Since the 1980’s there have been drug cartels. And while they have been glamorized in TV and film, the real thing has always seemed just as far away from us in reality as the fictional Walter White’s of the world. Even films like 2000’s “Traffic” which attempted to show many of the complex sides of the drug war, still just scratched the surface of the true impact on both Mexico and America. The documentary “Cartel Land” by Matthew Heineman gives a modern glimpse of what it is like on the ground on both sides of the border as vigilantes attempt to take on the cartels in their own way.
Tim “Nailer” Foley is a former drug addict who has cleaned up and turned his focus on organizing a small paramilitary group on the Arizona-Mexico border to take on a branch of the cartels. That being the drug mules, suppliers, and spotters who take positions on hilltops and watch the border crossings that go on for miles. Meanwhile 1,000 miles away Jose Manuel Mireles wages his own battle against several cartels by engaging in gun fights and seeking out members of the cartels in town after town in Michoacán, Mexico. His group known as “Autodefensas” are regular townspeople who have had loved ones murdered, kidnapped, and raped by members and associates of the cartels. They move into a town and encourage the people to rise up against the drug traffickers. They arm them get them to organize and drive out the criminal element.
This is one of the most intense documentaries I have ever seen. The access filmmaker Heineman was given and even more so the danger he places himself in is incredible. He gets caught up in shoot-outs, and is surrounded by situations that could easily get out of control. Yet he keeps the camera rolling sometimes just getting the voices of people making life and death decisions. What is most profound though, is the endless cycle of violence we are presented with in “Cartel Land”. It’s eye-opening at the same time heart-breaking to see the effect drugs can have on so many lives. What is also presented in a real raw form it that these are all human beings with real weakness and strengths that keep them going as well as bring them down. They are self aware that what they are involved in could be a pointless endeavor, and could get them and others killed. But their willingness to move forward despite the fact that this is a never-ending war they are fighting is both compelling and terrifying.
–Robert L. Castillo