Cartel Land: A Personal Look at the War on Drugs

Imagine a cast of characters out of a blockbuster crime movie: you have your humble citizen vigilante, violent gangs, a corrupt government, and a troop of North American soldiers trying to stop it all. Cartel Land has all of that, except this isn’t a movie set, this is real life and the cast of characters is as real as it gets. This movie delves deep into the local, national, and international effects of the violence spurred by the drug cartels in Mexico, in this case, The Knights Templar cartel (known as Los Templarios) in the state of Michoacán.


In the state of Michoacán, we are first introduced to Dr. Jose Mireles, a local vigilante leader who has gathered a group of armed supporters to hunt down and kill local Templarios. He’s as charismatic as they come; a gentle giant with a big family who is also a practicing physician, and his supporters follow his lead obediently. He began this movement, the Grupo de Autodefensa (Self Defense Group) to attempt to stop the violence in his town. With the help of local men and women, they track, question, and sometimes kill the cartel members by themselves. Mireles and his crew, adored by the local townspeople, are quickly attacked by the Mexican government claiming they are breaking the law and are in possession of illegal weapons, but continue to allow their vigilance since there is no one else doing the work.


On the other side of the border, we learn about Tim Foley, another citizen vigilante who patrols the Arizona-Mexico border with a rag-tag group of like minded citizens. Foley, a father of two daughters and a former drug-addict, takes a no nonsense approach to illegal immigration, not because he anti-immigration but because he fears cartel violence will make its way to the United States through the porous border. With their army fatigues and machine guns, they patrol the valleys and mountains of Arizona’s border tracking “scouts” who lead illegal immigrants into the country. Unlike Mireles, Foley’s team is not attacked by the US government but it’s clear that their work spurs from the lack of support from US Border Patrol, much like the lack of policing in the rural state of Michoacán.


In a personal look at both sides of the war on drugs, it is clear that there is a fine line between corruption and illegality and more generally, good and evil. After Mireles was hurt in a plane accident, which some believe was planned, his Grupo de Autodefensa turns over to his friend, known as Papa Smurf. Once in new control, the group turns against Mireles and becomes part of the federal police force which renamed the group Fuerza Rural (rural defense force). Mireles swiftly went into hiding but was later jailed for violated laws against illegal weapons along with many Autodefensa supporters who did not switch allegiance to the new Fuerza Rural. This documentary forces viewers to think about corruption and who, in the end, is on the right and wrong side of the law. Mireles and Foley may not have been working with their governments but they were protecting their people, land, homes, families but the cruel reality of this war on drugs is that what is good isn’t always right. Cartel Land proves that corruption, money, and power are more potent than any drug crossing the border from Mexico.


Cartel Land. Dir. Matthew Heineman. The Orchard, 2015. DVD.

About Author(s)

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Sophia Winston
Sophia Winston is a Spanish and Urban Studies major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is also pursuing a certificate in Latin American Studies and a minor in Portuguese. She has spent a semester abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is currently a senior.