I imagine that most people on this side of the U.S./Mexico border find the stories of drug smugglers and criminal gangs — of corruption and vigilantism, mass graves and entire towns ruled by warlords — unfathomable. Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land moves into the center of the Mexican drug wars, offering a direct, unfiltered cinéma vérité account of the battles between drug dealers, the Mexican authorities and the small towns that exist in the crossfire. With no narration or subjective commentary, Heineman simply delivers a close and often brutal look at the conflict in all of its violence, frustration and confusion.
The majority of Cartel Land was shot in Michoacán, where the Knights Templar cartel has terrorized residents with violence and extortion for years. The central figure in the film is Dr. Jose Mireles, a genial white-haired man who organizes his neighbors into an armed vigilante group, the Autodefensas. With extraordinary access (and significant courage) Heineman films alongside Mireles' group as they engage in shootouts, apprehend cartel members and eventually draw the attention of the Mexican government. He also is close witness to their slow decline, as government pressure, internal struggles and the increasing hubris of Mireles erode the Autodefensas from within.
It's a dramatic story, but what's most astonishing about Cartel Land is its intimacy, the way the vigilantes (and even the drug dealers, who permit Heineman to film them cooking meth) allow the film crew to walk right alongside them. There's no posturing, no playing to the camera, and more than once you'll be startled by just how unguarded the participants are in Heineman's presence. (This is especially true of Mireles, whose escalating lack of self-control — over his personal life as well as his organization — takes place in full view of the camera.)
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, we have the story of Nailer Foley, who leads Arizona Border Recon, a small group of men who enjoy putting on camouflage and carrying weapons around, allegedly preventing the drug cartels from crossing into the U.S. For the most part, we see them sitting around watching FOX News and spouting platitudes about Courage and Evil. Perhaps they're really doing what they say, but it's worth pointing out that Heineman and his camera get closer to the cartels than Foley and his men ever do.