Cartel Land (2015)

Cartel Land is a movie starring Tim Nailer Foley, José Manuel 'El Doctor' Mireles, and Paco Valencia. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman examines the state of the ongoing drug problem along the U.S.-Mexican border.
  • 7.4 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Writer:
  • Matthew Heineman, Director:
  • Tom Yellin, Producer:

Trailer:

8 / 10

Vigilantism

This documentary is about Mexico and cartels, but it is also about vigilantism in general. Is it OK to take the law into your own hands? Does this freedom corrupt? The documentary explores two (related) instances of vigilantism, and it does so in a critical, but nuanced way. It reflects upon the motives of the people involved, and their situation. This exploration is what really makes this documentary great. It throws some light on the situation in Mexico in a way that is both thrilling and heartbreaking - but by focusing on the acts of the vigilantes, the documentary becomes timeless.

The people behind this went to great lengths to get some really(!) impressive footage. How they convinced people involved to let them film all of this is beyond me.

A warning though: There were some scenes here where I had to look away because of the images shown.

9 / 10

"Cartel Land" does things that few documentary filmmakers would even think of doing.

Deep in the desert, where no legitimate government rules, a terrorist organization operates freely. Established governments fear them. They're well-financed, violent and ruthless. They control large swaths of land, including some cities and towns, causing local residents to live in fear. The members of this organization think nothing of murdering their enemies or killing just to make a point. They murder men, women and children, and even celebrate those deaths. They often decapitate their victims and sometimes use the internet to publicize videos and photos of their brutality. They even evoke the name of their god to justify their actions.

I'm not talking about the Middle East or ISIS. I'm talking about Mexican drug cartels.

The documentary "Cartel Land" (R, 1:38) shows everything I just described and more, but focuses mainly on vigilante groups who fight the cartels – on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. The film's title refers to areas of Mexico – and areas of the United States as well. U.S. Marine veteran Tim "Nailer" Foley leads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon whose volunteer members carry semi-automatic rifles and patrol Arizona's Altar Valley ("Cocaine Alley") for any sign of drug traffickers operating on the U.S. side of the border. Meanwhile, Jose Mireles leads the Autodefensas, whose members carry similar weapons in their quest to root out members of the ruthless drug cartel which operates in the area around the western Mexican state of Michoacán. Both of these vigilante groups operate outside of their government's good graces but both governments refrain from direct action against the groups, even seeming to work with them on some level.

The film alternates between following both groups as they struggle to turn back the advancing tide of cartels operating in their areas and also deal with manpower and leadership issues and with the friction between them and their respective governments. The story of these two vigilante groups is bookended by scenes shot during methamphetamine production by cartel affiliates at a remote outdoor location in Mexico. With their faces covered, this small group of men goes about their business unfettered and they even talk to the camera. At one point, their leader admits that what they're doing is wrong, but doesn't seem to care. He says that they'll continue cooking meth "as long as God allows it". Similarly, the leaders of both Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas justify their actions, even as some of their methods resemble those of the cartels.

"Cartel Land" does things that I've never seen before in any documentary and does others better than I've ever seen them done. I've rarely praised either of these in other documentaries, but the cinematography and the score are both magnificent. Even more impressive than how it was shot is where it was shot. Besides gaining practically unprecedented access to that secret meth lab, director Matthew Heineman embeds with these vigilante groups, following them on their missions and getting up close and personal with some of the action in some obviously dangerous situations. (The film won the directing and cinematography awards in its category at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.) The editing is also extremely impressive. The film contains more surprising reveals and vital story developments than in many traditional movie thrillers. Besides Heineman's obvious talents (and guts), it probably didn't hurt that one of the doc's executive producers is Kathryn Bigelow, Oscar-winning director of "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty". Bigelow and Heineman's film is quite simply one of the best documentaries I have ever seen and only the second one that I have ever given this grade: "A".

9 / 10

Riveting, and revolting, looks at the Mexican cartels

"Carte Land" (2015 release; 100 min.) is a documentary that examines what is happening in the Mexican state of Michoacán, in south-west Mexico (about 1,000 miles from the US border), and in a separate story, we also take a look at what some people are doing at the Arizona border with Mexico. As the documentary opens, we see Mexican guys cooling up meth somewhere in Michoacán. Comments one: "We know we do harm, but we come from poverty". Then we get to know a woman, who lost 13 (!) family members, all brutally murdered by the cartel when their employer (owner of a lime orchard) couldn't pay the cartel, so they shot his employees as revenge. Then we get to know Dr. Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician who is sick and tired of the violence, and realizing that the official authorities will not/cannot do anything, he decides to start the Autodefensas, a grass roots movement to claim back the streets and towns of Michoacán.

Couple of comments: first, this is another documentary from producer-director Matthew Heineman, and with this latest, he hits the bull's eye. The situation in the Mexican state of Michoacán is so bad that people are outright desperate for relief, ANY relief. There is an astonishing scene that plays out in the city of Apo, where the Autodefensas capture several cartel members. Then the Mexican Army comes sweeping in, and tries to disarm the Autodefensas (yes! not the cartel). The town's population quickly gathers and essentially howls the Army back out of town. Jaw-dropping. There are other such scenes in this riveting, and revolting, documentary. With revolting, I refer of course to the deplorable situation the Mexican people find themselves in, left to their own devices with the state or federal authorities pretty much absent. Beware, on several occasions there is shocking forage or pictures, and this documentary is most certainly not for the faint of heart. Second, the 'parallel' story of the Arizona Border Recon, with veterans taking it on themselves to patrol the border to keep migrants out, falls utterly short and frankly looks a bit silly as compared to the stuff we see happening in Michoacán. It would've made the documentary even better by simply focusing on what is happening on the ground in Mexico. But even with that unnecessary side story, "Cartel Land" is an unforgettable documentary.

"Cartel Land" made quite a splash at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and when out of the blue this showed up at my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati this weekend, I couldn't believe my luck and went to see it right away. The matinée screening where I saw this at was a private affair, as in: I literally was the only person in the theater. That is a darn shame, as "Cartel Land" makes for compelling, if at times uncomfortable, viewing. If you get an opportunity to check this out and draw your own conclusions, be it at the theater, on Amazon Instant Video, or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray, do not miss it! "Cartel Land" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

7 / 10

Questionable Point of View

This moving and compelling documentary paints a vivid picture of the tragic situation involving the cartels, police, military, government, and citizens of Mexico. This story is too little known north of the border, and that's why this documentary is important and should be seen. The director's bravery in obtaining some amazing footage is to be commended.

However, in my opinion the filmmaker has made a serious and even offensive misstep in trying to create a parallel between the vigilantes of the Autodefensas and the vigilantes of the Arizona Border Recon. Quoting from the doc's website, the premise is that these groups "vie to bring their own brand of justice to a society where institutions have failed."

It's abundantly clear that in Mexico, to put it as neutrally as possible, institutions (government, police, military) have failed to protect citizens from cartel- sponsored violence. The tragic consequences of this failure are made disturbingly real in the film.

However, the idea that U.S. government, police, and military have failed to protect the citizens of Arizona from cartel-sponsored violence is just absurd. Worse, by comparing a flawed Mexican leader who is apparently sincerely trying to address a horrific situation to a flawed American "leader" who is off on some crackpot right-wing conspiracy theory where the danger is mostly in his head, the film ends up insulting the actual pain and suffering experienced by the people of Mexico. However much the Arizona guy wants to say he's really focusing on the cartel's activity in the Arizona desert (how does that work, again?), his true motive is to stop people from crossing the border because he has an anti-immigration ax to grind. However you feel about immigration, U.S.-based anti- immigrant vigilantism is not analogous to the motives or efforts of the Autodefensas. Comparing the two insults the Mexican people's suffering and the Autodefensas courage, however flawed their leaders and unsuccessful their efforts may be.

If the filmmaker wanted to bring in important information from the U.S. side of the border, he might have tried providing some information about how our government's "War on Drugs" has paralleled the cartel's rise (coincidence?), or the blood that's on our hands because we're the ones buying the drugs.

Instead, he makes a false parallel with a group of anti-immigrant wingnuts. If you want to make a documentary to show that anti- immigrant wingnuts are people too, go ahead, but don't try to compare the Arizona Border Recon to the Autodefensas. That's not an intellectually fascinating parallel, as the filmmaker apparently believes. It's just pretentious and, really, disgusting.

7 / 10

powerful doc

Greetings again from the darkness - from the Dallas International Film Festival. Even in this digital age where information exists from all sides of a conflict ? often with corresponding video, the general public somehow remains complacent to issues that don't directly and obviously affect their lifestyle. Skilled documentarian Matthew Heineman ignores the rhetoric of political speeches and plops the war against drug cartels right into our lap.

This is a different approach to a topic with which we are all at least somewhat familiar. The involved parties include the affected communities (in Mexico and Arizona), the governments and affiliated agencies (DEA, Border Patrol), the ever-expanding vigilante groups of citizens (Arizona Border Recon, AutoDefensas), and of course the cartels (focus on Knights Templar).

Intimacy is the key here, as Mr. Heineman takes us inside these groups with an up-close look at leaders. Especially fascinating is Dr. Mireles who is the face of the AutoDefensas – a group he pledges will protect communities from the cartels, who clearly have no regard for human life. The film doesn't shy away from the expected issues: citizen pushback, greed, abuse of power, and corruption. As AutoDefensas teams with the Mexican government to create the Rural Defense Force, we can't help but wonder if the rumors of differing goals are at play in the drug battles. Citizens want safety, but what is it that the government wants? Is the goal drug-free streets or is it a cut of the action.

Learning how desperate the vigilantes are to protect their homes, turf and way of life, we are left with little doubt of their mission. It's everyone else that we must keep questioning and holding accountable. This is not an easy documentary to watch, but it's necessary if you have previously lost interest as the next politician proclaims he will continue "the war on drugs".