MEXICO ELECTION – “The PRI is not dead”

One small-town PRI MP tells this blog what his party needs to do after its historic defeat

As the car horns blared, loudspeakers boomed and thousands of people poured into the Zócalo main square in Mexico City on Sunday evening, Andrés Manuel López Obrador must have been pinching himself. He was president-elect, at the third time of asking, and there was unbridled joy in the plaza in front of him.

The mood in the camps of the defeated, establishment parties would have been funereal. There are high hopes for López Obrador, or AMLO, and there is no way of knowing yet if he will go down in history as a brilliant leader or another scorned and discarded president. What is certain is that he was carried to victory on the back of both direct support for him and millions of protest votes against the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

A street in the town of Jilotepec, north-west of Mexico City, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

25-year-old federal deputy Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, a PRI member of congress from the small town of Jilotepec, about 90 kilometres north-west of Mexico City, thinks though that there is a way back for his party. He admits that this is a “step backwards and a moment of reflection” for the PRI, which governed Mexico in an unbroken period of 71 years until 2000.

Meeting him at the town council offices, we are both offered sugary black coffee before heading to his office. He is young, smart and affable. “We need to remodel our party or we are finished,” he says. “The PRI is not dead. This is actually a good opportunity for us.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas, in his office in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

It was remarkable that we were even talking about the PRI still being alive here. It should be in perfect health. Jilotepec is in Mexico State, the country’s most-populous entity, and this is the PRI heartland. The current president, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI), was born in Atlacomulco, just up the road from Jilotepec. The current state governor, Alfredo del Mazo Maza (PRI), was born in the state capital, Toluca, and is the son and grandson of former PRI Mexico State governors. President Peña Nieto is del Mazo’s cousin. Given all this, Morena’s near-clean sweep of the lower house representatives in Mexico State (winning 42 out of 45 seats) is a stunning upset.

I asked Nogués Barrajas what went wrong for the PRI’s candidate for president, José Antonio Meade, who came third in the race for the top job. The MP lays the blame squarely at the incumbent’s door. Enrique Peña Nieto, the outgoing president, has had some of the lowest approval ratings for any Mexican leader in history, he has been caught up in corruption scandals, and – though he promised to get a handle on the violence – has presided over more than 109,000 murders during his six-year presidency.

Meade, a 49-year-old technocrat who served under PAN president Felipe Calderón as well as Peña Nieto, was an effective administrator but had limited experience when it came to winning elections, the MP told me.

The rejection of the PRI and the political class as a whole was a message that came through clearly from the electorate, I suggested. “We have to call time on distant politics; we need our councillors, MPs and senators to be more like citizens and less like politicians,” Nogués says. “We need to be more sensitive to the needs of the people and AMLO understood this. His MPs go to shops with the voters, they queue at the banks, they wait at the doctors’ surgery just like everybody else.”

PRI MP Rodolfo Nogués Barrajas in the main square in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

However, the young congressman lamented the tactics employed by AMLO’s party. “The people swallowed a lot of Morena propaganda. We had many excellent candidates – really good and experienced people – and now Jilotepec, for example, is going to have a mayor from Morena with absolutely no political know-how.”

But isn’t a change exactly what the people wanted? The PRI has had 77 years in power since 1929; surely that was long enough to show the people the party could govern in a trustworthy manner, I put to him.

“We have many doubts about an AMLO administration. When the expectations are so high, the disappointment hits you so much harder.”

Do you not think that despite worries over any possible disillusionment with AMLO the voters are simply tired of establishment parties and endless corruption scandals, the seemingly uncontrollable violence and the scarring inequalities, I asked him.

“Look, I congratulate Andrés Manuel. I like his personal style,” he says. “A change of parties is good for Mexican politics. I think Morena is here to stay as a political force. We now have a chance to demonstrate that the PRI can change – here in Jilotepec and throughout the nation.”

The Church of St Peter and St Paul in Jilotepec, Mexico State, 4 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As he drains the rest of his coffee, he appears more conciliatory.

“AMLO has a great responsibility to carry out the promises has has made to the people but a bad president is bad for the country. If things don’t go well for him, Mexico as a country will hurt and feel the effects. Nobody wants that. I applaud him.”

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MEXICO ELECTION – “I will not fail you”

A progressive landslide victory for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

It was a spectacular night for the veteran left-winger, finally landing the top job after two previous presidential defeats. For the first time in 89 years, a party other than the centrist PRI or conservative PAN has control of the country, and it is a 64-year-old progressive at the helm.

López Obrador took a decisive 53% of the presidential vote, driving home his campaign polls advantage and leaving his two main rivals biting the dust. His party, Morena – which has only existed formally since 2014 – also played its part by winning five state governor races, the coup of the Mexico City mayoralty and heading for a major influx of MPs and senators in parliament.

A mother and daughter attend Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s election night victory speech in Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

As the realisation dawned on the Mexico City population on Sunday evening just what was happening – that the bubble of the established parties had truly been burst – thousands of AMLO supporters flooded the city’s central Zócalo square.

One of the main drivers behind AMLO’s overwhelming results has been the large numbers of protest votes, or votos de castigo, cast by millions of Mexicans fed up with corruption, violence and the gap between rich and poor and his supporters honked horns, flew flags and cheered in a combination of disbelief and hope as Latin America’s second-biggest economy toppled entrenched interests and establishment parties with a powerful, progressive left hook.

Crowds leave the Zócalo square in Mexico City after AMLO’s victory speech, 1 July 2018 / © rosscullen.co.uk

MEXICO ELECTION – Rivals concede, AMLO on course

Victory is all but confirmed for Andrés Manuel López Obrador

There was to be no stopping him this time. After two defeats in presidential elections in 2006 and 2012, the exit polls released after voting ended made very ugly reading for  Ricardo Anaya, representing the leftist-rightist coalition and José Antonio Meade, standing for the governing party. Both of them have conceded and congratulated AMLO on his historic victory.

MEXICO ELECTION – Anger at lack of ballot papers

Anger among people who could not vote due to an insufficient number of ballot papers

Joel, 28, an engineer working in automation in the city of Houston in the United States, happened to be in Mexico renewing his visa and tried unsuccessfully to vote at the special polling station. He and his wife, Linda, 29, were incredulous that not enough ballot papers had been printed and that there had been no official guidance from the electoral authorities, meaning their six-hour wait in the queue to vote had been in vain.

Two unsuccessful voters show what number they were in the queue to vote / Mexico City, 1 July 2018 / ©rosscullen.co.uk

Blanca Góngora, a 55-year-old lawyer from the northern city of Monterrey, said she was “just angry – simply angry” that she had been turned away from voting. She had been hoping to cast her vote for the independent candidate Jaime Rodríguez, also know as El Bronco.

One couple from the state of Querétaro, 35-year-old Gilberto and 27-year-old Dani, were disconsolate at the thought of being turned away. For them, education was the most important issue in the election and it was “just horrible” that they were not going to be able to vote.

The special polling station where this blog reported from in the video above was located near the city’s main railway station, and lines streamed around the block, totalling many thousands of people, all from different states across Mexico, as you can see below, in what would ultimately be a futile attempt to vote.

As the news filtered through that the polling station was going to be closed because there were not enough ballot papers, the queue dispersed and the crowd divided – some left and simply gave up; others demanded answers as the mood soured.

MEXICO ELECTION – Third time lucky?

The probable victory of populism south of the border

Mexico presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Abrader presents his manifesto in Mexico City, November 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero

On Sunday 1 July, more than 80 million Mexicans go to the polls in a sweeping election, the biggest in the country’s history. There are 3,416 posts up for grabs, from local positions at state level, through MPs and senators, all the way up to the presidency itself.

This is a crucial election for an embattled country. There are a number of major domestic and international issues at play, including (but not limited to):

+security – there were a record number of murders in 2017, making last year the bloodiest 12 months in Mexican history

+the country’s relationship with the Trump administration – all the candidates have rallied against the proposed border wall

+migration – Central American migrants often face discrimination, extortion and killings in Mexico long before they reach the US border

When it comes to the top job, there is only really one candidate on the pitch.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the runner-up in 2006 and 2012, has seen his big poll lead from early in the year become a truly enormous advantage as the election approaches. One poll on Wednesday, from the business newspaper El Financiero, puts him 32 points ahead of his nearest challenger. Even looking at the average surveys from multiple sources, he has at least a 20-point lead.

López Obrador, known across Mexico by his initials as AMLO, said on Wednesday that he hopes that this will be “his last campaign” after the two previous defeats in presidential elections. He ran in those campaigns for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution but this time he is on the ballot representing the party he founded in 2014, MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration). He is standing on a loosely-defined manifesto, speaking out against governmental corruption, calling for a possible amnesty for low-level criminals and urging caution over energy reforms that opened out the sector to private investment.

The business community likes these reforms and they are also pleased about a planned new airport for the capital – an idea that AMLO wants a second look at. There has been unease among business about the impending victory of a man they fear as populist, left-wing and statist.

However, there are the opposite worries among his supporters. The election coalition he has formed has seen MORENA tie up with the anti-abortion, conservative Social Encounter party – not a natural fit with AMLO supporters. Moreover, MORENA has outgrown its social activist and left-leaning stripes to become a catch-all party, with many defectors from the rightist National Action Party (PAN) and the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In fact, much of the swelling support for AMLO is not direct backing for him, but rather a protest voto de castigo from an electorate furious over corruption and violence.

The two other leading presidential candidates are trailing in the wake of the AMLO powerboat. Ricardo Anaya is lying second at the moment, and he is running for the strange coalition of PAN (conservative) and PRD (socialist). Behind him is José Antonio Meade, who is standing as the governing party candidate.

Anaya is young and polished but his campaign has been hamstrung by internal divisions in the PAN with former first lady Margarita Zavala quitting the party early on and going it alone as an independent candidate, though she has since withdrawn. And the coalition with unlikely bedfellows the PRD adds another fragility to Anaya’s position.

The outlook is even worse for José Antonio Meade. Handpicked by the outgoing president Enrique Peña Nieto to represent the PRI, a deep dissatisfaction with the governing party, several government corruption scandals – added to Meade’s undeniable ties to the last two administrations (he served as finance secretary under both the PAN’S Felipe Calderon and current PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto) – leave him tarnished as a member of the disliked elite.

All of this paves the way for López Obrador to sweep the board on Sunday, with MORENA set to do well in the lower and upper house elections too. If he avoids a shocking upset and wins the top job at the third time of asking, it will be a fleeting moment of joy for AMLO. Overseeing his unwieldy coalition, sorting out a stumbling economy, trying to rectify a growing migrant crisis and working out how to deal with with a belligerent counterpart to the north will force him away from the woolly rhetoric and out into the open; for decades an opponent from the sidelines, he will now have to prove that he is indeed capable of doing the job he has coveted for so long.

This blog is in Mexico, covering the election from the capital, Mexico City

What’s the key to ‘scorpion journalism’?

“The media in Mexico is tremendously sick but will not die”

The words of YouTuber Chumel Torres, who joined Honduran journalist Graco Pérez for this event at London’s Canning House, the UK-Iberia & UK-Latin America foundation.

Mr Pérez opened in a determined fashion: “a more informed press leads to a more informed population”. He acknowledged that Honduras was a developing country and admitted obstacles to progress.

He said that many reporters practise self-censorship over fears from organised crime, government interference and societal corruption.

He went into detail over the more serious issues facing journalists in Honduras as well, including an “alarming level of violence and lack of protective mechanisms”.

In spite of this, Mr Pérez insisted that press freedom as a whole has been managing to grow through social networks and the space they provide.

Chumel Torres declared early on that he had no journalism background but rather came circuitously into presenting what is his wildly successful online political and cultural satire show, ‘El Pulso de la Republica’.

Alongside what is rapidly becoming regularised violence against reporters, he laid out what he sees as the problems facing the media in Mexico.

Torres noted that “the public sees the press as government puppets” and that the media have “lost their strength”.

His prescribed medicine for the press was the need to “try to be reborn”.

During the question-and-answer session with the audience that followed, Torres touched on the role of the media in the run-up to next year’s general election in Mexico, lamenting threats made against radio, print and TV journalists but finding gold in the dust with a message of hope: “[there’s] a bright path just behind the curtain”.

Graco Pérez said that the media can build up wider networks of trust and influence but must do so whilst understanding the need for meticulous research and extreme caution. He admitted that the environment online, on mobile and in print is still volatile in many parts of Honduras when it comes to threats to reporters.

This blog pondered the rise of citizen journalism and the immediate coverage of breaking news offered by the public through their phones.

The room agreed with the notion that the “internet never forgets” and both speakers agreed that millennials are pushing the pace and breadth of news and the different platforms for consumption.

The two speakers didn’t think that traditional media should worry too much about the explosion in citizen journalism and that there would still be the need for questions, analysis and follow-up enquiries by ‘traditional’ journalists.

Chumel Torres had the last word, calling for a return to what he called “scorpion journalism” – achieved through: regaining trust; rethinking how you are working and what you are working on; and challenging yourself as well as challenging power.

Mexican stand-off

 

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Pena Nieto arrive for a press conference in Mexico City (31 August 2016) REUTERS/Henry Romero

Donald Trump and Enrique Peña Nieto were civil to begin with but their relationship has been breaking down slowly but surely over the possible border wall

Mexico has been unsure how to deal with both the wall and its proponent as Donald Trump has progressed from Republican Party primary candidate to president of the nation.

When Mr Trump first floated the idea of making Mexico pay for the construction of the wall, the former president, Vicente Fox, reacted furiously. After that, the current Mexican leader, Enrique Peña Nieto, thought that he might be able to apply some pressure to Mr Trump and the brash billionaire was invited down to Mexico City.

At first look, this seemed to be a smart move: to have Trump over for lunch to try to mollify his bombastic plans and force him to change them while he was in Mexico.

It could have been a major victory but the Mexican president was up against it from the start when it came to dealing with the swaggering reality TV star and all the meeting did was embarrass Peña Nieto.

Street protests erupted. The president’s approval ratings dropped still further. And Luis Videgaray, the then-finance secretary and close friend of Peña Nieto who suggested the meeting, was dismissed.

After his inauguration, Donald Trump reaffirmed his stance on the issue of the wall and his plan to claim back the cost for building it from Mexico, possibly through stopping the flow of remittances from Mexicans working in the United States.

Realising that his attempted soothing and smoothing of the relationship did not work, Peña Nieto tried to come out fighting with a firm statement that Mexico would not be paying for any such wall. The sentiment suggested that this was all incredible policy: why should Mexico pay for something that it neither wanted nor needed.

The Mexican leader had chosen confrontation and backed up his words by cancelling a meeting that was scheduled for today in Washington where he was due to meet President Trump on American soil for the first time.

These manoeuvres have given Peña Nieto’s terrible approval ratings some relief.

His figures had been forced down initially by an inability to deal with gang violence and a rise in consumer prices, especially an increase in petrol costs. His deference and ineffectiveness at the Mexico City meeting pushed the ratings even lower.

But a survey conducted by the polling firm BGC and the newspaper Excelsior showed a five per cent bump to 16 per cent as of yesterday, put down to the new direction of travel as regards the wall.

One curveball to this curious argument is – whisper it quietly – the thought that the wall could actually be good for Mexico. Mexican firms stand to benefit from possible construction deals and workers in the region might well be eyeing possible employment opportunities.
Will this division force Mexico into a pivot away from DC? Would that even be possible bearing in mind the (now-threatened) NAFTA links, the deep economic ties and the cultural and social bonds?
One thing is for sure: we cannot predict the next direction that the Peña Nieto-Trump relationship will take.
For now, Mexico City has chosen the path of defiance. And that decision is being matched north of the border.

 

Catchphrases and Top Trumps

The reliable power of a political phrase in recent elections

‘Make America Great Again’.

Emblazoned on caps, waved on placards, repeated again and again by Donald Trump, it was a message that was at the heart of the political earthquake that has shaken the United States. The president-elect skilfully used nicknames, pithy refrains and stadium chants to hammer home his mantras throughout the campaign. And when it comes to election day, these things tend to stick in people’s minds.

When Trump discussed his nearest Republican challenger in the primary process, he called him ‘Lyin’ Ted Cruz. It worked — the name caught on in the public consciousness and media space and Cruz’s campaign was dismissed and dismantled. Trump named the defeated Democratic presidential nominee ‘Crooked Hillary’ and on the campaign trail town halls rang to the deafening refrains of ‘Lock her up’ (on calls for Mrs Clinton to face trial over her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of State — the FBI’s most recent investigation found no case to answer on this).

Mr Trump had two other core chants with which he whipped up his supporters: ‘Build the wall’ (about his now-altered plan for a barrier on the border with Mexico) and ‘Drain the swamp’ (on his stated desire to sweep Washington clean of corruption).

Trump’s election victory compares to the Brexit vote in the UK in June. The similarities clearly exist in the punishment both votes dished out to the establishment candidates and the political elites.

The Trump and the Vote Leave campaigns promised an unclear future but one that would be undeniably different, fresh and changed from a picture they painted of a tired, entrenched system that was not working for the masses. And both campaigns enjoyed a willingness on the part of voters to see past questionable economic claims (in the Vote Leave case) and inflammatory and often racist comments (espoused by Mr Trump). The people overlooked issues like those because there was a greater dream at stake — the drive to rock the Westminster and Washington boats forever.

Furthermore, like the Trump campaign, in the UK, Vote Leave activists made successful use of the pithy remark. The phrases ‘Take back control’ and ‘We want our country back’ — whether these remain truthfully obtainable aims for the Brexiteers or not — carry a message of patriotic optimism with an undercurrent of achievable change. They embody the Vote Leave ambition of wresting the governance of the UK back from Brussels and they hark back to what they see as a golden era of how their country ‘used to be’.

This was a similar flavour to Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. The president-elect’s chant was denounced by opponents as a fallacy but for millions of his voters it was a positive message that could one day be realised. It painted a triumphant image of the superpower’s history but it was also a message where we saw the electorate willingly put on some rose-tinted spectacles to envisage that new ‘old’ America.

And the man that Donald Trump is replacing in the Oval Office knows the power of a good catchphrase.

‘Yes we can’ was the central message for Barack Obama and his team in 2008. An unquestionably positive phrase, it laid the basis for the hope that an African-American president could be elected, and that a new, more mindful politics could be introduced. The fact that the phrase was written and spoken regularly in several languages demonstrated its inclusiveness: any voter could take the phrase and apply it to their personal ambitions.

Slogans that are seen as optimistic and aspirational were also employed by the former British Chancellor, George Osborne, who regularly used the words ‘Long-term economic plan’ throughout his time in the Treasury.

The opposition Labour party would groan and jeer when he uttered it for the umpteenth time in a budget speech. But when it came to the general election in the UK last year, the idea of a ‘long-term economic plan’ struck a chord with the electorate and offered them the chance to be associated with what they saw as an aspirational message. Osborne also used the words ‘hard-working families’ and together the two refrains gave support to the desires and aims of millions of so-called ‘shy Tories’ who propelled Osborne’s party to a majority in May 2015.

Whether or not a phrase is entirely true or can actually be carried out is not of top importance. What matters is how readily the electorate take to the message. Hillary Clinton is unlikely to be ‘locked up’ but frequent hollering of this demand by Trump supporters re-affirmed the fear that millions of Americans had that there was something not wholly truthful about the former first lady’s conduct.

The negotiations to extract the UK from the European Union are going to be difficult and detailed and the terms of the exit are nowhere near set in stone. We do not know whether the country will ever ‘take back control’ but it was the power of what the message meant to voters during the referendum campaign that mattered.

What these phrases also do is convince the electorate that now is the one and only opportunity in history to effect the change behind the refrain.

The millions of Americans who voted Republican last week saw this election as their chance to ‘make America great again’. Those Britons opting to leave the EU saw the referendum as a unique opening to change the course of the country’s future. And those voting for Barack Obama in 2008 dreamt that this was the chosen hour; this was their time to effect the hopeful message of ‘Yes we can’.

Political slogans come and go in elections across the globe, but their iteration can become like a daily prayer for the believers.

What did the Tories say they’ll do in 2015? ‘Well they’ve got a long-term economic plan for hard-working families’. What was Obama’s main promise in 2008? ‘He says ‘Yes we can’ and we believe in him’. Can you name any of Donald Trump’s policies? ‘He’s the man who’s going to make America great again’.

Whether they are correct or not, once a certain rallying cry has been put out there, it is adopted by the faithful and repeated in discourse, online and in print. Catchphrases are useful methods to harden the resolve of your core voting constituency and they are an easy way to promote your policies, as voters take them up and repeat them for you out in the public sphere.

An Asian situation

It is eyes on Asia and eyes on those who are thinking about Asia

On Sunday 4 September, China will host its first G20 summit of leading nations (and only the second to be held in Asia) and the spotlight will fall across the region.

President Xi Jinping will want to make a good show of it. The worries over China’s volatile markets that sent jitters across the world earlier in the year remain. The fears over slowing growth in the world’s second-biggest economy have not gone away.

The start of next week will also see legislative elections in Hong Kong amid bubbling unease in the special administrative region over Beijing’s influence and oversight.

There will be lots of Asian leaders at the G20 summit from South Korea’s female president Park Geun-hye to Indonesia’s charismatic Joki Widodo. Someone who has been feeling the pressure is Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, whose latest economic stimuli are failing to impress the markets.

China has also invited the Thai and Singaporean prime ministers and Bounnhang Vorachith, the Laotian president, who is the current head of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

Outgoing US president Barack Obama will be saying his farewells at his last G20 get-together. During his tenure he made much of what he called his “pivot to Asia”. Will this ‘pivot’ survive after the November presidential election in the United States?

If she wins, will Obama’s Democrat colleague Hillary Clinton row back from this position, maintain the policy or enhance it? If Republican challenger Donald Trump takes the White House, how will or should Asian countries react?

When it comes to hardline leaders – and going by much of his recent rhetoric around illegal immigrants, many Americans expect Mr Trump to be exactly that sort of commander-in-chief – the new president of the Philippines appears to be heading up the Asian contenders at the moment.

Rodrigo Duterte revels in the high bombast of fiery speeches – take his threat to pull out of the United Nations, for example – but he is delivering on a promise to crack down on drug gangs. In fact, more than 700 people have died in police operations this summer, and the public are roaring their approval in high ratings for the new leader.

There are also continuing tensions between several countries over who owns which reefs and islets in the South China Sea but Beijing will want to avoid such cartographical arguments as the cream of international leaders touch down on Sunday.

Cartel Land – a review

 

Silhouette of man with rifle

Still from the film

Opening in a menacing jungle darkness, hissing acid and eyes among the trees, hooded men cook methamphetamine.

The scrubland chemicals fizz as they chew over their occupation: “we know what we do causes harm in the United States”. A thousand miles to the north, peering through night-vision goggles, a weather-bitten man mutters about the influence of the Mexican drug gangs spilling over the border “this is no longer the USA… we are David and they are Goliath”.

These are the opening scenes of Cartel Land, the latest film from American producer and director Matthew Heineman. At its shivering, gristly core, this is a film that tries to put its finger on the pulse of two groups of vigilantes (one in south-west Mexico, one in southern Arizona) who are challenging the bloody philosophy of the gangs.

Both start-up defence movements are led by tall, striking men, who see themselves as proactive spearheads filling a vacuum created by inefficient law enforcement and a terrifying cartel-created chaos. The Knights Templars are the first villains we come across in the lawless Mexican state of Michoacán. There we are among wailing mourners shuffling on grey dirt grave mounds, burying their relatives. A farmer has not coughed up his extortion fee demanded by the Templars. They have punished him by slaughtering all his farm workers and their children, smashing infants on rocks and throwing their bodies in a well.

This sets the stage for the Autodefensas, the Mexican group with whom Heineman embeds himself and his tiny team. He develops a rapport with the vigilantes as they build support, community by community. The men are guided spiritually and physically by a local doctor, José Manuel Mireles. He speaks in town squares as his team fend off the gangsters and replace the army in the forgotten villages of Michoacán.

In Arizona, we meet Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley and his small band of men. Sharp in camouflage, working his weapons, he stares out across the Altar Valley. We come back to the American self-defence team throughout, but Heineman spends more time developing and laying out the Mexican story. That despite the fact that he only originally planned to tell the account of the so-called ‘Arizona Border Recon’ of ‘Nailer’ and his lieutenants. It was when the director came across news of Dr Mireles in Michoacán that he chose to balance the documentary with both sides of the border story.

There is no narrator and we are guided through the parallel narrative by events, be that the moralising of the vigilantes or the crackle-moans of men being electrocuted. There are chilling scenes with the Autodefensas, and the director bounces in and out of cars, capturing the vigilantes’ shoot-outs with cartel members. In one scene, as the men close in on two leading gangsters, Heineman is understandably running around corners and in the film he has left in shots where he loses focus on his camera, the lens jolting and whitening in the sun. This means the action is not sanitised; we undergo the visceral shock of being in a gun-fight. The two gangsters are captured, reported to have tortured and dismembered relatives of the vigilantes. Cartel Land is raw, it is unfettered, the viewer is wincingly enmeshed in the violence, as one man punches the gangster known as ‘El Cheneque’, hollering and demanding to know where his uncles’ bodies are buried.

The director himself admits he is not a traditional war reporter; his embedding is of a different sort, with groups operating in a blurry, semi-legal world. They assure the locals that they are the good guys, but where vigilantes build up a following they can take on a cult hero presence and with growing sway they risk challenge and downfall. As the narrative develops, we spend more time south of the border and Dr Mireles begins to lose control. His mutinous understudies join a government-sponsored ‘Rural Defence Force’, he is frozen out and forced to flee, his civic leader status is undercut by an unnerving audio recording of a sexual encounter with a mistress. His life is collapsing and he ends the film behind bars, suspiciously incarcerated amid claims of official silencing.

The Mexican heart of darkness has been documented before. In Cartel Land the audience gets a fresh view of the horribly regular themes of torture and extortion through the two counterpoints to a transnational problem. The drugs and guns come and go on both sides of the border and the director shows the community resistance building in the grassroots in both countries.

This is most stunningly illustrated in the cinematography in the two main theatres of action: the Arizonans patrolling the wild wastes of the Sonoran Desert; or the blood-red sunset scenery over Mexican towns, with the hunched shoulders of some young rifleman silhouetted against a empty dusk. It is at turns a darkly comic and distressingly graphic film, and deservedly took home two awards at the Sundance festival earlier this year.

Heineman was at the same sold-out screening of the film, at the Frontline Club in London, as I was, taking questions afterwards. I asked him about the cyclical role the meth lab scenes play, used at the beginning and the end. He explained the tense relationship-building that went into working with the cooks and debunks the Breaking Bad-style glorification. Heineman said he wanted to present the drug manufacturing process as it was, in the half-light, lost in the backwoods.

The deceitful tendrils of policemen, politicians, gangsters and vigilantes are exposed then by one of the cooks, who we see at the end sporting a ‘Rural Defence Force’ polo shirt. The incorruptibility of the Autodefensas is never certain and the group’s strategies and members change as the movement grows. The corrupt but, ultimately, unsurprising cycle is complete in this final scene, the drug-running phoenix rising from the tarnished flames of a movement that is turning into the very danger it was formed to confront.

Cartel Land is showing at cinemas across the UK. See cartellandmovie.co.uk for more details.

This review first appeared in Sounds and Colours on 7 September