"We decided the best thing to do was to die fighting."
Near the beginning of CARTEL LAND, a man's voice tells the audience "there's an imaginary line out there between right and wrong, good and evil," as we see an aerial shot of the Arizona-Mexico border. That voice belongs to Tim "Nailer" Foley, who is an army veteran leading a small paramilitary border patrol organization called the Arizona Border Recon. That sentiment echoes throughout the film as the two main groups documented try to right the wrongs they see in a land seemingly abandoned by the law. On the other side of the border in Michoacán, Dr. José Mireles leads the Autodefensas, a group of citizens determined to bring peace back to their region after the violent Knights Templar cartel has terrorized it for years. CARTEL LAND is a story of vigilante justice and raises questions about what exactly that justice might mean. Is justice "an eye for an eye?" Is it peace? Peace under whose authority? Rather than skirting these difficult issues, CARTEL LAND does a good job of presenting them without nudging the audience towards any sort of normative decision, something rarely seen with this subject matter.
I recently saw SICARIO, which also came out in 2015 and deals with some of the same material (my writeup can be found here). Obviously, SICARIO is a fictional drama while CARTEL LAND is a documentary, but reasonable parallels can be drawn. SICARIO definitely takes a big-picture approach to justice - ends justifying means, utilitarianism, all that. CARTEL LAND doesn't necessarily take sides, but one of the most compelling scenes in the film (of which there are many) is when the recently "liberated" Mexican townspeople argue with the Autodefensas about procedural justice. How there be true peace when a drug cartel yields control of a territory to an unsanctioned militia? Should the Autodefensas comply with the a corrupt government's demands to legitimize? Are the leaders of this liberation movement truly as wholesome as they appear? I realize I'm writing a lot of questions in this post, but CARTEL LAND does a good job of leaving you with the impression that things are endlessly complicated and that there might not be any right answers.
Even beyond the content, CARTEL LAND is truly spellbinding. It looks fantastic - and the fact that you know the camera is right there in the heat of various firefights and cartel raids makes the viewing experience powerfully visceral. The camerawork is remarkable, and the direction and editing team up to create one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time. I highly recommend CARTEL LAND.