Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land is an intense, immersive, unsettling and at times nerve-wracking film that takes you into the center of Mexican drug cartels. Heinemann shows us how citizens in Mexico and the US are waging a war of their own to control the violent and corrupt consequences of this drug war. The lack of effective government action has led them down this brutal path is the explanation offered by the vigilante groups on either side of the US-Mexico border.

Heinemann sets up the film by showing how meth is prepared on the Mexican side by drug cartels. We learnt to make this from the Americans points out a member of the drug cartel. This meth is then sent across the border to the US. Economic hardships drive them to adopt this path explains another cartel member. Heinemann proceeds to unpack the narrative by showing two different vigilante groups in the US and Mexico, who have taken it upon themselves to deal with the drug cartels.

Meet Tim “Nailer” Foley, who leads a  small band of armed vigilantes in Arizona to stop drug smuggling across the border. Foley is a veteran, who explains how the economic downturn in 2008 led to loss of his home and job. And when he went looking for a job they were all taken by illegal immigrants he points out. Stop human trafficking across the border is the second objective of Foley’s group.

Over on the Mexican side – Heinemann takes us to the western state of Michoacán and introduces us to the colorful and flamboyant Dr. Jose Mireles, who heads Autodefensas, a local vigilante group. It is this strand of the film that becomes the central focus and at times leaves you with some unanswered questions. The vigilantes score quite a few victories and then their focus is derailed and differences within the group arise. We witness the rise and fall of Dr. Mireles and how unexpected changes take the narrative to a different trajectory that leaves you with more questions than answers.

Cartel Land  can be a bit confusing at times, but  that does not detract you from the narrative, which is gripping. Yes, you will have unanswered questions and will end up Googling to find out more. The film is worth watching because it takes you into the messy, sad and unintended consequences of the drug wars on either side of the US-Mexico border.

Cartel Land released on Friday, July 10, 2015 in San Francisco  and Friday, July 17, 2015 in San Jose.

Heinemann is on Twitter.

  • Title: CARTEL LAND
  • Running Time: 98 minutes
  • Status: Releasing July 10, 2015
  • Country: USA
  • Genre: Documentary