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Reel Review: ‘Cartel Land’



By Anna Husted EBS Contributor

With the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border at the forefront of the news it seemed an appropriate time to catch up and finally watch “Cartel Land,” a 2015 Oscar-nominee for best documentary film.

Director Matthew Heineman’s “Cartel Land” is less about the recent border and immigration issues and more about drugs and violence on the border, but the two cannot quite be separated.

“Cartel Land” has the feel of a war movie because it is about armed American and Mexican vigilantes patrolling the border to keep their land safe, while witnessing Mexican families burying loved ones caught in cartel crossfire in Mexico.

Here in Montana we are affected by drugs that cross the border and make their way north, but we are so far removed from the everyday violence on the border. Should U.S. and Mexican citizens be allowed to take matters into their own hands? Watch “Cartel Land” and decide for yourself.

“Cartel Land” follows Jose Manuel “El Doctor” Mireles, who aids Mexican citizens in arming themselves against the cartel, and Tim Nailer Foley, who leads U.S. citizens who patrol their own section of border looking for cartel scouts. The film pulls apart the layers of the two men’s motivations through revealing their backstories. Unfolding on two sides of the border, their parallel life stories paint a portrait of vastly different individuals who share similar motives and means, even though they never cross paths.

When the U.S., Mexico, and Canada implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, Mexico-grown corn entered into direct competition with corn grown in the United States. Mexican consumers started buying U.S.-subsidized corn because it was more affordable, according to Prospect Journal of International Affairs at University of California, San Diego.

This change in consumer habits in Mexico lead to layoffs in the country’s agricultural industry and an increase in Mexican men turning toward the drug industry. “Cartel Land” only briefly touches on reasons behind the growth of cartel power in Mexico, but rather focuses on a microcosm of the border world.

“Cartel Land” is full of long swooping crane shots and aerial views of the border and its towns. The natural beauty of Arizona and Michoacán stands in stark contrast to the ugliness of meth cooking and beheadings. It is a fascinating documentary that is more relevant than ever—it provides insight as to why Central Americans might want to present themselves as refugees instead of migrants.

While El Doctor struggles to keep citizens from joining the cartels and the local government from being paid off by them, Foley wants to cease drug trafficking along his section of the Arizona border. Both men believe change is possible, even though the immediate future looks bleak.

“We are stuck in a cycle where nobody wants to change,” says Foley in the film. “But the cycles can change. It just takes somebody to change them.”

“Cartel Land” is available for streaming on Netflix.

Anna Husted has a master’s in film studies from New York University. In Big Sky she can be found at the movies at Lone Peak Cinema or on the slopes. When not gazing at the silver screen or watching her new favorite TV show, she’s running, fishing or roughhousing with her cat, Indiana Jones.

Joseph T. O'Connor is the previous Editor-in-Chief for EBS newspaper and Mountain Outlaw magazine.

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