Cartel Land

The people living in either side of the Mexican/US border have reached breaking point. They no longer believe in their government and feel that their only choice - for their own safety and for the safety of their country - is to take arms and fight back. Cartel Land follows two such vigilante groups: Arizona Border Recon (AZBR) and Mexico’s Autodefensas.


I am finding it hard to believe that what I am watching is real. The camera is at the heart of the action - surely this would be far too dangerous in ‘real life’. It all feels like a particularly bleak and nasty episode of Breaking Bad. But what I am watching is real - all too real. 


Cartel Land is remarkable for two reasons. First, it tells a story from a different perspective - that of the vigilantes. Second, because of the incredible access given to the filmmakers. Director, Matthew Heineman, spent months earning the trust of Nailer, the leader of (AZBR). After finally being welcomed to the group, he spent four-five months filming their activities. 


Heineman then read an article about Mexico's Autodefensas and their charismatic leader, Dr Mireless. He got in touch with the journalist who wrote the piece and she gave him the doctor’s telephone number. After explaining his project to Mireless, Heineman and his crew flew to Mexico and started filming. 


What is interesting is how similar the two vigilante leaders are. They are both the same age, they have both lost faith in their government and they are both prepared to fight for what they believe in. However, while the leaders are similar, the situation in Arizona and Micheochan in Mexico couldn’t feel more different. AZBR tracks and captures people trying to cross the border illegally. They are heavily armed but Heineman's camera does not capture any violence - this feels more about protection and prevention.


Meanwhile, in Michequan, the violence is all too real all too often.



The access securred by Matthew Heinemen and his team makes for a stunning and, at times, extremely tough watch. We see the brutality of the situation from the front line - and the film does not look away when violence erupts. However, the violent scenes in Cartel Land are not what will stay with me the most. 


For months after watching Cartel Land, I found myself haunted by a woman's story. She has a distressing tale to tell. Something utterly terrible has happened to her and her husband. And yet, despite it all, she is defiant - she puts on an Autodefensas t-shirt in the hope for a better future.


Hearing her speak moved me to tears and, for a moment, I was ready to believe that there could be change. Or at least progress. I felt that Dr Mireless's inspirational words and the work of the Autodefensas were getting somewhere. I felt, hope?However, having dropped breadcrumbs of optimism, Cartel Land brings us back to reality. There is, as yet, no solution to the cartel problem. This, as one of the meth cooks in the documentary explains, is a never ending story. 

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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