Cartel Land: Riveting Feature about Mexican Drug Cartels, Directed by Matthew Heineman

cartel_land_posterCartel Land offers a thematically riveting, realistically grounded look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups and their shared enemy–the murderous Mexican drug cartels.

The feature, produced by Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow, world premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Fest (in the U.S. Documentary competition), where Heineman received both the Directing Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography.



cartel_land_1In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor,” leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years.

Meanwhile, in Arizona’s Altar Valley – a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley – Tim “Nailer” Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to stop Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across our border.

cartel_land_2Director Matthew Heineman explains his motivation for making Cartel Land, a riveting, highly realistic film.

I was compelled to make Cartel Land after reading media accounts of Nailer and El Doctor, the film’s main characters. I was immediately drawn to know more about their worlds, in which everyday citizens have been forced to take the law into their hands. I wanted to tell their stories from an intimate, yet action-driven verité perspective, without outside experts or text cards. It took many months to gain their trust and to gain the access that I needed to tell this story.

cartel_land_3Over the year that I was embedded with both Nailer and El Doctor and their vigilante groups, the story unfolded in incredible and surprising ways that I could never have predicted when I first got started. Having no experience filming in risky situations, Cartel Land pushed me into some pretty precarious places – I’ve been in shootouts on the streets of Michoacán and in Breaking Bad-like meth labs in the middle of the dark, desert night. Utilizing small crews or shooting by myself, my goal was to be there to capture in real time each chapter of the ever-evolving and arcing stories, with the camera in the action, not observing it from the outside. It was a wild adventure and a grueling film to make.

cartel_land_4The more time I spent down there, the more complex the story became: it was partly an ascent of people seeking to fight evil and partly a descent into hell as they took the law into their own hands, with many twists and turns in between. It is about elemental issues of order and chaos, of the desire for law but also of terrifying brutality and lawlessness.

cartel_land_5I became even more motivated, almost obsessed, as the lines between good and evil became ever more blurred. The film doesn’t offer pat answers and, instead, presents a story that I believe will be interpreted and understood in many different ways.

cartel_land_6It is this moral ambiguity that intrigues me, and it emerges naturally in the story and in our characters. For me, it became a timeless story of the conflict between idealism and violence, which has eerie echoes throughout history and across the world today.