Cartel Land is a 2015 American documentary film directed by Matthew Heineman about the Mexican Drug War, especially vigilante groups fighting Mexican drug cartels. The film focuses on Tim "Nailer" Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, and Dr. José Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician who leads the Autodefensas. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2016.
In Mexico, the film focuses on José Manuel Mireles Valverde, known locally as "El Doctor". Mireles becomes fed up with the local Knights Templar Cartel. He gathers a group of citizens from the state of Michoacán and leads an uprising, driving the cartel out of the region.
In the US, the film follows an American veteran named Tim "Nailer" Foley, who is forming a small paramilitary group called the Arizona Border Recon. His goal is to stop the same Mexican cartel from conducting business in the US.
The decision to fight led to the creation of the Autodefensas, who declared war on the Knights Templar and sought to drive them out of Michoacán. We see them go into action, wearing their group t-shirts and carrying weapons, breaking down the doors of suspected cartel members, rousting them from bed and driving them from town. In town after town, the vigilantes set about scouring the state clean.
Their actions come in part, they say, because federal and local authorities have failed to act against the cartels, often colluding with or protecting them instead. Their armed vigilantism inevitably leads to an official push-back, as we see in a gripping scene where Mexican Army troops come into a town, disarm the Autodefensas and then find themselves facing angry townspeople, who demand the Autodefensas be given their guns back and then drive the troops from town.
When the filmmakers arrive, the region is dominated by the Knights Templar, a murderous mob whose name alone indicates the muddled iconography of cartel-dominated territory. They have come to think of themselves as defenders of the faith, even as they expand from drugs to kidnapping and protection rackets.
The movie, inevitably, focuses on Mireles and several dramatic events that involved him in 2014. But the larger story is the tendency of power to corrupt in a land where violence is the only controlling political authority. As the Autodefensas' influence grows, so do their transgressions. Michoacan may have traded one savage occupying army for another.
The film's director Matthew Heineman embedded himself with two vigilante groups working to combat the drug cartels on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. He took extraordinary risks to film the shootouts, corruption, greed and torture chambers that make up life in the drug fight. The film explores the sometimes convoluted moral ambiguities of vigilante justice.
I really wanted to tell the story in the present tense. I wanted to be there as the story unfolded, and I ended up with a story that I never could have dreamed of or imagined or predicted. I'm not a war reporter, I've never been in any situation like this before, but the film led me into crazy situations. Shootouts between the vigilantes and the cartel, meth labs, places of torture. ...
When [Foley] lost his job he was angry and he blamed his inability to get work on illegal immigrants who were taking his jobs. And so he went down to the border ... to try to stop the flow of immigrants coming across the border. And he over time realized that the real enemy was not them in his mind, the real enemy was the cartel that controlled everything.
When I first started I really felt like it was this sort of heroic story of citizens rising up to fight against this evil cartel. And then over time, these lines between good and evil that seemed so stark when I first started became ever more blurry. Those who were fighting against evil started to become evil. And as this happened it got more and more interesting. It also got more and more scary. By the end of the film I could be on an operativo, on a mission, and look to my left and look to my right and not know if I was with the cartel or the people fighting against the cartel.
One of the reasons that I wanted to make this film is [that] I was so struck when I first started making it at the suffering of the people of Michoacán, of the people of Mexico that I was filming. [They were] living in a society where institutions had failed, in the face of a very ineffective government that was allowing the cartel to operate with impunity.
The story of the drug wars is not a simple one to digest. It is a tangled, wide-ranging conflict between cartels, between narco enforcers and drug enforcement agents, between the corrupt and the corruptible, between those with power and those without. Then there are the thousands of workaday citizens, who confront the violence from all sides.
With the Autodefensas, you have this stunning narrative arc: A scrappy group of citizen fighters trying to roust out the drug dealers becomes a more mercenary force that we find out may also be linked to the cartels. What is your view of that group and what they became?
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On paper, a structure that compares vigilante groups on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border makes a lot of sense. But in practice, the scenes in Mexico (where a vigilante group called the Autodefensas springs up to protect locals from a drug cartel that is intimidating and murdering the populace) are a lot more compelling than the ones in America (where a bunch of right-wingers patrol the border to little effect). It feels like director Matthew Heineman recognized that too; after early scenes establish a back-and-forth structure, the Americans fade into the background while the leader of the Autodefensas, Dr. José Mireles, becomes the main protagonist. Massive respect to Heineman for his fearless work in the field, but if he'd applied an equally bold approach in the editing room and cut the U.S. scenes entirely, he'd have an even stronger documentary.
The subject matter is beyond fascinating, especially when you are just now learning about the influence of the cartel in Mexico. That's why, i thought the american parts were kind of unfitting. They were moments in the documentary, you just kind of had to sit through; very uneventful and sort of boring, which nevertheless made for an interesting contrast with the mexican "storyline".
Enter Jose Mireles, a small-town doctor who becomes the leader of Autodefensas, a vigilante group that takes up arms and fights the drug cartel with shocking success, much to the chagrin of the government (draw your own conclusions).
At times, Foley seems more anti-immigrant than anticartel. We hear of all this lawlessness in Arizona but see little evidence of it. In fact, we fear more for the safety of the immigrants than of the American vigilantes.
This sequence is somewhat anomalous, since for most of the movie Heineman and his equally risk-courting co-cinematographer, Matt Porwoll, embedded themselves inside two vigilante groups aimed at eradicating Mexican drug cartels. They dodged a lot of bullets.
These two vigilante outfits came about because of what some saw as a pronounced failure by governments on both sides to protect their respective citizens. The US border patrol in Cocaine Alley, for example, is so undermanned that the area has essentially become a lawless territory. In the Mexican state, government agents are not only ineffectual in policing the cartels but are, in some cases, in cahoots with them.
Khirin A. Bunker holds a Political Science B.A with honors from the University of California Riverside and an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree. He has interned at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, SWJ El Centro, and a law firm and has studied abroad at the University of Cambridge, England.
The cartels, or Knights Templar, leave a trail of atrocities including beheadings and massacres of whole families, and they evoke an outraged response from Mexican vigilantes who find their way of life threatened.
VICE spent the day with filmmaker Matthew Heineman during his first visit back to Mexico since the making of his unflinching documentary Cartel Land, which chronicles the plight of vigilante groups north and south of the border rising against gruesome drug cartels. During his visit, we went to the premiere of the movie and spoke to some of Mexico's key journalists about the film's local impact and how its altered their perspective on the complexity of citizen's taking matters into their own hands.
Director Matthew Heineman has a terrific eye. And, to judge from "Cartel Land," his immersive documentary about American and Mexican vigilante groups, he also has guts and nerves of steel. Serving as the primary cinematographer, he employs a run-and-gun style for much of the movie, using a lightweight digital camera that at times lurches so dramatically that you can visualize the body attached to it. Considering that Heineman landed in a few shootouts while making this documentary, both his camera moves and its pictorial quality are striking.
What those images show is where this documentary gets complicated. In "Cartel Land," Heineman puts you into two outwardly similar vigilante groups, one in the United States and the other in Mexico, that seem to be battling a common enemy in the drug cartels. Each has a (more or less) charismatic leader - Tim Foley, with the Arizona Border Recon; and Dr. José Manuel Mireles, with Autodefensa, a group in the state of Michoacán - who serves as his group's mouthpiece and as a narrative hinge. "They're the ones terrorizing their own country," Foley says of the cartels, "and now they're starting to do it over here." Mireles, in turn, asks, "Do we want to die tied up like animals or dismembered like they have been doing for more than 12 years?" 041b061a72