'Cartel Land' Provides Harrowing Look Into Mexico's Drug War

By McCarton Ackerman 04/30/15

The documentary by Matthew Heineman screened at Sundance and Tribeca.

Cartel Land
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A gripping new film that covers all facets of the drug wars in Mexico has earned rave reviews from the Sundance Film Festival and was recently screened at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Cartel Land was shot by director Matthew Heineman, who traveled between the U.S. and Mexico to make the documentary. The film focuses primarily on Tim “Nailer” Foley, the head of a paramilitary group in Arizona that polices a violence-filled border, and Dr. Jose Mireles, a doctor who also attempts to take on the cartels by doubling as the head of a citizen task force called the Autodefensas.

"I wanted to create this parallel story about vigilantism on both sides of the border with this shared common enemy—the Mexican drug cartels,” explained Heineman to Variety. “There’s obviously big differences in these two different movements and these two different characters, but there are many things that tie them together as well. I wanted [the film] to be experiential, in which I was embedded with the subject. I ended up getting a lot closer than I thought I would."

Heineman also put his life on the line while making the documentary, finding himself filming on the ground during several shootouts. Although he did everything possible to keep himself and the rest of the crew safe, he admitted that there was an inevitable risk that came with making the movie.

“We had a security firm that was tracking us with a beacon, so if something bad happened we could press an SOS button and we could be extracted. They’d also know if we got kidnapped, where we got kidnapped from,” said Heineman. “Every morning we’d have a set of journalists around Mexico that we’d call and tell what road we were driving on and what towns we were going. We took as many precautions as we could, but at the end of the day, when you’re in a shootout, there’s not much you can do.”

Although Heineman believes that the vigilante groups protecting citizens from the cartels can be just as violent and corrupt in some respects, he believes that meaningful change can take place in the future. However, he’s less optimistic about the drug trade itself dissipating in Mexico.

“Even if the Autodefensas beat back the cartel, there’s always going to be someone making meth. There’s always going to be somebody in the States consuming that meth,” he said. “As long as there’s demand here, there will be a supply from down there.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.