With unprecedented access, Cartel Land is a harrowing look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy - the murderous Mexican drug cartels. In the Mexican state of Michoacan, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as "El Doctor", leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cadet that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona's Altar Valley - a narrow, 52-mile-tong desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley - Tim "Nailer" Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goat is to stop Mexico's drug wars from seeping across our border. Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embeds himself in the head of darkness as Nailer, El Doctor and the cartels each vie to bring their own brand of justice to a society where institutions have failed. Cartel Land is a chilling meditation on the break-down of order and the blurry line between good and evil.
The path of drugs is a true evil that can never be defeated. In the opening scene of Cartel Land, masked men of Central America secretly cook meth in the wild under cover of night. Their attitude is that if they don’t do it someone else will. The drugs will flow, the gangs will assault and the cycle of death and violence will continue. There are those who seek a means of justice to counter those that favor brutality towards the weak. They are sometimes seen as the immovable object that strike again the unstoppable force. The heroes present in Cartel Land, however, are the ones that begin to inch backward.
There are two sides of the border displayed in this war that battle against the Mexican drug cartels. Tim Foley is a leader of the Arizona Border Recon, an armed group devoted to tracking down the border-hoppers that hide out in the Arizona hills near the Mexican border. His days and nights are spent patrolling the land with his collective, carefully approaching and apprehending illegal immigrants making their way over. Off hours are spent eating dinner in their small house as they watch the 24-hour news machine spin their webs of politics. They watch with disappointed fury for being painted as nuts living in the woods picking on poor immigrants, but choose to brush it off and continue their work. Tim believes he is keeping the borders safe from more gangsters and drug dealers. It’s thankless work, but for this man who has lost sight of his life, it’s the only work that makes sense.
On the other side of the border is a similar figure fighting the same war, but on more dangerous grounds. Doctor Jose Mireles, in his thick mustache and cowboy hat, has taken to forming his own militia known as Autodefensas against the gangs of cartels that roam through Central American towns. Unlike the American anti-cartel force, Mireles is hailed for his squads that take out the very real cartel gangs that roam the lawless land. With the law corrupted, citizens are at the mercy of the ruthless outlaws that deal, kill and rape as they please. Children and babies are slaughtered without care by these inhuman figures, leaving the ever-grieving widows to bury body after body in heart-breaking ceremonies. Mireles’ militia is welcomed with open arms by the community as they swarm in with their own guns and take out the gangster element. But when the government keeps trying to interfere and corruption begins to form in his own ranks, Mireles begins to realize his war is much more messy and dangerous than it appeared to be before.
The camera comes uncomfortably close to the action in many of the Autodefensas missions. Gunfire erupts at an aged building as the white-shirted defense force pushes their way into a hive of gun-toting cartel boys. The skirmish ends as the Autodefensas take the gangsters into their custody, smacking them over the heads and kicking them in a gloating manner. The prisoners are then hauled off to a secluded house where they are questioned and tortured for information on more cartels. The process continues as another suspect is transported to this location, taunted at gunpoint by smiling members of Autodefensas. The question arises if any type of justice or humanity can be maintained in such a landscape. Meanwhile, Mireles fears for his life as cartel forces close in on him and his group slowly begins to defect the corruption of the government.
The tone of the drug war present through film has always been that’s a messy, bitter and unwinnable war. There is no false hope or ultimate solution to this crisis. Tim continues to find illegal immigrants sneaking over. Mireles ends up in prison after the government finally tracked him down. Drugs continue to flow, murder rates rise, the Mexican politicians continues to do very little and nothing ultimately feels gained. There is a feeling of anger and despair as though you wish there were something you could do that would make a difference, but the sad truth is that this is the life of Central America. Cartel Land exists to remind of us how serious the drug problem is in the 21st century. True evil can never be defeated and you won’t find a more undefeatable issue than this one.