Starring: José Manuel Mireles
Director: Matthew Heineman
Running Time: 100 mins
Cartel Land is an American documentary about the efforts of two separate groups of vigilantes, in south Mexico and on the US-Mexican border in Arizona, who are fighting the strongest drug cartels in the region alone.
It’s fair to say that Cartel Land isn’t the most riveting portrayal of the ongoing Drug War, but whilst it is still engaging, it’s the incredible directorial effort that comes together to make one of the most in-depth and impressive studies of a modern war, by going right to the front line.
That’s what really blew me away about this film, that it’s all set right in the middle of what is an active war. There are a couple of astonishing sequences where we follow an American man patrolling the valleys on the border into deep cartel territory. Just knowing that it’s a real achievement, and that they actually went into the middle of a live warzone deserves so much credit for sheer audacity at the least.
The most engaging and informative part of the film, however, is set over a thousand miles from the US, and focusses on the region of Michoacán in the south of Mexico, which is right at the centre of the most vicious part of the Drug War.
What this film does really well in that respect is balance the more well-known focus of the border conflict and drug trafficking there with what is undoubtedly a full-blown war. Down in Michoacán, we follow José Mireles, the leader of the vigilante ‘autodefensa’ group, who are attempting to hold off the gangs that have taken control of entire cities in the region and imposed high taxes and rule with an iron fist, and it’s really spectacular to see the immense scale of a war that really isn’t reported as much as you’d expect.
That said, I wasn’t always completely invested with Cartel Land. Its escapades right into the heart of the conflict are exceptional, and its bringing to light of that south Mexico conflict is fascinating, but occasionally, I found myself a little bored with this documentary.
The Drug War is a pretty heavy topic, but one that should also bring with it a sense of high drama, fear and tension. Excluding some of the truly astonishing close-up moments, this film’s atmosphere comes off as a little light. I wasn’t watching this wincing and feeling emotionally affected by the terrible events that are still happening, which occasionally left me a little underwhelmed.
Overall, Cartel Land is indeed a hugely impressive effort to bring to light such a fascinating topic and to jump right into the middle of it, and although it’s always a hugely informative documentary, it doesn’t feature the emotional impact that might have made it even more impressive, and that’s why it gets a 7.5 from me.