Small Wars Journal

Film Review: Cartel Land – Competitive Control, Vigilante Justice and Autodefensas

Thu, 10/01/2015 - 2:45am

Film Review: Cartel Land – Competitive Control, Vigilante Justice and Autodefensas

John P. Sullivan, Khirin A. Bunker and Robert J. Bunker

Written and directed by Matthew Heineman, “Cartel Land” (run-time 98 min.)—also available in Spanish as “Tierra de carteles,” is a timely and graphic documentary chronicling the extreme violence and conflict between drug cartels and the state in Mexico. Specifically, the documentary tracks the rise of contemporary vigilante groups that face drug cartels on both sides of the frontier.  From a production team with experience documenting contemporary conflict—including Executive Producer Kathryn Bigelow (producer-director of “Zero Dark Thirty” and Oscar winning “The Hurt Locker”), the stage is set to explore the rise of vigilantes in Mexico’s drug war zone. Their efforts paid off and the film tells an important story of the battles for security and turf being waged throughout Mexico and much of Latin America.

Drug cartels are clearly a significant security threat in Mexico and the documentary effectively illustrates this threat. Director Matthew Heineman indeed shows how Michoacán became “Cartel Land,” an area dominated by warring drug cartels, gangs, and corrupt police. In Michoacán, he follows the rise and fall of the autodefensas (self-defense) movement led by Dr. José Manuel Mireles Valverde.  Mireles—aka ‘El Doctor’—emerged as the iconic leader of the autodefensas movement in the municipios of coastal Michoacán, notably Apatzingán and Tepalcatepec. 

In the film, the significant rise of Mireles and the autodefensas in the Tierra Caliente is juxtaposed with the case of the Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary citizen’s border patrol unit led by Tim “Nailer” Foley. While the parallels show the ascendancy of new non-state security actors rising from the cartel’s illicit flows and competition with the state, the situation along the border is somewhat tame when compared with the outright lawlessness in Michoacán. Moreover, the Arizona Border Recon appears to have mixed motives in patrolling the border, with one member advocating for a complete separation of races.

Mireles addresses a crowd in Michoacán in an attempt to recruit and garner public support for the autodefensas

In Mexico, the documentary follows the rise of the autodefensas as a reaction to extreme violence and barbarism by the Knights Templar (Los Caballeros Templarios). The film depicts the aftermath of the brutal killing of an entire family, including young children, as the impetus for community self defense. Mireles himself had been previously kidnapped by the Templarios and several members of his family had been murdered. The rise of the autodefensas (Grupos de Autodefensa Comunitaria, also known as comunitarias) came about after a period of extreme insecurity in areas of Mexico led to a vacuum of power. Coming out of this struggle, the Templarios themselves were the latest gangster splinter group having roots in the Michoacán Family (La Familia Michoacana) who had themselves split from the Zetas. The film shows Mireles and his lieutenant, Estanislao Beltrán (Papa Pitufo ‘Papa Smurf’), pacifying the region.  Running gun battles with cartel sicarios are punctuated with scenes of ineffective police and military intervention. Graphic footage of cartel activity and political rallies is interspersed with ride-alongs and interviews of autodefensas and gangsters while they are brewing methamphetamine.

Essentially, the film validates the concept of “competitive control” articulated by David Kilcullen in Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerrilla wherein narcos, vigilantes, and elements of the police compete for control of turf and the monopoly of violence in an area characterized by insecurity and impunity or a state of criminal insurgency as seen in Ioan Grillo’s El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency. The chronic insecurity led to what essentially amounts to an uprising by the autodefensas. This is seen in rising public support for the autodefensas, but also by the increase in impunity when the autodefensas adopt a hard line; such as when Mireles alludes to what amounts to an order for an off camera extrajudicial execution (effectively a violation of both Mexican law, and in the case of internal conflicts, Article 3—common to the four Geneva Conventions). The rise of Mireles and his autodefensas is stalled and then effectively checked when he is injured in a plane crash, followed by the Federal government’s move to establish a Fuerza Rural (Rural Force). As a result of this governmental shift, leadership of the autodefensas distanced themselves from Mireles. Following a meeting between local leaders of the autodefensas, Mireles remarks that they are “fucking each other under the table” in regards to mixed loyalties and mounting corruption within the group. Soon after, there is a split amongst the leadership with those who joined the Fuerza Rural receiving amnesty while eventually Mireles, along with 45 followers, is arrested.

Further, Mireles’ home life has also imploded, with his wife of many years separating from him and taking their children with her after he blatantly pursues a young female supporter, part of which is caught on camera to the utter astonishment of the reviewers. The image of Dr. Mireles as a saint—a healer and protector of the community—with that of a sinner—a womanizer and involved in extrajudicial justice—makes for a complex character that can be considered a noble yet simultaneously flawed personage. 

The film suggests that many of the new paramilitary Rurales, like some corrupt police, are cartel gangsters and sicarios who use their position as cover for cartel activities. In multiple scenes in the film, members of the autodefensas are shown in possession of gold-plated handguns, in the style of those prominent among high-ranking cartel members. In another scene, a link to the ‘Viagra’ cartel is strongly indicated in conversation with leaders of the autodefensas who have since joined with the Rural Forces.

“Cartel Land” won the Sundance 2015 Directing and Cinematography Awards for U.S. Documentary. It is likely to win additional awards but, like all documentaries, its significance transcends cinematography as it tells an important story. Drug cartels and gangsters victimize people. Impunity and violence challenge, and at times co-opt, the state. These threats demand action. This film helps tell the story necessary to forge that action.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at

Khirin A. Bunker holds a Political Science B.A with honors from the University of California Riverside and an International Baccalaureate (IB) degree.  He has interned at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, SWJ El Centro, and a law firm and has studied abroad at the University of Cambridge, England.

Dr. Robert J. Bunker is Director of Research and Analysis, C/O Futures, LLC, and an Instructor at the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. He holds university degrees in political science, government, social science, anthropology-geography, behavioral science, and history and has undertaken hundreds of hours of counterterrorism training. Past professional associations include Minerva Chair at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College and Futurist in Residence, Training and Development Division, Behavioral Science Unit, Federal Bureau of Investigation Academy, Quantico. Dr. Bunker has well over 500 publications—including about 40 books as co-author, editor, and co-editor—and can be reached at   



Tue, 10/27/2015 - 12:46pm

In reply to by Geoffrey Demarest

Dr. Demarest,

Thank you for your comments on our review. I agree 'impunity' is a central issue in understanding the power dynamics of crime wars and criminal insurgency. Impunity reinforces insecurity, contributes to lack of state legitimacy, and amplifies the impact of violence in communities leading to failed communities and other governed zones often characterized as 'zones of impunity.' Indeed impunity is a central characteristic of quest for competitive control in contested spaces. Actually defining the contours of the power-counterpower contest is complicated by the interrelationships between violence, corruption, and impunity.

I think your discussion of militias (paramilitaries, etc.) in 'Winning Irregular War' is germane to the discussion of competitive control. Essentially privatized violence can be a tool for supporting or subverting the state (often both). Vigilantes (autodefensas) have often morphed into criminal bands (as you note). This is all part of the processes state formation or state transformation. Thanks for calling attention to your analysis. John

Dr. John P. Sullivan

Geoffrey Demarest

Mon, 10/26/2015 - 8:17am

Well John, Khirin, Robert,

I thought it was worth watching and thanks for the post. In light of the video and whatallelse we know or sort of know about the war on drugs in Mexico and the US, you may be pleased to read Section 56, Militias and Gun Control in Winning Irregular War (2015). I'd appreciate it if you would, as I am always open to comments for improvement.

Geoffrey Demarest

Wed, 10/21/2015 - 10:06am

OK, my post below is a bit confusing. The point is this: Impunity is not the crime, it is escaping punishment for the crime. When a leader can provide impunity for his followers, that leader and his organization can and often does become an insult to the rule of law. The leader who can grant impunity may wear any number and kind of hat, be it mitre, fedora, helmet, headdress, ball, stetson or whatever. Governments often try to establish a monopoly over the ownership of firearms [that is, of lethal force]. It may seem a logical effort toward stopping violence. It rarely works; but it sometimes works. When it does work, it probably allows that government to grant impunity to a select minority of its own perpetrators. Thus the rule of law is still not served. I propose that lethal force is most likely to thwart impunity when it is in the hands of good people. If I’m right, then it follows that we should seek out the good people, and arm them. We might allow ourselves, under some unfortunate theory about legitimacy, an easy luxury: We might presume that a government is made of good people because its leaders were elected. We will be disappointed as often as not. Centralizing the control of force is easier than finding good people, but it is not the goal, or does it approach the goal. So some folks will say, “Ah, but we can get control of violence by concentrating lethal force in one government and then convince the people in that government to be good.” I guess maybe that happened someplace. Where has that happened?

Geoffrey Demarest

Tue, 10/20/2015 - 4:18pm

I watched the documentary because of your post. It was good and thank you. Allow me to suggest a different approach to these matters by way of a semantic examination. I think that impunity is not itself an infraction, crime or immorality. It is, instead, the getting away with it. Impunity is escape or freedom or protection from punishment. I think this is a good starting place for changing our intellectual approach to considering irregular warfare generally. I have seen repeated many times, including on SWJ, some version of the notion that a state has some right to, or should try to gain a monopoly over the use of force within its territory. I think this is wrong. I think that a state should want to control impunity, especially the organized granting of impunity. That is to say, a government is most successful that does not face anyone who can protect their people from punishment by the state. If a clergyman, union boss, guerrilla chief, mafia don -- whoever -- can protect their followers from being punished, either by providing superior physical force, geographic distance, fear among would-be prosecutors, excellent legal assistance, corruption of judges -- by whatever means -- then that leader is a threat to the state and to a degree a state unto himself. The reason we don’t want the state to have a monopoly over say, firearms, is because the members of the state might themselves try to get away with things for which they should be punished. Having no challengers who can grant impunity from state punishment need not mean having a state that can provide complete impunity for its own people. Also, just because the ability to wield lethal force is spread around, including beyond state organizations and controls, does not mean that the wielders of that lethal power have thereby gained impunity. Not letting people get away with illicit behavior, that is, the control of impunity, does not have to be the unique purview of the state. If you or I shot a trespasser, that individual did not enjoy impunity for his actions, and the state was spared an expense. In Mexico, as Cartel Land makes clear, it is hard to tell who is on what team, however. Now that’s a problem.