A stunning work of war reportage nestled within a creaky study of ideological purity, Cartel Land reveals the extent of the chaos and corruption infecting Mexico’s drug war. Matthew Heineman’s documentary straddles both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, following the leaders of two emerging citizen militia groups. Both of these self-styled vigilantes capitalize on the threat of impinging cartel violence in order to gain membership and armaments, and Heineman captures their ascents with the gusto of an embedded journalist, trailing them closely as they absorb intelligence, disseminate propaganda, and creep toward outbursts of gunfire. His film is long on suspense and frontline news, but it’s unfocused and out of balance as a character study.
Cartel Land begins in a heavily aestheticized liminal space: an outdoor meth lab, presumably somewhere in the deserts near the border, lit by fire and flashlight. Nocturnal drug cooks use bandanas to conceal their identity and protect themselves from toxic fumes while they espouse a chillingly pragmatic philosophy. “We know we do harm,” one says. “If we start paying attention to our hearts, we’ll get screwed over. As long as God allows it, we’ll make drugs.” Such statements testify to the intractability of Mexico’s ongoing cartel violence, but Heineman’s primary subjects seek to combat that fatalism through sheer conviction. Tim “Nailer” Foley, head of the nascent group Arizona Border Recon, speaks blithely and with vulgarity about the threat an influx of “illegals” poses to America’s future. (He’s a veteran, and lost a job in construction during the recent economic crash.) His militia, deemed an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, patrols the border in search of the scouts that help usher drugs and migrants into Arizona, and then turns them over to federal authorities.
Jose Manuel Mireles runs his paramilitary Autodefensas at more direct odds with the wishes of Mexico’s government, which has been rendered both futile and corrupt amid the reign of a few prominent cartels. For a stretch, the Autodefensas succeed where their country has failed, running cartel members out of dozens of towns in the state of Michoacan. Heineman follows Mireles, who promotes himself as a family man and esteemed surgeon, to mass burials and through abrupt high-noon shootouts that wend through city streets and warehouses. Cartel Land is keen to show how information and rumors travel through the militia and the towns they come to control: photos of beheaded citizens pop up on smartphones; at impromptu public forums held in town squares, citizens both praise and condemn Mireles’s usurping of federal authority; his soldiers, meanwhile, pick up suspected criminals on hunches, and won’t relent without a confession. Within a year, Mireles is landing on magazine covers, just as he and his Autodefensas threaten to fall prey to the hypocrisy and moral rot that have ravaged Mexico’s institutions.
Cartel Land spends about an hour of its running time with Mireles and the Autodefensas. Thanks in no small part to Heineman’s dogged pursuits, their rise and fall is swift and potent, one devastatingly representative chapter of a country’s ongoing saga. What’s less clear is why the director bothered to contrast their machinations with those of Foley and Arizona Border Recon, which his film returns to with diminishing returns and an increasing sense of duty. Little happens there: Heineman scrambles after Foley up a couple of mountains in pursuit of coyotes and scouts, but most of the action consists of target practice and laptop news-gathering. Where Mireles falters as a leader, Foley remains steadfast, leaving the disconcerting impression that Cartel Land endorses his brand of leadership. Though the two men fight with a shared purpose, the only potent comparisons Heineman finds among the groups seem incidental: The Autodefensas struggle to follow a just path in the thick of a hothouse of grieving families and turncoat soldiers, while Arizona Border Recon, isolated in a desert outpost, are left alone to stew, relatively undisturbed, in their boilerplate conservative dogma.