Monday, April 13, 2015


Director: Matthew Heineman
Synopsis: With unprecedented access, this doc follows two vigilante groups on both sides of the US/Mexican border against the drug cartels. 

Black and white don't exist when it comes to morality. It's just shades of grey. I can't think of a better and more recent quote about this than Harvey Dent's "You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain" line from THE DARK KNIGHT. CARTEL LAND is a gripping and tense documentary that follows two militia groups, one from Arizona and one from Michoacan, Mexico,  who are fed up with the violence from Mexican drug cartels and have decided to take matters into their own hand.

It might be due to the fact I know people that have been affected by the violence of the cartels, but this ended up being a very personal story and it was both uplifting and downright depressing.

The movie starts with a group of men beginning to cook meth and being interviewed about their living. It's strange how they are shown to be rather sympathetic people who are trying to rise through poverty and the socioeconomic status they were born in to. But later on in the movie, you hear of the cartel's reign of terror with beheadings, and mass execution of innocent men, women, and children, and you realize how easy it is for money and status to corrupt and lead to violence. 

On the other hand, there is the all-but stated racist border militia group operating out of Arizona lead by Tim Foley, who feel like they need to patrol and "protect" the border of these smugglers. This group is one side of a bigger issue, and their anger comes from the government's lack of involvement, but it's pretty obvious there's a very racist angle to it. And yet a lot of what their saying parallels the last group that the film focuses on, the Autodefensas. The Autodefensas are lead by the Dr. Mireles, who are another milita group that go from town to town to get rid of the cartel members using their own brand of justice. Going from a small handful of people, it becomes a giant movement that gets the attention of the federal government and become very influential.

This whole movie is a look into ideals, corruption, and how opposing forces are much closer in their structure and their methods than they appear. The filmmakers accomplish this by showing the Autodefensas' rise as a force to be reckoned with. While fiction makes it really easy to divide things in easy categories, in real life, it's much easier for something to be idealistic, like the Autodefensas. It seems it was only a matter of time before an idealistic movement would eventually become corrupted and changes its ideals.

Be warned that the movie features some of the most intense documentary footage in recent history. There's footage of the killings done by the cartel members including beheadings. And even more intense is the fact that the camera crew were there for some unexpected shootings. It really makes you realize the severity of the situation.

The rise and fall of the Autodefensas is the main focus of the movie as it shows its rise of a benevolent group to becoming a glorified mafia. The change is shown gradually making it even more tragic in the end.

At first, there's a small parallel between the cartels and Autodefensas, like showing how both of them have members with nicknames like "Papa Smurf" to then showing the AF's  raiding the houses of cartel members, then starting to rob the members because they're "taking back what's theirs" to having terrifying torture facilities for "suspected" cartel members. It's some brutal and terrifying stuff. Towards the end of the movie, you find out that cartels have actually started funding and providing guns for the Autodefensas making the parallels all that more terrifying. The fact that both of the movements between the AZ militia and the Autodefensas are lead by charismatic leaders makes the movie all compelling, especially Dr. Mijeles whose speeches and stage presence make you realize just how easy it was for him to become the leader of a huge movement.

The sad thing is that ultimately the drug problem is a huge issue with a solution that's not easy to figure out. On one side, the Arizona militia totally feels like a band-aid on a bigger problem. They think they're helping out by hunting down the smugglers, but the smugglers will always come unless there's new laws and policies in place because the demand will always be there.

While the Autodefensas feel more "justified" at the beginning since they have to witness violence in their own back yard, it's easy to draw parallels between the American militia, who sound like right-wing nuts that say the government is corrupt and doesn't care, to the Autodefensas who are saying the same thing.

The movie does bring up a lot of issues in how it was edited to fit a very specific fiction-esque narrative. From what I understand, the previous cut of the film was really different with some scenes taken out and some added for extra effect. There is a section that deals with Dr. Mireles' personal transgressions, for example, that feel out that they came out of nowhere.

Despite this, CARTEL LAND is a gripping and excellent documentary showing the difficult place most find themselves in thanks to the drug smuggling problem. One can't help but feel a little cynical about it all, but again, at least there are people out there trying to make a difference.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    My name is Tim Foley. First off I'd like to say is that I wasn't present for the interviews Matt did with members. I only learned of them like you, by watching the movie. Since seeing the movie, we have cleaned house so to speak. The people who made those comments are no longer with us.
    We are not racist, even though that is the label we've been given.
    Matt cut out the people we run into in the mountains that were left to die by their coyotes. We give EVERYONE food,water and medical aid that we come into contact with. BTW, we don't have cable TV down here so the Hannity scene is dubbed in for racist effect. So even though they followed us for over a year. They cut and edited it to make us look as bad as the dirt bags on the south side. I guess violence and lawlessness sell better than doing it by the law which obviously is boring. So they made us look controversial as them.
    But I'm not a film maker or a movie reviewer, so what do I know. I only live this 24/7 and not just in a 90 min. movie. Walk a mile in my shoes and see how your feet feel.
    Tim nailer Foley
    Field operations director
    Arizona Border Recon