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“Cartel Land” Documentary Completely Misunderstands Mexico’s Autodefensa Movement

By: 
Alice Brooke Wilson

Violence in Mexico is surging back into the headlines – if current trends continue, deaths in 2017 could hit 30,000, making it the deadliest peacetime year on record (WSJ July 5, 2017). Attempts to stem the violence by Mexican and U.S. governmental agencies have failed spectacularly, and corruption reigns. In the face of this crisis, what alternatives exist? How do people living in the areas most affected negotiate the violence?

One of the most important and, in the United States, least-understood answers can be found in the emergence of the autodefensas, or self-defense, movements. The world of the autodefensas in Mexico sprang vividly onto the silver screen in the United States with the 2015 documentary “Cartel Land,” directed by Matthew Heineman. The film was given a major boost in visibility when the Oscar-winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, joined as an executive producer. Although the movie lost the best-documentary Oscar for which it was nominated, it picked up numerous other awards, including three Emmys and a special jury prize and best director at the Sundance film festival.