Film Review: ‘Cartel Land’


Perhaps this year’s most important documentary, Cartel Land (2015) offers a too-close-for-comfort, ground-level look at vigilante groups who attempt to thwart murderous Mexican drug cartels on both sides of the US-Mexican border. Equally chilling and engrossing, this direct cinema Sundance winner also explores moral responsibility – or the increasingly murky guise thereof – in the absence of law and order, where the only clear issue is the seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence. Director Matthew Heineman crosscuts between two protagonists offering alternative solutions to the same problem: Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles and Tim “Nailer” Foley.

Mireles is a small-town surgeon who leads the ‘Autodefensas’, a citizen uprising against the cartel who has terrorized the Michoacan community for years, while veteran Foley runs a paramilitary group that hunts down illegal immigrants and smugglers in Arizona’s ‘Cocaine Valley’. One of Nailer’s crew grumbles that “when you put two races in the same country, you can’t expect them to get along,” but Heineman otherwise refrains from probing their political views too deeply. Although labelled an extremist hate group, Foley justifies the Arizona Border Recon as a necessary reaction to what he perceives as a backyard invasion for lack of effective US government policing.

Accompanied by graphic footage of dismembered heads and mutilated bodies, the viewer’s first glimpse of the Autodefensas involves a gruesome account of how an entire lime-picker family is sadistically murdered in retaliation for their employer’s refusal to pay up a cartel-imposed tax. In the face of kidnapping, rape and murder – as well as the Mexican government’s notorious corruption – Mireles calmly but firmly exhorts strength in solidarity, helping to arm and organise downtrodden villagers who are fed up with the abuses of organised crime. Heineman literally puts himself in the line of fire as he follows spontaneous shoot-outs, car chases, and even a gunpoint interrogation in the back of a moving van. Particularly striking is a desperate stand-off in Ajo, where an old women pushes a car blocking the street, and a younger woman shrieks “Out with the bad government!,” while scraping a machete against the pavement for emphasis.

But Cartel Land also questions whether the Autodefensa’s occasionally brutal method of policing is so different from the cartels’ when vigilante members begin invading homes and seizing private goods, and quoting Hammurabi’s code against a background rattle of tasers and screams in a Guantanamo-esque cell. The perhaps inevitable disintegration of the power of ‘El Doctor’ begins while Mireles recovers from a plane crash and probable assassination attempt. In a compelling twist, ‘El Gordo’ and a bearded, grinning man nicknamed ‘Papa Smurf’ allegedly align themselves with the cartels they are supposed to be resisting; they are later decorated by the regional governor for helping to make Autodefensas part of a government-led coalition. Crisply edited, and marked by masterful hand-held camerawork, Cartel Land vividly presents the gulf between fantasies of vigilante heroism, and how they often harrowingly – if not bitterly – play out in reality.

For screening info on where you can watch Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land please visit

Christine Jun | @ChristineCocoJ