“Cartel Land” Vigilantes Take on the Drug Wars

Review by Roxelana Trinidad

Drugs, vigilantes and violence are the major themes in the Oscar nominated documentary Cartel Land. For the duration of the 98-minute of the film, with its beautifully shot scenes and its brutally raw reality, I dared not look away.  The Oscar nominated film Cartel Land made its first impressions as the 2015 Sundance winner.  The American  Cinematheque and LatinHeat Media’s LatinoMediaVision initiative will screen the documentary next Tuesday, February 9th. This is your last chance to see Cartel Land on the big at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, a pre-Oscar screening co presented by the American  Cinematheque and LatinHeat Media’s LatinoMediaVision initiative.

By now, the world is well aware of the on-going drug “business” by some of our neighbors to the south. However, Cartel Land gives you rare look inside this dangerous world as you have not seen before.  With recent glaring headlines of the drug capo El Chapo, and political discussions playing out in the U.S. presidential campaigns, this film which dares all to face the un-denying truth about the Mexican cartel begs to be seen.

Director and cinematographer Matthew Heineman follows two vigilante groups who are after the same goal, eradicating the cartel from their land. Of the two groups, the one who call themselves the “autodefensas,” inhabit the Mexican town of Michoacán. The “autodefensas” started off as a small group of men in a small village in Michoacán.  What made them great was the leadership of one man, Dr. José Manuel Mireles. He used the fear he had and focused that energy into unifying the townspeople in order to successfully defend themselves.


Heineman follows the “autodefensas” as they sweep through each village hoping to overtake the cartel. What’s unique about this “neighborhood watch group” is these armed men show no mercy for anyone involved in the cartel. Although the violence and punishment the “autodefensas” use against the cartel members is not directly shown, it is implied and confirmed. Heineman captures the overwhelming raw accounts of the courage it took for a small group of townspeople to form a powerful militia.

While the townspeople of Michoacán continue their aggressive fight against the cartel within their borders, another group of vigilantes who reside on the north side of the  border have also taken the law into their own hands.

The “northern” vigilante group is comprised of U.S. citizens living on the border of Arizona, who decided to start their own border patrol team. These vigilantes say are trying to uphold U.S. law, but say they are portrayed by the U.S. media as armed and dangerous individuals, feared by the those American around them.  The contrast to these feared vigilantes to the “autodefensas” who are adored and trusted more by the people than the Mexican government is an interesting juxtaposition. Undeterred the vigilantes of the north continue their efforts to “secure their land” and fight their own war on drugs.

The film takes viewers a on a rollercoaster ride of emotions; from sympathy to anger to disappointment and empathy. However, the key emotion that surges throughout the film is hope; hope that the townspeople of Michoacán will no longer have to fear the cartel; hope the “autodefensas” can succeed; and hope the United States border can cease to be the open access to harmful drugs.

Overall this film is powerful in its conviction of its subject matter. The amount of thought, time and trust Heineman had to give to put in to get from all parties what he needed and what ended up in the film is a triumph on its own. It’s remarkable to think that Heineman and fellow cinematographer Matt Porwoll put themselves in the line fire in order to capture the immensity of the situation. We wouldn’t be surprised if the golden statue landed in their hands.

Heineman won the Best Director Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography for the film in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary premiered.

(Documentary — U.S.-Mexico) An A&E IndieFilms presentation of an Our Time Projects and Documentary Group production in association with Whitewater Films. Produced by Matthew Heineman, Tom Yellin. Executive producers, Molly Thompson, David McKillop, Robert DeBitetto. Co-producers, Myles Estey, Matthew Hamachek, Matt Porwoll, Bradley J. Ross. Co-executive producers, Whitewater Films, Robert A. Compton, Donna Gruneich, Kevin Gruneich, Gabriel Rosenzvit.

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