Cartel Land (2015)

cartel land poster 2015 documentary academy award
8.0 Overall Score

Complex subject

A bit heavy on the Mexican side and should have just focused on it instead of the north

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Cartel Land

Studio:  The Documentary Group

Genre(s):  Documentary

Release Date(s):  July 3, 2015

MPAA Rating:  R


I’m a bit kooky but trying to help

A war is raging both north and south of the U.S. border.  On both sides, groups are out to fight drug cartels and stop the flow of drugs.  As the cartels bleed the people of Mexico, U.S. citizens gather their forces to keep their border clear while being labeled lawless militants.  South of the border, a group called the Autodefensas led by José Manuel Mireles has formed to do what the government cannot do to protect the citizens.  Unfortunately in the war on drugs, the lines can sometimes blur.

Directed by Matthew Heineman, Cartel Land is a documentary chronicling the resistance to the Mexican drug cartels both in the United States and Mexico.  The film was released to critical acclaim and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary.

The war on drugs is always a hot topic…especially as elections approach.  While some preach building a wall to keep Mexico separate from the United States, others argue that military involvement might be necessary.  Cartel Land is very topical in that it shows what can happen to even good people when power is involved.


Good guy or villain?

The documentary feels a bit unbalanced.  It feels very Mexico heavy, and most of the Mexico portions are more powerful than the United States portions.  The U. S. story follows a man who has taken up residence south of Tucson and trying to stop drug runners with his friends and allies.  These type of people are generally considered radicals by most media outlets, and it is nice to see a bit more balanced presentation (though some scary rhetoric does occur from the group).

The better half of the film circles around José Manuel Mireles and his Autodefensas.  Mireles is a doctor and family man at the beginning of the film and he (rightfully) doesn’t feel he should live in fear and wake up to human heads on his neighbor’s yard.  He forms a group to root out the cartel in his area and his group slowly takes region back as it grows.  Unfortunately the Autodefensas becomes a bit of a hydra that cannot be killed and becomes corrupted itself.  By the end of the film, the Autodefensas is part of the corrupted police force (against Mireles’ wishes).


Part of the problem…but also working “with” the solution

The oddest part of this corruption of a “good idea” is that you can see it slowly happening.  The group has a bit of lawlessness to it that is scary, and Mireles’ second in command “Papa Smurf” takes control when Mireles is almost killed in a plane crash…this also creates the second shocker.  José Manuel Mireles undergoes some crisis of existence, hooks up with a young girl, and ends up in jail.  It is sad to see him destroyed, but he is also part of the reason he was destroyed.

Cartel Land shows the complexity of what people to the south are trying deal with and it is a nice companion piece to something like the fictional Sicario which looks at the drug war from the north.  It does a good job humanizing everyone involved so it simply isn’t a “Mexican” problem but a human problem.  Real people are dying and real people are seeing horrors that no one should endure…but stopping it is shown to not be as simple as arming the innocent.

Related Links:

The 88th Academy Award Nominations

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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