Sarasota Film Festival: Cartel Land

A documentary follows vigilante groups fighting drug cartels on both sides of the border.

By Kay Kipling April 17, 2015

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By Kay Kipling

After seeing the documentary Cartel Land yesterday at the Sarasota Film Festival, I realized what programming director Michael Dunaway meant when he told us for our April issue ( that he couldn’t believe some of the footage the filmmakers got.

For starters, the movie begins by showing us some Mexican drug workers cooking meth (OK, they’re wearing bandanas or masks to shield their identities, but still—there’s a number of ways that could have gone wrong for director Matthew Heineman and his crew). Before long we’re traveling back and forth over the border between Mexico and Arizona, watching as vigilante groups on each side attempt to battle drug cartels in their own way.

On the U.S. side, they’re led by a guy who admits his own past addictions and is now hunkered down with some like-minded survivalist types to fight the battle against illegals and drug mules crossing into the country, a battle he’s convinced the federal government is not even attempting. On the Mexican side, they’re led by a charismatic doctor named Manuel Mireles, who organizes a group called Autodefensas to empower the citizens of towns threatened by a ring calling themselves the Knights Templar to fight back—all while also facing a corrupt government and law enforcement system.

But, as the documentary wears on, and the feeling that we’re watching a Western movie drama grows, we come to realize that there are no white knights here. Likable as he seems, Mireles has feet of clay, and the group he leads, at first seeming inspired and courageous, begins to fall apart as tensions escalate and motivations blur.

And, yes, at the end, the viewer does have a feeling of hopelessness about the never-ending drug wars and political ineffectiveness that causes so much suffering on both sides of the border. But one is also impressed by the determination and skill of the movie’s makers.

Another showing of Cartel Land takes place at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20. More film festival coverage to come as the closing weekend approaches.

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