It opens with a scene straight out of Breaking Bad – a group of masked men are cooking barrel loads of meth by moonlight. The Mexican cartel members even mention that they were taught by a father and son team from America, reminding viewers of Walter White and his surrogate son Jesse Pinkman.
The twist here is that the footage is real, and over the course of its runtime Cartel Land proceeds to expose the modern drug war in intimate detail. Director Matthew Heineman scored remarkable access to his subjects, putting viewers on the ground and in the middle of the Mexican-U.S. drug trade in two key locations. The resulting documentary is compelling and visceral, weaving brutally raw stories on a human level.
Heineman first zeroes in on Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran who leads the ragtag Arizona Border Recon. After experiencing joblessness and a transient existence in the wake of the 2008 recession, Foley found himself in Arizona with a renewed purpose – to protect America’s porous border with Mexico. Along with a group of similarly disillusioned men who’ve lost faith in the government and its ability to protect their supposed liberties, Foley (heavily armed and dressed in battle fatigues) patrols a 22-mile stretch of the border, conducting citizen arrests on illegal Mexicans, whether they’re drug mules or simply looking for a better life.
While this thread has initially small stakes, Heineman stops short of mocking Foley’s seemingly futile battle and instead paints a fuller psychological picture of the man and his goals. Foley is intelligent and articulate, even if his views are at times extremist. A former alcoholic with a deeply lined face, the chain-smoking Foley clearly carries significant regrets and a heavy past with him, but is looking to do the “right thing” by protecting his land and country where he feels the government can’t or won’t. When he accepts newcomers into his Border Recon group who are more overtly racist or bigoted, Foley is conflicted but feels he must work with what he’s given.
Chafing at the term “vigilantes” that the media has labelled them, Foley seems to feel that his war is a righteous one and he’s on the side of moral superiority. It’s hard to argue the merits of drug smuggling, but when the Recon patrol captures a group of tired and hungry border crossers it’s clear there’s a human cost to this conflict. That aspect and the theme of sacrificing ideals for the supposed greater good are put into even more stark relief in the other half of Cartel Land that takes place within Mexico.
While Heineman began his film with the Arizona Border Recon as his primary subject, he soon learned of the Autodefensas militia group based out of the Mexican province of Michoacán. Led by the charismatic doctor-turned-revolutionary Dr José Mireles, the group formed in direct response to the drug cartels choking their lands and the police and paramilitary’s complicity in the drug trade. Idealistic, inspiring and filled with righteous impunity, Mireles (aka “El Doctor”) leads the Autodefensas on armed missions to the rural towns of Michoacán to liberate them from cartel control and empower the residents who’ve been so terrorized by horrific cartel tactics.
While there was danger in the Arizona sequences, the stakes are significantly raised in Mexico as Heineman rides along on raids, kidnappings, night time road blockades and much more. There are scenes and descriptions of heinous, brutal violence that are truly shocking. Cartels don’t just kill a few rivals or incur some collateral damage, they wipe out entire bloodlines without batting an eye simply to send a message to an uncooperative farmer. It’s difficult subject matter, but keenly gripping and masterfully edited.
There are stump speeches that show the power of Mireles’ conviction and white-knuckle shootouts that end with bodies in the streets. One scene finds a militia member interrogating a captured (possible) cartel member, idly waving a gun to his head and threatening execution. If there’s a more tense moment in cinema this year I haven’t seen it.
As Mireles’ influence grows and his Autodefensas becomes larger and more successful, enemies began closing in from within and without. Good intentions give way to questionable actions, and the Autodefensas begins to become indistinguishable from their enemies. There’s a sick sense of inevitability to the story that plays out, similar to the bleakness of The Wire (about crime in Baltimore) or the unrelenting darkness of Gomorrah (which takes place in Italy).
Cartel Land does not have a happy ending. There’s an endless cycle of violence and the wheel that churns along turns good men bad or crushes those that won’t change under it. The filmmaking on display is breathtaking and absolutely vital, never losing focus of the two men at its centre (and cleverly interweaving their two stories) and allowing their plights to represent the drug war as a whole. While the Mexico scenes have more impact and the stories have lopsided significance, the documentary as whole is essential and unforgettable. Cartel Land is an eye-opening gut-punch of a movie that will leave you shaken and shell-shocked, and one of the best movies about the war on drugs ever made.
Cartel Land (2015)
Director: Matthew Heineman
Runtime: 98 minutes