Directed by Matthew Heineman
2015, Mexico / USA
Cartel Land spends most of its runtime with the honest men and women on either side of the US-Mexico border, but it opens amidst the men working for the cartels, gathered under cover of darkness to cook their drugs (mostly meth) and appeal to the camera—they are people, and people have to work. The opening and the matching bookend provide an extra shade of depth to a documentary that mostly chronicles the horrors perpetrated on the Mexican people in the name of these cartels.
That isn’t to say the film wallows in misery and hopelessness, although it certainly dabbles in both. Director Matthew Heineman weaves two stories of vigilante justice, centered on two men doing their best to combat the all-powerful cartels; one on the US side of the border in Arizona, and the other in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán.
While the film does its best to service both sides of the story, the latter almost immediately overshadows the former—in Michoacán, the people are practically engaged in all-out trench warfare for Mexico’s soul. In Arizona, they’re just patrolling a few square miles of desert, some motivated by justice and others by thinly-veiled xenophobia.
A Michoacán vigilante group called the Autodefensas grows to combat the cartel violence of their state under the leadership of the magnetic Dr. Mireles. The group wages war against the cartel gangs, and the federal officials seem to be more an inconvenience than anything. Then the hopelessness begins to take hold. The cartels won’t go down so easily, and a series of revelations late in the film reveals how powerful these terrorist groups really are. Mireles is a symbol at the forefront of this movement, but he’s also a deeply flawed individual. I wish I could say his downfall was surprising, but given the state of Mexico presented in Cartel Land, no amount of injustice is truly surprising.
Elsewhere, another vigilante group headed by veteran and former drug addict Tim “Nailer” Foley diligently patrols a region along the Arizona border colloquially known as Cocaine Alley. Foley resents the negative implications of the term vigilante—he isn’t hanging men from trees, but simply doing his best to fight forces he believes to be truly evil. It’s hard to argue with that perception when the film presents a few polaroids of severed limbs and heads littered around the streets of Mexico.
Like Mireles, “Nailer” is a man with a strong sense of authority and is likable enough, despite the questionable political leanings of his cohorts—one man troublingly compares two races living in one nation to two pit bulls locked in a room. Foley’s story is surely interesting, but it often feels like a distraction from the unending, gun-toting, double-crossing action happening a thousand or so miles south in Michoacán.
Thankfully, it’s one of the film’s few flaws. Cartel Land works as both a character study and a real-life political thriller, tackling issues that affect the very state of North American power as we know it. Mireles and Foley both have their reasons, their demons, that drive them to lead their separate assaults against the cartel, and it’s to director Matthew Heineman’s credit that both feel like fully fleshed-out characters rather than shades of black and white.
They become all the more interesting because they live in a world gone mad, more insane and unsafe than any fictional lurid crime thriller. Like any great thriller, Cartel Land is chock-full of powerful, illustrative images, and Heineman’s cameras capture each moment in striking, affecting detail—families sobbing over mass graves, people gathered around a dingy TV set to watch the president speak, severed heads on a concrete porch, a cartel member smoking through a bandanna that obscures half his face, men on either side of the law clutching rifles proudly as they stare into the sunset. Heineman and his crew find plenty of aesthetic beauty to cement all the tragedy.
It’s easy to get lost in the story, so easy that viewers might forget they’re watching a documentary. Occasionally, as when the Autodefensas raid a heavily armed cartel compound, I had to remind myself that there were men behind these cameras risking their lives for this astounding footage. Kudos to them for putting themselves out there, and for somehow resisting the urge to whisper, “Holy sh*t, I’m going to die” every few seconds, as I surely would have in their place.
The plot description for the film boasts that the filmmakers had “unprecedented access.” It certainly pays off. Watching Cartel Land is harrowing, the closest I’d ever want to get to the depravity of these border/drug wars. But despite all the access they were allowed, the filmmakers can’t really offer any answers (how could they?). Rather, they produce a tactful, cumulative chronicling of the problems facing both sides and how a movement for justice eventually stumbles. Without giving too much away, the greatest asset of the cartels isn’t mere brutality, it is infiltration.
Those anonymous cartel members who open and close the film say they don’t expect to ever be out of a job. They don’t believe anything can put an end to the drug trade that causes so much grief throughout their nation. Cartel Land searches for something to refute their claim, to search for some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. But the future may hold no illumination, near or distant. In a film full of disturbing images and even more harrowing implications, I was most troubled by the realization that those cartel members might just be right.