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In the Mexican state of Michoacán, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as "El Doctor," shepherds a citizen uprising against the Knights Templar, the violent drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the region for years. Meanwhile, in Arizona's Altar Valley—a narrow, 52-mile-long desert corridor known as Cocaine Alley—Tim "Nailer" Foley, an American veteran, heads a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to halt Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across our border.

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Cartel Land movie full length review - Power Corrupts

Cartel Land focuses on the drug-wars against Mexican cartels waged by vigilante groups on the both US border to Mexico in Arizona and Mexican city called Michoacán. Director Matthew Heineman follows an on-the-ground approach to picture every detail while vigilantes are on work.

Mexican group Autodefansas led by charismatic Dr. Jose Mireles, El Doctor, who at the same time performs his duties as a physician at a local clinic, while US group Arizona Border Recon led by commando- like Tim "Nailer" Foley. After the introduction of these groups, they are presented as if they served the same purpose of cleaning out their territories of the cartel groups. However, as time goes on, it becomes evident both of them differ in their approaches, methods and targets. El Doctor and his group defy to be butchered like animals by the vicious cartel group, Knights Templar, and after witnessing his neighbours' slaughter, he sets himself to organise an anti-cartel group. The purpose here is to kill before killed. After the inception of Autodefansas, they start securing towns by capturing, then interrogating and torturing members of the cartel in order to get information on whereabouts of the other cartel members, becoming more and more violent. On the other hand, Tim "Nailer" Foley, after losing his construction job in the 2008 downturn and not being able to find any work because of the illegal immigrants, sets himself to protect US-Mexican border against any illegal immigration. It seems former group take up arms out of necessity whereas the latter's intention is solely personal. So, it is difficult to understand why those groups different in many ways presented together.

The only similarity between them is their so-called morally pure leaders whose true colours are revealed almost at the end. That is, Mr. Mireles enjoys his role as a leader, and exploits the publicity resulting from it as to flirt with younger women, which is unveiled by his wife as "He is not who everybody things he is.". Similarly, Mr. Foley and his team members show their racist inclinations towards the end, which questions their legitimacy. If the title were "Power Corrupts" or something similar to that, it would be more meaningful to observe the decline of these people, and affirm that vigilantism is not an easy thing to achieve, personal demons always corrupt one's soul. One more thing, little time is allocated to the leaders downfall, it seems it is not about them, it's about their cause. But, then, suddenly it turns out to be about their personal troubles. Instead of rushing this fact, director should have put more effort on developing more of governmental part of the story and how cartels operate and get organised in different territories. The opening scene where some cartel members are shown making crystal meth and expressing their feelings on drug trafficking misleads the audience as their relationship with different cartel groups, the government and Autodefansas is left unexplored.

To conclude, this documentary is not about drug wars, it is about two US and Mexican vigilante groups' usurping the law for their own satisfaction and how power corrupts one's soul, how extremism escalates in these groups activities as well as their beliefs and how they legitimise anything they do. Although more time is allocated to the Mexican side of the story, it is hard to comprehend the point why the director is bothered with the unglamorous American side. Finally, I admire everybody involved in shooting of the close range shootouts between cartel members and Autodefensas. I suppose picturing of Nailer and his team must have been a boring experience, especially the ones with night vision cameras, because there is nothing happening, except catching absolutely exhausted immigrants and treating them badly.