Arts & Books Comment Magazine

Film review: Cartel Land

A scene featuring a rally in Mexico

The recent escape of the drugs kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman from a maximum security prison in Mexico was no great shock.

It was so inevitable that it was even predicted in a work of fiction earlier this year – Don Winslow’s superb novel The Cartel, which chronicles the whole insanely violent and lawless mess that Mexico has become. Now comes Cartel Land, a deeply troubling documentary that focuses on vigilantes on both sides of the border who have attempted to fight back.

On the American side we meet the Arizona Border Recon, a group of hardened men (and a couple of women) who have taken it upon themselves to apprehend any drug-runners and illegal immigrants they can find in the mountainous borderlands.

Judging by appearances, with their camouflage outfits, tattoos and heavy weaponry, it would be easy to dismiss these people as a bunch of redneck racists. Some of them probably are, but the question of why they are doing what they are doing becomes increasingly engrossing and thought-provoking as interviews with their damaged but single-minded leader, Tim ‘‘Nailer’’ Foley, unfold.

While Foley’s story is an engaging one, it is when the film shifts to Mexico and the state of Michoacán that Cartel Land comes into its own. Director Matthew Heineman focuses on the charismatic Dr José Manuel Mireles and his Autodefensa vigilantes, a group of ordinary citizens who decided in 2012 to take up arms to protect themselves and their families.

The film tracks the spread of the movement across the state, the opposition it faces from the authorities and, eventually, its corruption from within. The cowboy hat-wearing Dr Mireles emerges as a kind of hero, his opposition first to the cartels and then to his Autodefensa colleagues, landing him, unsurprisingly, in prison, where he is currently still languishing (and highly unlikely to benefit from an El Chapo-style escape).

Heineman doesn’t shy away from the unrelenting horror of the story confronting him. Most incredibly, he places himself right in the middle of a number of running gun battles in the Michoacán streets, exactly the kind of brave-to-the-point-of-reckless film-making that would surely make the great Werner Herzog proud.

We also hear heartbreaking testimonies explaining exactly what the cartels do to ordinary people: one woman describes how 13 members of her family, including babies, were brutally murdered. The adults’ crime was to work as lime pickers for a man who owed one of the cartels money.

Cartel Land doesn’t make for comfortable viewing, and rightly so. It explores the moral conundrum of vigilantism with force and precision, and, amid Mexico’s bloody quagmire, easy answers prove impossible to find.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (02/9/15).

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