Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land, an otherwise gritty, deep look at the dirty politics and violence waged by the Mexican drug cartels, has all the sheen of a slick Hollywood production. Kathryn Bigelow served as an executive producer, and it rivals the look and feel of Zero Dark Thirty, or even the on-the-ground war cinematography of the documentary Restrepo. If Heineman shows an intimate understanding of the pain experienced by people in the Michoacán County as a result of the cartels, it’s because he was embedded. His camera is fearless, and it shows.
Cartel Land approaches the fight against the cartels from both sides of the border. On the American end, Tim “Nailer” Foley has built his own militia to wage a war against foreign invaders. In Michoacán, Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles is the leader of Autodefensas and positions himself as a Cesar Chavez with an assault rifle, liberating the region from The Knights Templar cartel. Both are vigilantes leading successful campaigns, with Dr. Mireles actually taking control of towns one by one, and Nailer recruiting ever more associates as Fox News stokes the flames of war.
Heineman gives both of these vigilantes microphones to preach the good work they believe they’re doing, but neither are immediately made to be heroes. Nailer’s team is quickly labeled a hate group, and he aligns with people brought there by jingoism, misguided racism, or religious fundamentalism, even if he doesn’t agree. What he sees is a Wild West where the cartels have effectively taken over a small area of American soil, and it’s hard to argue with him.
But the real Wild West is down south in Michoacán, where lawlessness and a corrupt military is a reality. Early in the film Mireles and Autodefensas occupy a town where Templars are hiding out, only for the military to arrive, disarm them and protect the Templar building. In a flash Heineman edits together the town rising up and shooing the military away so Autodefensas can continue their work. It’s an incredible moment worthy of a blockbuster.
Heineman even builds characters to add to the narrative pull, building up two Templars “Chaneque” and “Caballo” with harrowing testimony of a girl who was raped by the nicknamed cartel members and forced to watch her friends die. The sad story might’ve been enough, but Cartel Land then takes us on an exciting military raid to capture the two creeps.
This is a film of real stakes, real deaths, and real conflict. When an innocent man is apprehended by the Autodefensas, you feel he could blow at any moment and leave him dead point blank. Cartel Land forces us to grapple with the consequences of being a vigilante, one of which is that these cartels are a self-serving system no one truly wants to escape from, despite the real struggle. Cartel Land’s narrative and Hollywood shine make this doc a gripping watch, but it also serves the purpose of bringing one cartel leader’s early comments full circle by the film’s end: “We will do this as long as God allows it.”