There's a man who goes by the nickname "Papa Smurf" in the documentary Cartel Land, but there's nothing cute or gnomish about him. He's second-in-command of the Autodefensas, a band of citizens in the Mexican state of Michoacán who have taken up arms against the powerful Knights Templar drug cartel. Headed by Jose Mireles, a doctor, the Autodefensas go door-to-door in nighttime sorties, looking for soldiers of the cartel; not everyone in the towns in which the group operates are happy to see them.
Hundreds of miles north, Tim "Nailer" Foley, a leathery vet with a proudly defiant worldview, leads Arizona Border Recon, a paramilitary squad dedicated to stopping the cartels from crossing into the States, along with the "scouts" who work for them. Foley is in radio contact with U.S. Customs and Border patrols, and he's sick and tired of what's happening in America, land of the free.
Directed by Matthew Heineman, who embedded himself with the Autodefensas and with Foley's outfit, Cartel Land offers a chilling glimpse into a world of violence and vigilantism. Bookending his film with interviews of masked meth lab workers cooking their stuff in big blue barrels, Heineman shows how an illegal billion-dollar drug trade has led to corruption, chaos, and carnage on both sides of the border.
This kind of boots-on-the-ground reportage - with the camera's night-vision lenses trained on firefights that may prove not that significant in the light of the following day - has its limitations. But the images of decapitated heads, of hanging corpses, speak to a greater horror, a deeper dilemma.
The time spent with Mireles, who is known as "El Doctor" and comports himself like a telenovela star, and Foley, whose righteous brand of libertarian justice is fused with a gung-ho aesthetic, does not hold promise for an easy solution to this crisis.
And it is, indeed, a crisis. Cartel Land makes that abundantly clear.