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“Cartel Land” review. Oscar documentary series

Mexico is a hot political topic in the US these days. Illegal immigration and the drug trade are always the forces behind the conversation. Cartel Land provides us an inside look at the border conflict from the perspective of two very different vigilante groups fighting against the drug cartels that have had a huge role in creating this mess.

On one side of the border, we have an American “militia” group fighting to enforce laws that the government seemingly can’t or won’t enforce themselves. The film examines this side of the story primarily through the perspective of one man, Tim “Nailer” Foley. He and his cronies fit the stereotype of the anti-Mexican movement; angry, white, Fox News watching, gun toting men out to do their patriotic duty. But Foley is characterized as more than that; he’s also a dedicated father and a child abuse survivor who feels compelled to do the right thing even if it means risking his own life.

On the other side, in Mexico, we have Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles. He’s the leader of the Autodefensas; a paramilitary group that strives to fight the cartels by any means necessary. They are fighting for their people, their country, and their right to live in peace.

Two sides, fighting for the same thing, but never the twain shall meet.

Although the film does try to give both sides equal footing, most of the real action happens in Mexico with the Autodefensas. Their story starts out heroically; Dr. Mireles and his forces flush out cartel forces from a small town, storming in and being welcomed as liberators. Dr. Mireles is known far and wide and regarded as a hero and an icon. Things turn pretty dark from there.

After a suspicious event takes Dr. Mireles out of the picture for a while, the leadership of the Autodefensas passes to his #2 guy (known as ‘Papa Smurf’). Under his leadership, the Autodefensas adopt very questionable strong-arm tactics and start to resemble the very bad guys they’re supposedly working against.

This is also where the action in the film really kicks up. The brave cameramen capturing the footage get all up in the mix, running through the ramshackle streets of Mexican towns while gunfire peppers the air. Cartel thugs are caught, roughed up, and sometimes “disappeared”. But it’s not always clear that the victims of this violence are actually guilty of anything.

Mixed with this action are stories of the poor Mexican citizens caught up in this drug war. Through close-up interviews, we hear tale after tale of family members killed, mutilated, kidnapped, and raped. Cartel Land does a fantastic job of humanizing the injustices suffered by ordinary innocent people caught up in the drug trade. They are poor and they are helpless and they just want peace from horrors most people can’t even imagine. Is it any wonder that they’d try to escape any way they can?

There’s a classic line in Nolan’s The Dark Knight script (another story about a vigilante): “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That is the perfect way to describe what we see documented in this film. The environment that our protagonists work in is toxic, permeating everything from local law enforcement to prisons to politics. They are up against insurmountable odds. And, at the end of the day, they are human. Who can stare into the heart of darkness every day and never lose faith?

Cartel Land provides more questions than answers. How did we get to this point? How can we ever fix it? Who can we ever trust to handle it? For this film, where everyone who thought they had the answers falls far short, the questions prove more enlightening.

You can watch Cartel Land on Netflix. Read my other reviews of Oscar nominated films: Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone, and Winter on Fire