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'Cartel Land' documentary shows how Mexican vigilantes have become the monster they intended to tame

“The overall story is clear — cartels reign with impunity in Mexico,” filmmaker Matthew Heineman told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos in an exclusive interview.

But Heineman, director of the Sundance award-winning documentary “Cartel Land,” says the problem is a cross-border phenomenon that has blurred the lines between good and evil in a drug war with no end in sight.

Exclusive clip courtesy of Cinetic Media:

With unprecedented access and guerilla-style camerawork, Heineman introduces viewers to Arizona desert militia leader Tim “Nailer” Foley, whose stated mission is to hunt narcos and smugglers, but ultimately spends his days rounding up undocumented immigrants. Meanwhile, on the other side of the frontier, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Heineman introduces us to Dr. José Manuel Mireles, the charismatic leader of the region’s self-styled vigilante movement. The film increasingly focuses on Mireles, who watches the force he helped create turn into the very monster he intended to battle.

The film initially depicts the so-called “autodefensas” or Mexican self-defense groups, as a movement of concerned citizens whose friends and relatives have been victimized by the ruthless Knights Templar Cartel and other criminal groups. But as the film evolves, it starts raising difficult questions about the rogue groups.

“What I wanted to do with this film is show the complexities of human nature, what happens in a society where people are forced to take the law into their own hands,” Heineman told Fusion. “What we see in the film is a cycle repeating itself, those fighting evil becoming evil.”

In one of the film’s more chilling scenes, the vigilantes, accompanied by other townspeople, manage to kick out the Mexican army from their municipality, and essentially become a de facto governing body. Mireles initially stands tall and delivers a speech in the plaza, telling the people they are in charge.

But the energy of the moment is short-lived, as the newly empowered vigilante movement takes on a life of its own, spiraling out of Mireles’ control. The group begins conducting arbitrary abductions, harassing and torturing anyone suspected of being in cahoots with the narcos. A frightening cycle of revenge and violence ensues.

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