AFF: CARTEL LAND [2015]

The Adelaide Film Fest has been over for a week now but I still have so many films to write about! I must have seen at least twenty films during the ten days the festival ran for, so there is still more to come. This film was one of many high quality documentaries shown during the festival

cartel land

Directed by Matthew Heineman


We are in the darkness of night, and men in masks are rolling barrels out from the back of a truck. It looks like they are a part of the cartel, those who cook the drugs, and for a short period we hear their thoughts on what they are doing and their justification for it, mainly being that they grew up from poverty, which is most probably true. But the way they talk about making these dangerous drugs is disturbingly nonchalant, only amplified by the the pitch black of the night. How the filmmakers got this footage I am not sure, but there is a massive amount of tension as every person is wearing a mask and is armed. It is a brief but intense introduction as we hear how they think about their own actions.

After this initial scene the film begins proper, as we look at two sides battling these overwhelmingly powerful cartels, one south of the border and one north. While it is a tale of two very different groups, it is in reality detailing the struggles of the two men from each side desperately trying to lead their group.

The American group is led by Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley, and the group knows that the cartels are involved in people-smuggling as well as drug-smuggling. Despite this, there is a very racist tone hanging around the hastily formed vigilante group and it is hard to believe that any captured illegal immigrants are given any proper care. Foley’s motives seem pure though, he believes what he is doing is right as his group patrol southern parts of the US; areas notorious for cartel activity. Unfortunately their story is not as explored as thoroughly as the story that unfolds south of the border, but the story that unfolds in Mexico probably warrants more screen-time.

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Those in a southern part of Mexico – Michoacán – are sick of the cartels killing innocent people and often placing severed heads or hung bodies on display for all to see as an example. They abide by no laws and terrorise many innocent citizens. Leading this charge of civilians is Dr Mireles, a surgeon by day who becomes the unlikely leader of a group intending to fight back against the cartels. He encourages citizens to unite, to stand up for themselves against the enemy.

They quickly form a group known as Autodefensas and soon begin removing alleged cartel members from towns and clearing said towns of danger; acts that do not go unnoticed. Soon the military are demanding the group put down their weapons, but because there is so much public support for the Autodefensas, the military leave, telling Mireles that whatever happens is on his head.

Later though the group meets resistance from many angry civilians, as there are members of the Autodefensas group who are trashing houses and committing criminal acts. It becomes clear that there is a divide between Dr Mireles and some of the people he has put in charge, and after the one year anniversary of when these people first rose up in Michoacán, Mireles tells his second in command, “We cannot become the criminals that we are fighting against.”

“We must have solidarity”, he says.

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The way the rest of the documentary unfolds is extremely dramatic and emotional. And because it is a documentary, it is real, the tension is high; nothing is predictable. I found myself glued to the screen as events got further out of hand, going into territory that I was not expecting at all.

This documentary really opened my eyes as to how bad it really is in Mexico, how ruthless the cartels really are and how corrupt the authorities are. Sicario was a great film, and would make for a great double feature if coupled with this, but given this is all captured as a documentary by extremely brave filmmakers, we see the reality of what is happening. We aren’t told a message, the film does not pick sides, rather it simply tells the stories of two different groups with a common enemy, though their approaches may be extremely different.

Kudos must go to those involved who risked their lives to tell us this story, one that could unfortunately mean that Mexico is almost certainly destined for Civil War. Given the intensity of the Autodefensas groups’ actions when trying to get rid of alleged cartel members, not to mention the escalating criminal activity within the group, a devastating Civil War might be coming sooner than we think. In my opinion, it has already started and has been going on for a long time, and it is soon going to boil over.


While Cartel Land doesn’t have the scope to look at the War on Drugs or the cartel organisations as a whole, it doesn’t try to, as instead it follows two very interesting men trying to lead their group against the cartels’ unchecked criminal activity. It paints a very disturbing picture of what life is like near the border, on both sides, especially4.5 beer - no beer top in Mexico. The cartels are ruthless and wield an extraordinary amount of power over Mexico, and as many people shouted during the film, the Cartels are most probably working hand in hand with parts of the government and/or military. The fact that when the uprising began against cartel criminals, the protesters were ordered to go home by the authorities, I think is a telling sign.

Four and a half beers out of a six pack

4.5/6