Cartel Land is a documentary about the effect the Mexican drug cartels have on communities and two “vigilante” groups who try to fight against them. The first is a group called the Autodefensas, a group led by Dr Jose Mireles (aka “El Doctor”). The Autodefensas are a group of locals sick of the violence and torture committed by the Knights Templar drug cartel. We gain incredible access to the victims of these crimes as well as front-line footage of the Autodefensas fighting back against the cartel.
Back in America in Arizona the film focuses on Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, a member of paramilitary group whose aim is to keep drugs and Mexicans coming across the border. As much as I enjoyed these segments I think they would have been suited more to their own documentary as these segments seem kind of tacked on and not as thoroughly explored as the Mexico segments. We always tend to get an American-centric view of the drug war so I was not as interested in these parts as I’ve heard/seen most of it all before.
Cartel Land is one of the best documentaries about the drug war I’ve seen to date. What makes it even more heartbreaking is that it documents Mexicans fighting back only to become corrupt themselves. It raises some great points and in doing so is incredibly frustrating because it’s just so complicated. When the police force is corrupt, the cartel is corrupt, how on earth are those civilians who pick up guns going to stay on the right path? and do they really have any chance when the cartel presence is so big that they infiltrate the Autodefensas from the start? I also came away from the film feeling that the Doctor’s motives were not necessarily as pure as the film makes them out to be, as he becomes a bit of a sleaze bag and acts like an El Hefe.
There’s some truly unbelievable tales of survival, torture and horrendous abuse and of course images of cartel killings. It was really hard for me to process that these people live with this every day. That one family lost 13 people in one killing. That seeing decapitated heads and people hanging is like walking past a Subway or Starbucks. I guess as Newsweek so insensitively put it “…feels like Breaking Bad in real life!”, in a way it kind of is.
This film may be about the drug war but for me it was a great expose into the human casualties of the drug war and how it’s basically unstoppable and will always be a losing battle. It’s all the more effective because of the personal tragedies explored and the access we are given to the communities who tell of their grief and frustration. This may well be the film that puts a face to the innocent human tragedy of the drug war. These people are not drug dealers or drug users but pay the ultimate price.