Doc Reveals Unfiltered Truth About Life in Mexico's Cartel Wars

Autodefensas rally in Michoacán, Mexico. - FROM CARTEL LAND, A FILM BY MATTHEW HEINEMAN
From Cartel Land, a film by Matthew Heineman
Autodefensas rally in Michoacán, Mexico.

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.

click to enlarge Dr. José Mireles. - FROM CARTEL LAND, A FILM BY MATTHEW HEINEMAN
From Cartel Land, a film by Matthew Heineman
Dr. José Mireles.

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.

Cartel Land Directed by Matthew Heineman. Now screening at the Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard, University City. Call 314-727-7271 or visit

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.