Drug War Doc 'Cartel Land' Hits Home With Mexican Audiences

Cartel Land
'Cartel Land,' Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow executive produced the Sundance winner about vigilante groups battling some of the most violent criminals in the world.

Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land is striking a chord with moviegoers in Mexico, where a brutal drug war claims thousands of lives each year.

Cartel Land examines two vigilante groups and their shared enemy — Mexico's vicious drug cartels. In the Mexican state of Michoacan, Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as "El Doctor," leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar 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 stop Mexico’s drug war from seeping across the border into the United States.

Mexico’s top exhibitor Cinepolis says that the documentary had the second-highest per-screen average during its first week in theaters, a remarkable feat considering it went up against big Hollywood summer releases including Terminator: Genisys, Inside Out and Jurassic World.

The A&E IndieFilms production bowed with just 23 prints and not only is it performing exceptionally well at the box office (it's pulled in more than $189,000, according to Rentrak Mexico), but it’s also getting extensive TV coverage, a rarity for a documentary in the country.

Of course, Cartel Land isn’t your typical drug war documentary. Even producer-director Heineman acknowledges that the movie pushed him into some pretty precarious places.

“I’ve been in shoot-outs on the streets of Michoacan and in Breaking Bad-like meth labs in the middle of the dark, desert night,” said the New York-based filmmaker.

The Hollywood Reporter review said Heineman “vaults us into a true heart of darkness.”

Several other factors have helped to get the word out to moviegoers in Mexico. Earlier this year, Cartel Land got considerable publicity after it won directing and cinematography awards at Sundance. The film also has benefited from having Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) on board as executive producer.

But more than anything else, Cartel Land echoes Mexicans’ frustrations over an ongoing drug war that has claimed an estimated 80,000 lives since 2006.

Adding to the growing frustration, two weeks ago, Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, broke out of a maximum-security prison. The news of his escape spurred a media frenzy.

As for Heineman, he's thrilled his film has resonated with so many people.

“What we captured on film brings viewers inside a world that dominates news stories in Mexico, but is not often seen in a raw, visceral way,” he said. “Beyond the shoot-outs, corruption and violence, Cartel Land shows human stories behind the violence, and I think that has been appealing to both Mexican media and cinemagoers.”