Cartel Land, Matthew Heineman’s acclaimed documentary about the Mexican vigilante Jos? Manuel Mireles, is available to stream on Netflix UK from today. In this feature, originally published on September 4, Alastair Smart spoke to Mireles’s closest confidant ? his lawyer
It?s midday in Michoac?n, and the camera zooms in on a dozen armed vigilantes as they capture two murderous?cartel?members, Caballo and Chanenque. The pair had made a habit of killing and dismembering anyone who crossed them, but now the tables have turned. Apprehended around the back of a liquor store, they’re kicked, beaten, handcuffed and insulted, all in the name of their victims.
We don’t learn Caballo and Chanenque?s ultimate fate, as the director cuts away before vigilante leader Jos? Manuel Mireles can order it. But, given the vengeful nature of Mexico’s drugs war, one can hazard a pretty decent guess. The scene was caught by US filmmaker Matthew Heineman in his new documentary,?Cartel?Land. It tells the story of Mireles, a small-town doctor in Western Mexico who grew sick and tired of narco-cartels?terrorising communities across his homeland.
His response was remarkable. Rather than accept the grim reality or flee to another country, he decided to take the law into his own hands and launch a self-defence militia (called the “Autodefensas”), prepared to stand up to the all-powerful local?cartel, the Knights Templar, whatever the consequences. “We’ve reached the gates of Hell,” he tells a crowd in the square of his hometown, Tepalcatepec. “Now it’s time to defend ourselves”.
Mireles granted Heineman pretty much unlimited access, the latter employing a lightweight camera and run-and-gun style to capture the Autodefensas on their missions. The film begins, though, with a scene encapsulating the savagery they’re up against: the burial of a group of young children, who’d had their feet bound and heads smashed against rocks after their father, a local farmer, failed to pay the weekly extortion fee demanded of businesses across the state.