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Film / Cartel Land

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Cartel Land is a 2015 documentary feature film by Matthew Heineman.

It is about two different vigilante groups north and south of the border between the United States and Mexico, and how they are involved in the war on drugs.

  • The American group is a paramilitary unit called "Arizona Border Recon", led by a man named Tim "Nailer" Foley. Foley is an ex-military man and ex-construction worker who was once an alcoholic and drug addict. Foley, as he says himself, grew to resent Mexican immigrants whom he believed were taking jobs from Americans like him, so he organized his own private militia unit to catch Mexicans trying to cross the border. He claims that the rise in drug cartel violence around the border has led Arizona Border Recon to focus on the smuggling of drugs across the border from Mexico, although in the film itself he and his squad is shown catching regular migrants and turning them over to the Border Patrol.

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  • The second and longer portion of the film deals with a Mexican vigilante group. Violence in the southern Mexican state of Michoacán has spiraled out of control, with a drug cartel called the Knights Templars operating with impunity, extorting local businesses and murdering anyone who causes a problem or doesn't pay up. Mexican authorities make little effort to stop them. Jose Mireles, a charismatic Mexican physician, organizes the "Autodefensas". The Autodefensas, who like the Arizona Border Recon have no government or law enforcement affiliation, arm themselves and take the fight to the Templars. They soon have the Templars on the run, but Dr. Morales learns that a vigilante group is not easily controlled.



  • Black-and-Gray Morality: The cartels are about as black as morality gets, what with leaving severed heads scattered around. But the Autodefensas get more and more gray as they are infiltrated by people who have their own selfish ends, and other people who aren't particularly well vetted. By the point where the Autodefensas are torturing people in a grim public restroom, it becomes clear that there are no good guys.
  • Book Ends: The same scene of Mexican meth cooks starts and ends the film.
  • The Cartel: The bloodthirsty Knights Templars cartel, who are terrorizing southern Mexico.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Apparently the Autodefensas people torture suspected cartel members. Or at least that is the impression given from the horrifying screams that come from their grim detention center.
  • The Dead Have Names: One woman looks straight at the camera and mentions the names of thirteen people, all related to her, ranging from an old man to small children, who were massacred when the Knights Templar cartel went on a killing spree at a local lime farm.
  • Decapitation Presentation: Mireles shows on his phone a photo of three severed heads, left out by the Templars as a warning to everyone else.
  • Documentary: Of both American and Mexican vigilantes fighting the drug war.
  • Downer Ending: For the Mexican part of the film at least. The Autodefensas are co-opted by the Mexican government and, far worse, infiltrated by the cartels, to the point that the "Rural Defense" (what the Autodefensas became after they were legalized) are themselves making and smuggling meth. And Dr. Mireles is in jail. (He was released in 2017 after serving three years.)
  • Dragon with an Agenda: Estanislao Beltran Torres, aka "Papa Smurf" for his luxurious beard, who takes over leadership of the Autodefensas when Mireles is injured in a plane crash. Eventually he overthrows Mireles and surrenders to/joins with Mexican law enforcement, against Mireles' will.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: The Autodefensas guy who is grilling a subject in the terrifying detention center says the subject should tell him the truth, because "I'm the only guy who won't beat you up."
  • Gratuitous English: An Autodefensas man is conducting a hostile interrogation of a terrified van driver. After demanding to know which cartel the van driver is working for, gun pointed at the van driver's head, the Autodefensas guy says "Fuck the system" in English.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: What happens to the Autodefensas, first organized with the best of intentions to protect the people. First they start raiding homes and stealing things. They begin entering towns without any cartel problems, where they frighten the populace. They kidnap suspected cartel men and torture them. By the end, after they've been deputized by the government, they've been infiltrated by cartel people who are running a new cartel from inside.
    Mireles: We can't become the criminals we are fighting against.
  • Jitter Cam: Seen during a firefight between the Autodefensas and the Templars. Seen again during a shocking scene when, absolutely out of nowhere, an Autodefensas car comes under fire from the Templars, and director/cameraman Matthew Heineman flees for his life.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Dramatic zooms on to horrifying pictures of Templar violence—corpses hanging from nooses, severed heads left out in the street.
  • The Reveal: The first scene shows Mexicans cooking meth in the desert, with one meth guy addressing the camera and saying that the drug trade can't be stopped. When we revisit the meth guy at the end, the camera pans down to reveal that he is a member of the Rural Defense force—what the Autodefensas came after they were integrated into Mexican law enforcement.
  • Talking Heads: Mostly of Foley and Mireles, although other folks are interviewed, like an extremely racist Arizona militiaman, or one of Mireles' old lieutenants who formed a new cartel.
  • Vigilante Execution: Implied to happen in a scene where the Autodefensas catch a Templar by the side of the road. Mireles tells his men to interrogate the Templar and then, when they're done, "put him in the ground." The film cuts away before we find out if this actually happened.
  • Vigilante Man: North and south of the border. Tim Foley claims his group is about catching drug runners, but that claim is undercut when they apprehend simple migrants, and it's further undercut when one of Foley's men is revealed to be a white supremacist who says the races shouldn't mix together. Mireles sees his group, initially very popular due to taking on the Templars when the government won't, descend into criminality of its own.