Cartel Land is a revealing and troubling film, and not just for its “big picture” content. Yes, it will certainly be revelatory to anyone who hasn’t given much thought or attention to the war being waged in Mexico and in U.S. border states between the Mexican drug cartels and civilian militia/vigilante groups, who insist that their respective governments are either not doing enough or not doing anything at all about their enemy and the savagery they commit in the course of conducting their business.
But it also should prove fascinating and disturbing as a character study, examining the individual motivations of the leaders of two very different paramilitary groups fighting the same enemy, how they each choose to wage that war, the methods they employ, and the challenges they face. The amount of screen time allotted to each of these disparate stories within the film is unbalanced — one gets a whole lot more time and development than the other — and that does somewhat blunt the overall impact of the film. But for most of its 98 minutes, Cartel Land‘s glimpse into this war and at the lives of the people trying to do what they feel is right as they fight that war is harrowing, gripping material.
The two men at the heart of Cartel Land — Tim “Nailer” Foley of the Arizona Border Recon group in the U.S. and Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles Valverde, or “el Doctor” as he came to be known, the initial leader and spokesperson for the “Autodefenzas” social movement in Michoacán, Mexico, could not be more different in terms of their approaches to the war on the drug trade and those profiting from it. Foley, a former drifter from a broken home who initially went out to the border to see what he could do about stemming the tide of illegals coming over and taking American jobs, upon getting a better sense of the “Wild West” situation in the area quickly shifted the focus of his efforts to stopping the flow of human trafficking and meth by rooting out scouts for the drug mules and cartel trade routes. He and those who work with him for the most part work in isolation, going about their task out in the vast stretches of southwest Arizona where the closest police and Federal authorities are hours away in Tuscon, intent on making nearby towns and neighborhoods safe at night by keeping the criminal element out. Equipped with military-grade weapons and survival gear, they go about their task quietly, not seeking the attention of the public or the media but welcoming help if it comes from those believe in the importance of border security with or without the help of the U.S. government.
“El Doctor”, on the other hand, maintains his “regular” life and work as a medical doctor and surgeon while at the same time organizing and setting out the mission statement of the “Grupos de Autodefenzas” after a number of his own family members are killed while working on a farm whose owner dared to defy one of the principal controlling cartels in the area, the “Knights Templar.” Mireles’s approach to the problem is very public — he makes public appearances, telling the people in the towns his group enters that they’re there to clean out the Templars, and their priority is the safety and security of the town, while also decrying the federal government for doing nothing about the problem because they are profiting from it. Initially, the Autodefenzas and the white shirts that become symbolic of their movement are welcomed with open arms wherever they go, gaining followers with each stop and pushing back the Templars’ control of different municipalities in Michoacán until more than half the state has been “reclaimed” for the people and is declared clear of Templar influence. But as the movement continues to grow, Mireles faces many unexpected setbacks, including corruption and abuses of power within his own movement, and what began as an effort to end the cycle of violence takes a turn that’s all too familiar to the people who have lived with this war and seen this cycle perpetuate for decades.
What’s perhaps most striking about Heineman’s work in Cartel Land, which won the 2015 Best Director and Best Cinematography Awards in the U.S. Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival, is the level of access he and his film crews are granted by both movements and even, in scenes that bookend the film, cartel members cooking the meth that’s one of the sources of the current problem. Cameras follow Foley and his group as they sneak up on and take into custody people they believe to be cartel scouts or mules, but also into their homes and living rooms, focusing on their faces and conversations as they react to local and national news putting spins both welcome and unwelcome on their work. Similarly, the cameras following Dr. Mireles follow him as he and the Autodefenzas roll into town in their pick-up trucks, armed to the teeth and sporting bulletproof vests as they surround homes and businesses where townspeople reported seeing Templars or their associates, but also into his office where he sees patients every day, and into his home, with his wife and family who wholeheartedly support his work while worrying for his safety. Especially in the case of Mireles and the Autodefenzas, that level of access allows for audiences to witness firsthand just when and how both Mireles and his movement, which started out with such promise and brought such hope and relief to people at first, both eventually lose their way.
In comparison, the footage focused on Foley and his group, while taut with tension, immediacy, and authenticity, doesn’t have as strong a narrative focus or direction. If there’s a criticism to be made in terms of how Heineman constructs Cartel Land as a film, it’s that by the film’s conclusion the inclusion of that footage serves little purpose aside from serving as a contrast to the way things unfold in the Autodefenzas story. There is, however, a clear effort by Foley in his moments on camera to present a clear picture of what Arizona Border Recon stands for and hopes to accomplish, and to help dispel the conception that they’re simply racist survivalist gun nuts taking the law into their own hands like Old West gunfighters of old. Whether that aim is accomplished will depend entirely on the viewpoint of whoever’s watching, but considering the circumstances he describes and the environment in which his group operates, his claims about the necessity of what they do are difficult to dismiss out of hand.
But without a doubt, the more compelling story in Cartel Land, the one that’s most developed and is almost surreal in terms of the turns it takes and what audiences have the opportunity to witness, is the story that takes place south of the border, in the streets and towns of Michoacán. It’s a sad, sad story that unfortunately is all too familiar to the people who have suffered through it for years, but for those living far from this conflict who might have formed their opinions about it solely based on what gets fed to them via news outlets and the internet, it should prove to be disturbing, conversation-provoking, and ultimately very, very memorable.
Directed by Matthew Heineman.
Running Time: 98 minutes
Rated R for violent disturbing images, language, drug content and brief sexual material.