Though “Cartel Land” enjoyed a limited release in 2015, its recent acquisition by Netflix makes 2016 seem like the year it debuted. With premium channels, movies on demand and online streaming services, distribution becomes a series of premiers rather than a single set release date. No matter how one watches it, “Cartel Land” commands its viewer’s attention. It demands audible gasps and soft chuckles. Plus, in the case of “Cartel Land,” viewers benefit from the multiple opportunities to watch, discuss and repeat.
Matthew Heineman’s documentary follows two stories of vigilante justice related to the War on Drugs. One story takes place in Michoacán, Mexico and the other occurs in Arizona. The film opens with masked members of a Mexican drug cartel cooking crystal meth. Plumes of smoke set a strikingly gorgeous scene. Throughout the film, the visual beauty works to pull the viewer into an oddly fantastical-looking world. Despite the gritty reality, the camera work offers enticing views. This beginning also establishes that Heineman isn’t messing around: he’s capturing the dangerous inner workings of the War on Drugs that we infrequently see.
One of the documentary’s subjects is the leader of Arizona Border Recon, Tim Foley . This self-described NGO aims to work within the law—unlike the Oregon militia. The small group of armed volunteers that comprises the Arizona Border Recon traverses around the Mexico-U.S. border. They attempt to prevent drug cartels and illegal immigrants from entering America by handing people over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Foley admits that others in the U.S. view his group as a collection of racists. It’s the easiest conclusion to jump to and perhaps applicable to some of the other men in the Arizona Border Recon.
In the more captivating storyline, the viewers meet Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde, the leader of los Grupos de Autodefensa Comunitaria. This paramilitary group of volunteers with regular day jobs successfully combats violent drug cartels throughout Michoacán. Though they operate in defiance of the law, communities rally around las Autodefensas for protecting them and express distrust toward the Mexican government. In his interviews with Heineman, Mireles explains that the group captures cartel leaders, turns them into the authorities and does not raid any homes. Mireles is a medical doctor and national celebrity. Mireles has such an irresistible charm that you almost forget he acts as the public face of a massive, heavily armed operation interacting with the top leaders of Los Zetas and the Knights Templar Cartel. Foley is arguably charming, but in a smaller way. The moments that depict the men stripped of grandeur or pride come across as the most sincere and surprising. Whether you agree with it or not, Heineman forces a comparison between Foley and Mireles.
Neither overly emotional, nor overtly factual, “Cartel Land” has the pacing and tension of a narrative action flick. Heineman daringly captures ground-level shootouts between las Autodefensas as they go after cartel leaders. Equally impressive footage reveals meetings of the leaders of las Autodefensas as they discuss major dilemmas and changes. The Michoacán storyline contains twists, turns, humor and intrigue. The Arizona storyline is less of a narrative arc and more like a traditional documentary snapshot. Both offer well-rounded pictures of the two men, empowering the viewer to decide what’s right and what’s wrong.
One of the many compelling results from the comparison is a look at the birth of a vigilante movement. The Arizona Border Recon insists that they are not vigilantes. But their line of work meets the definition of vigilante justice, even if they have a healthy relationship with Border Patrol. (Meanwhile, the Mexican government and las Autodefensas are at odds.) One question that the film raises: What natural and manufactured forces are required for a thriving vigilante movement?
The film also questions the negative connotations attached to frontier justice. The two movements aren’t too different from their legally authorized counterparts. In contemporary society, there may be room for civilians and government officials to collaborate. In fact, when “protecting one’s country” is a passion project instead of a paycheck, the civilians exercise great enthusiasm. Accountability appears difficult to control and maintain within vigilante movements, but one could say the same about the government too.
Unlike other documentary styles, “Cartel Land” leaves out graphs and statistics in favor of an emphasis on the action at hand. It’s easy to forget that the events in the film are real because of how well they bring up the recurring theme of morality. The film offers a fascinating look at the War on Drugs from two rare perspectives. Additionally, it intimately acquaints the viewer with two charismatic leaders. This comes together as a thrilling documentary. Also, the ending will take your breath away.