Director: Matthew Heineman
Run Time: 98 minutes
Opens: July 10, 2015
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
“We don’t want to be doing this,” the man in the mask says as he looks at the camera crew documenting him. “If we could we would have normal jobs, like you guys.” And then he and other men in masks, assault rifles slung around their necks, start making meth in the Mexican desert.
Cartel Land is an unnerving documentary about the way the drug trade, in particular the Mexican drug cartels, are ripping apart worlds north and south of the border. On the north side, we are shown America’s self-appointed border protectors, an armed militia of conspiracy nuts and soldier of fortune types who watch Sean Hannity while they clean their guns, sharpen their knives and mumble about conspiracies in their soup. They keep saying they’re not racist, but then say what can only be interpreted as racist opinions. The meat of this film takes place south of the border, where a tall gray-haired doctor named José Manuel Mireles has had enough of the cartels and their wanton cruelty, including one particularly awful massacre in which 13 men, women, children and babies are killed after a lime grower refused to pay cartel protection money. Mireles jumps into action in the southern state of Michoacan, where the Knights Templar Cartel has reigned over the people. Enough is enough, he says. He tours through villages and gives a heartfelt plea: join us to rise up against the cartel so we can take back our towns. And people join him.
Cartel Land depicts the uprising with a patriotic zeal, with convoys of armed young men bouncing through the Mexican streets, manning checkpoints at the village edges, and raiding cartel members’ homes. Some of the men are skilled fighters, and look the part with body armor, advanced weaponry and communications equipment. Other fighters are just kids, their tiny hands comically out of place on oversized pistols and AK-47s. One man wears a holster that holds a nickel-plated revolver with a pearl handgrip — it’s the Wild West.
Through diligent patrolling, cartel raids and tight security, Mireles’ paramilitary defense force succeeds in driving out Knights Templar members. When the Mexican government gets wind of armed groups maintaining order, it sends the army to confront Mireles and his group. Federales disarm the ragtag defenders, but the townspeople hit the streets in protest of the army. The crowd grows so big and so angry, the army returns the guns and drives away.
These events are exciting and moving, but Matthew Heineman’s film doesn’t let you off the hook that easily, though. It portrays these events with a hint of malice, with just a slight suggestion that something more diabolical might be at work here. In one scene, we see the good doctor tell another man to question, and likely torture, a known drug member. “Get everything you can out of him and put him in the ground,” Mireles says in the shadows of a roadside checkpoint. Later scenes seem to hint that the raids aren’t linked to cartel members, but to people the defense force wants to rob. After one raid, armed men ransack the house and leave with electronics and stacks of clothing still on hangers. The turning point came for me during a daytime raid that nabbed a man that supposedly fired on the town’s police force. As the man is being hauled away, his family pleads with the men in tears to let him go. His daughter threatens to kill herself. It seems unlikely that the man would fire on anyone with his family in the car, right? But then he also has a big luxurious car, designer clothes and one man notices his skin is too smooth for hard labor? Maybe he is a cartel lieutenant. So much is unknown, but the man is hauled away to detention center where the screams of men can be heard piercing through the concrete hallways.
Cartel Land is essentially a Batman story. It’s about vigilantes, their origins and their undoings. Remember that line from The Dark Knight: “Die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” It’s the only possible outcome here for Mireles and his defense force, which eventually becomes exactly what it was created to fight, a cartel.
Heineman captures all this beautifully, with shots that seem almost too good to be true — guns hanging out car windows, an apparition-like shape emerging from smoke produced during a meth cook and numerous gunfights in Mexican villages. I think the film could be a little more focused, especially with the mostly unnecessary segments north of the border. It has a twist ending that feels a little manipulative, but is still bonkers in how it changes everything we just witnessed.
This is a fascinating and polished documentary that reveals how complicated the war on drugs has been, is now and forever will be.