Cartel Land ***1/2

Fascinating doc highlights the corruption of good faith and moral ambiguity of the war on drugs.

Is it worth $10? Yes

On paper, “Cartel Land” appears to have a straightforward and compelling premise: The documentary tells the dual stories of a vigilante group in Mexico that fights drug cartels, and of a paramilitary group near the Arizona/Mexico border that strives to keep Mexican drugs (and drug wars) out of the United States. But as with most worthwhile docs, there are layers to the story that contain surprising revelations.

With both groups wanting the same thing, i.e. to fight and eradicate the prevalence of drugs and drug culture in their community, one would think the operational bedfellows would have more in common. What we get instead is an insightful look at two groups on the right side of morality but openly embracing amoral methods to reach their goals. At times you wonder if the people trying to stop the cartels are actually more reprehensible than the cartels themselves, which is shocking and yet, when you consider the circumstances, not.

One thing the two vigilante groups share is a call to action due to ineffective government intervention. In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles leads the Autodefensas, a group of citizens fighting against the Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Mireles knows he and his family are at risk, but feels obligated to protect those who’re otherwise endangered by the cartels. You’d think the Autodefensas would be peaceful people because they’re trying to keep everyone safe, so it’s surprising when they go to new towns to offer protection and are rejected, with citizens saying they cause more trouble than they’re worth.

Cartel Land
Dr. Mireles

Meanwhile, in Arizona's Altar Valley - a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor - Tim "Nailer" Foley, a veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon. At first the group was formed to keep illegal immigrants out, but the drug wars took precedent and Foley hasn’t relented one bit. As with Mireles, with a strong government-led border patrol Foley wouldn’t have to do what he does, but he’s so morally appalled by the cartels he feels he has no choice.

What’s especially fascinating in “Cartel Land” is the access producer/director Matthew Heineman received from both groups, each of which allowed him and his camera into meetings, shootouts, private moments and shakedowns that are usually only seen in cop dramas. Knowing it’s real – and presumably not staged – adds a palpable tension that lifts the story to the level of a thriller, especially because this is reality playing out on screen and Hollywood’s “happy endings” have no place here.

In the end “Cartel Land” is a sad story because of the futility of it all. Although we repeatedly see the human flaws of the vigilantes, what sticks with you is the inevitable reality each group faces no matter how hard they try. It will also make you reconsider what exactly is “good” and “evil” in your worldview, and what lines you’ll condone being blurred in the name of justice.

Did you know?
Heineman received both the Directing Award and the Special Jury Award for Cinematography in the U.S. Documentary competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Find tickets and showtimes on Fandango.

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