Film

'Cartel Land' Is a Never-Ending Story

Beautifully filmed and fiercely evocative, this first encounter in Cartel Land, now open in select US theaters, sets in motion any number of complications.

“The United States is where most drugs are sold.” The Mexican meth cooker is working at night, his face covered by a bandana, protection against both smoke and any sort of identification. “We know we do harm with all the drugs that go there,” he goes on as you watch one of his colleagues stir a huge blue vat and another documents amounts with a cell phone camera. Their arms and hands swirl in smoke, rising as if from a witches’ brew, “But what are we going to do? We come from poverty. If we were doing well, we would be like you, traveling the world or doing good clean jobs like you guys.”

Beautifully filmed and fiercely evocative, this first encounter in Cartel Land, now open in select US theaters, sets in motion any number of complications. Most obviously, the cooker reminds you of the interlocked culpabilities of the US and Mexican governments, the effects of poverty and lack of hope, but he also points out his own relationship with the crew wielding cameras, lights, and boom mics out there in the desert so late at night. It’s a relationship that shapes Matthew Heineman's remarkable film, which offers rare and sometimes nerve-racking access to all manner of illegal and dangerous activities.

Recording raids and shootouts, secret meetings and embarrassments, the film looks at multiple effects of the forever drug war.

The film focuses its storytelling through two vigilantes, Nailer Foley, a US war veteran and head of Arizona’s Border Recon (a paramilitary group the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as “extremist”), and José Mireles, leading the Grupo de Autodefensa against cartels and also the corrupt Mexican government in the province of Michoacán. Both men have their ways around the media: Foley avoids the spotlight but uses the public anxiety amplified by cable and local news stories, and Mireles performs for it, rallying locals against drug lords and cops alike.

If heir trajectories are very different, both men represent and act out cycles of fear and violence. “The cartels, mafia, whatever you want to call it, are involved in this, they’re involved in everything,” says the meth cooker, reappearing at film’s end. “The Autodefensas and the people cooking meth, we’re pretty much the same team.” Though his face is still masked, he now wears a cop’s shirt, with insignia. “As the cooks, we gotta lay low now that we’re part of the government,” he explains. But no matter. “It’s just never gonna stop. It’s just a never-ending story.”

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