At times, it’s a little difficult to believe that Cartel Land is, in fact, a documentary. The cinematography is so crisp and gorgeous, and the level of access filmmaker Matthew Heineman got to narcos (and anti-narco vigilantes) in Mexico verges on the improbable.
It opens and closes with meth cooks wearing masks, brewing up a big batch in the jungle by flashlight. There are scenes of nighttime patrols with self-appointed US border guardians, chaotic firefights on the streets of Michoacán, and visits to a vigilante interrogation palace where they boast that neither the narcos nor the police have much influence—because, as the film argues, the drug war is good business for both narcos and cops, effectively making them partners.
But when citizen vigilantes organize on both sides of the border, with no real oversight, things get ugly. In this shifting war of all on all, nobody—including the filmmaker—can be sure whether he’s working with good guys or bad guys.
Cartel Land spends a little time tromping up and down the border with US vigilantes who capture, on camera, some undocumented migrants, but it mostly dedicates itself to Jose “El Doctor” Mireles, a leader of the Mexican autodefensas, vigilantes who enforce their own laws in their own ways and surely end up torturing and killing the wrong people.
Once the autodefensas are formally recognized and sanctioned by the state as a legitimate armed law-enforcement organization, their politics and allegiances become even more compromised.
By the end of the film, Cartel Land demonstrates that those meth cookers in the forest are entangled in a complicated web of money and power that includes police and narcos and vigilantes—and the lines between those columns are so blurry, they may not even exist. The market is the market and it absorbs whatever necessary to keep itself going.