Cartel Land: Violence and Vigilantism in Mexico

September 7, 2015

By Ratha Lehall

On Friday 4 September, the Frontline Club hosted a screening of Cartel Land, a fearless and revealing documentary that portrays the violent influence of Mexican drug cartels and the vigilante groups fighting to end their reign of terror. The screening was followed by a Q&A with the film’s director Matthew Heineman.

Cartel Land takes place in the border state of Arizona in the USA, and in the Mexican state of Michoácan. The latter has been overrun by a number of cartels, including the brutal Knights Templar, who have taken advantage of high level corruption and an absence of legitimate state presence in order to take control with increasingly violent tactics.

The film follows Dr José Manuel Mireles, who Heineman described as “the single most interesting man I’ve ever been around,” and his newly-formed Autodefensas: a rapidly growing group of armed civilians who are determined to force out the cartels and bring peace back to their towns. Just across the US-Mexico border in Arizona is Tim “Nailer” Foley, who leads a group of armed patriot vigilantes in patrolling the border. While Foley’s original intentions were based on a staunch anti-immigration ideology, his motives expanded to include the defence of the US border against Mexican cartels.

The film was very well received by the audience, with many keen to learn more about Heineman‘s experience of working in the notoriously-violent state of Michoácan. The filmmaker told the audience that he had no experience of working in conflict prior to Cartel Land; his previous film focused on healthcare in the US. While there was a constant threat of witnessing a violent confrontation in Arizona, this never materialised. In contrast, the violence in Mexico was “visceral, it was real”:

“I’m not a war reporter… so it was terrifying. I’d never been in a place where there was gunfire going off, I’d never been in a place where people were being tortured, so I had no idea where this film would lead me.”

The film vividly portrays the extent to which gunfire has become commonplace in cartel-led towns across Mexico. This is not dampened by the presence of the Autodefensas, who are themselves heavily armed. As the movement grows, the corruption, acts of intimidation and misuse of power that they claim to be fighting also begin to appear and spread within their own group.

An audience member asked whether Heineman was hopeful that the situation in Michoácan would improve. He responded that, despite the Mexican government implementing new measures of reform and legitimising the Autodefensas as a state force, the situation has worsened. “The violence has continued, kidnappings have continued. The thing that everyone feared all along, revenge and anarchy, has played out.”

Heineman told Frontline Club audience members that while he considers himself an “eternal optimist,” he doesn’t view the situation with hope. Mexican government institutions continue to fail to “provide basic safety and security for their citizens.” Heineman extended this criticism to Mexico as a whole, “especially at the local level… [there is] direct collusion between cartels and local government. We see that all throughout Mexico. But the biggest thing is us, is Americans: we’re funding this war through our consumption of drugs.”

In terms of the filming process on the ground, Heineman explained that he had intended to spend two weeks filming in Mexico, but ended up staying for nine months. As a result, he was able to develop close relationships with many high-level Autodefensas leaders.

“They were risking their lives and dying fighting for what they believed in and we were tagging along with them, so I think there was a level of respect that came with that.”

Heineman recounted one particular incident in which his lengthy commitment to the project resulted in astounding access. As detailed in the opening and closing sequences of the film, Heineman gained accesses to an outdoor operation producing meth, where ‘cookers’ openly admit that profits from the sale of the drugs feed directly into the Autodefensas.

Cartel Land is currently showing in cinemas across the UK. More information can be found on the film’s website.