The War on Drugs is not a conflict that either America or Mexico are winning. Mexican drug cartels control 90% of cocaine which enters the US market. Whilst the Mexican government concentrates its efforts on dismantling these cartels, on the other side of the border the focus is on stopping the trafficking itself. Both sides are fighting a losing battle, exacerbated by the size of the border and the weaponry and power of these organised crime groups.
In Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land the focus is on the vigilante groups which operate in both countries. Dr José Mireles leads the Autodefensas in the Michoacán region of Mexico. They formed from a need to protect their own villages, but the movement has spread throughout much of the province. Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley is head of the Arizona Border Recon, which is a disparate small group of people united in their goal of stopping the traffickers.
Cartel Land is a slick and stylish portrayal which benefits greatly from the unprecedented access to players on all sides. Easily the strongest thread is that of Dr Mireles, who could easily be played by Clint Eastwood in a dramatisation of his life. Indeed, the Mexican story is freuently tinted with shades of the Wild West. At times, it is easy to forget that Cartel Land is a documentary. This is no Hollywood movie though, and the death toll under the reign of the current cartels is well over 100,000 so far.