Early on in producer-director Matthew Heineman’s riveting documentary Cartel Land, captured in a greenish night-vision glow, Tim “Nailer” Foley and his rag-tag Arizona Border Recon cohorts pick their way along a barbed wire fence in the Altar Valley. They’re looking for human traffickers, drug smugglers and scouts crossing the border from Mexico; they have abandoned any hope legitimate authorities might do this dirty work. For Nailer, it’s a simple moral imperative: “I believe what I am doing is good, and what I am standing up against is evil.”
A thousand miles away in Michoacán, Mexico, other everyday heroes are also mobilising. Seeking to end the horrific violence drug cartels have wrought on their towns, these residents – many of them old men past their fighting prime – are forming vigilante militias, running the gangsters out of town in chaotic, haphazard gun battles.
Their de facto leader and figurehead for the Autodefensas movement is Dr José Manuel Mireles. While Foley hands captives to the authorities, Mireles sets up road blocks, hunts known offenders, and is seen instructing a henchman how to deal with a cartel suspect: “get everything you can out of him and put him in the ground. Immediately.”
But, as the film painfully reflects, it’s not long before the notions of Old Testament justice make the good and bad guys harder to tell apart. Hearing rumours that vengeance is being meted out by the Autodefensas with the same savagery the cartels once inflicted, Dr Mireles – a Shakespearean antihero with, as is revealed, a Shakespearean fatal flaw – starts to understand the purifying ideals of his group are becoming clouded with blood.
The incidences of corruption in Cartel Land – which is so close to the action that you can more or less hear bullets whistling past – are staggering and astonishing. The Mexican portion is as grim and fascinating a portrait of the motives of men as any you’ll see. It leaves Nailer and his border crusaders looking like kids kicking around in the dust.
Cartel Land is out now