Cartel Land

UK Release Date 4th September 2015
Director Matthew Heineman
Starring Dr. Mireles, Nailer
Runtime 100 minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 20th September 2015

War, was it it good for? Well, apparently absolutely nothing but if you chuck the world’s utterly futile War on Drugs into that category, well, it’s certainly good for some fascinating TV and movie characters. Most of these are of course embellishments on the real thing, used to anchor movies. Some though, are the real thing. And they are every bit as interesting as their fictional counterparts.

Matthew Heineman’s work has gone entirely unnoticed here at BS towers but on the basis of his latest, Cartel Land, I think that is very much our bad. Heineman opens his insightful movie in the pitch dark out in the middle of the Mexican jungle. Whipped straight out of Breaking Bad, a meth cook describes how he got the recipe for his product from a father and son team from the US. Chemists apparently that left him with the secret (their fate isn’t pursued) and as long as God will allow, he will cook, because, what else is there? He knows the harm the drug causes but feels he has little choice. It’s a character that we devastatingly return to at the end of the movie….

We then pick up with a self styled border patrol guard on the US side of the border with Mexico. ‘There is an imaginary line’ he intones in voiceover, ‘between good and bad…’ as we hear this, the camera sweeps along a fence constructed on the border to keep out both illegal immigrants and drugs. Essentially a study of two characters, one each side of the border, Heineman’s movie ends up spending more time with his Mexican story. Not, you sense, out of any bias or incompetence by the filmmaker but more because the Mexican side of the situation is far more interesting and nuanced than the US side.

Over in the Michoacán region of Mexico, Dr. Jose Mireles, almost by accident, is forming the Autodefensas, essentially an organised vigilante group, desperate to rid the state of the hated Knights Templar drug cartel. Tired by an endless string of kidnappings and particularly grisly murders (one farmer has his entire staff wiped out, children and all because he owes money to the cartel), the people are ripe for a strong, charismatic leader and local physician Mireles is both. Resplendent in a wonderful grey moustache and Stetson, the good Doctor is every bit as complicated as the situation demands. In the space of 100 minutes screen time we see him drawing respect from a grateful crowd, rallying his troops, insisting on high moral standards amongst his men and women, enjoying a brief pause for family life, being involved in a life threatening aeroplane crash, ruthlessly ordering the removal of a Templar foot soldier and seducing one of his campaign team right in front of the cameras. Like I said, complicated.

Heineman bounces back across the border to follow Tim "Nailer" Foley, sometime resident of Arizona’s Cocaine Alley and head of the Arizona Recon Patrol. It’s easy to smirk at these guys with their thinly (and not so thinly) veiled racism, US Army style fatigues and stereotypical bad childhoods but their singleminded commitment and perception of persecution is worrying. You can feel the disappointment in their voices as they arrive at the perch where they think the cartel’s scouts are sitting, only to find it deserted with very little sign that anyone had been their recently. 

The difference between the two sides that the movie brilliantly draws out though is of community involvement. At least, initially. On the US side, the border defence is outward looking and formed of a minority of disaffected individuals, crouched in their homes awaiting their Christian values to be assaulted by foreigners wielding drugs. On the Mexico side, the vigilantes are born out of fear of what may as well be an invading force. The fight is very much a local one. People can do nothing to affect the demand side of the drug business fueling the violence on their doorstep but they can do something about the day to day horror they are forced to live with. On the US side, there is no consideration of what is actually driving the drug cartels.

Heineman’s technique is entirely observational. There are occasional interviews with his characters and they are revealing but there is no active presence from the filmmaker and the stories are all the more powerful for it. The director has gained impressive and very dangerous access to the fields of combat on both sides and although he does spend far more time with the Mexican characters, this only accentuates the disparity between the two sides. On a day to day level, the threat on the US side could be seen as largely an imaginary one on the border or at least a threat only to ideals and values. On the Mexican side, the violence is very real and prevalent in the daily lives of everyone. 

But Heineman is not finished there and the coup de grace of his movie would be a spoiler in any dramatic feature but here it acts as a giant underline in the obvious futility of the entire War on Drugs. Having witnessed massacres and kidnappings and seemingly taken back huge swathes of territory from the Templars, Dr. Mireles is involved in a plane crash and is forced onto the sidelines. This seems to precipitate a fall in the standards of his group (already slipping in the face of Federal indifference to the plight of the people, real or perceived) and it’s not long before the Autodefensas are negotiating a transition to a legal entity with the government. I won’t spell out how that ends but the fact that you can probably see it coming by about halfway in the movie makes the pre-credit facts all the more depressing.

In Short:

Heineman has secured some impressive access for a very pertinent contemporary tale. The characters he points his cameras at are all caught in a cycle of endlessly trying to extinguish the flames of drug violence in a war that can never be won. He styles his movie like a dramatic piece and the impact of the endless violence, intimidation and corruption is accentuated as a result. Cartel Land is an impressive documentary the narrow focus of which intimately humanises a far bigger picture of misery and futile resistance.

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