A pounding, insistent, thrilling documentary, Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land presents a staggering on-the-ground look at the vigilante groups fighting Mexican drug cartels. The 2015 film feels hopeless at times and so it should. The Mexican drug war is an untenable situation, to say the least, with an endless stream of victims and corruption proving the worthlessness of “good vs. evil” rhetoric.
Heineman refuses to take a stand, providing a dispassionate lens rather than a set of frothing talking heads. There’s no guidance in terms of how to feel, which may make Cartel Land a vexing experience for some. Those looking for a conduit for their own political views will sadly be left wanting, but those seeking raw, astounding documentary filmmaking will likely find themselves very impressed.
Heineman weaves parallel stories, opening with a group of Mexicans cooking meth in the middle of nowhere. They speak of wanting to be “like us,” but they’re too poor to have those sorts of choices and will instead cook drugs as long as the good Lord above allows. They are but part of this complex equation, which ventures through to a set of American vigilantes patrolling the border.
These individuals, known as Arizona Border Recon, are informally led by Tim “Nailer” Foley and take to the invisible line between the United States and Mexico to do the job they claim nobody else can do. They are juxtaposed with Mexico’s Autodefensas, a group initially by Dr. José Manuel Mireles and bent on helping citizens take their villages back from drug cartels.
It’s tempting to suggest that Heineman is necessarily comparing the Autodefensas to Arizona Border Recon, but this betrays the complexity of what Cartel Land is after. A wiser reading tracks the course these two groups take, with the details illuminating the thrust of corruption that seems to infect even the best of intentions.
Mireles, a physician from Michoacán and a camera-ready hero if there ever was one, begins his quest with high hopes and a moral drive. The cartels have to go, the people need to be defended, the government is ineffective, and so on. His band of armed men is initially greeted as a liberating force, but soon some rather murky clouds settle in.
Villagers are less than content with the way some of the Autodefensas are behaving and rightly so. These men are cleaning their weapons in the streets, bringing an air of violence and intimidation. They’re even flirting with the girls. The villagers want peace, no matter who brings it, and the Autodefensas don’t seem to be helping.
Heineman spends less time with the Arizona Border Recon group and that’s too bad. The emotions matter more with “Nailer,” as he details his path to the present moment with emotional frankness. He saw illegal immigrants getting the jobs he wanted, he says, and that proved a powerful catalyst. Learning about the cartels crystallized his movement and clarified some things.
“Nailer” and Mireles have a lot of things in common. They’re both iconic leaders and they both look like they stepped out of a Sam Peckinpah movie. They’re both morally flawed men and they both live lives that are almost impossible to imagine. They’re also both vehicles for communal reprisal, tools of a culture’s rage toward another culture. In the right light, they’re weapons.
Cartel Land weaves through these personalities with some of the most exciting documentary footage to hit the screen in a long time. Bullets and fists are flying. Men stalk the desert under an impossible sky. A man is captured by vigilantes in front of his bawling daughter and pleads his innocent in the face of some serious intimidation at gunpoint.
Heineman has unprecedented access to the entire situation and that propels Cartel Land beyond the norm. Its commendable reluctance to play to easy roles underscores the intensity with an opaque view, presenting this eternal catastrophe in all its blood-soaked horror. There is a void and strange, ugly things happen when men try to fill it with never-ending waves of vicious force.