold back the tears; others can barely contain their rage. Some are stoic, others expressive. Some are young, some old, some in-between. That last montage carries more meaning than almost the rest of the documentary put together; those faces connect the viewer to the story in a powerful way. If only the rest of the movie could be more like that. Still, this is the kind of story that the news agencies in the States isn’t likely to tell and when it does, only in a cursory way. This is the world these people live in, a world we are partially responsible for due to our insatiable consumption of illegal narcotics. If we want to win the war on drugs, that’s what we need to concentrate on.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and haunting. Uses news footage effectively.
REASONS TO STAY: Unfocused and lacks flow.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild profanity and depictions of violence, and brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The term “narco kitchen” refers to mass graves in which drug cartels bury those they’ve executed. Prior to burial the bodies are incinerated so that they cannot be positively identified.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cartel Land
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Shameless

Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland