Cartel Land is a 2015 American documentary film directed by Matthew Heineman about the Mexican Drug War, especially vigilante groups fighting Mexican drug cartels. The film focuses on Tim "Nailer" Foley, the leader of Arizona Border Recon, and Dr José Mireles, a Michoacán-based physician who leads the Autodefensas.
Heineman won the Best Director Award and Special Jury Award for Cinematography for the film in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary premiered. He was presented the award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary by the Directors Guild of America, as well as the 2015 Courage Under Fire Award for the film by the International Documentary Association. The film was also nominated for Best Documentary at the 69th British Academy Film Awards and for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 88th Academy Awards. The film received the 2015 Documentary Film Award from the George Polk Awards in Journalism.
On February 12, 2015, Orchard Films acquired the rights to the film. Cartel Land was released theatrically in the summer of 2015 and aired on A&E on January 4, 2016.
Heineman got the idea for the film after reading about Arizona Border Recon in an article in Rolling Stone magazine, and then his father sent him a Wall Street Journal article about José Manuel Mireles and the Autodefensas. "The minute I read that article, I knew I wanted to create a parallel story of vigilantes on both sides of the border. I wanted to know what happens when government institutions fail and citizens feel like they have to take the law into their own hands."
The film was shot in Michoacán, southwest Mexico and in Arizona.
He was inspired by The Square in the making of the film.
Cartel Land received very positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports a 89% rating based on 93 reviews. The site's consensus states: "Raw, brutal, and bitter, Cartel Land offers a ground-level look at vigilante efforts to thwart organized crime at the Mexican–American border." On Metacritic, the film has a 76 out of 100 rating based on 25 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Cartel Land appeared on over twenty critics' lists for best documentary and best film of 2015. It was listed as the #1 documentary of 2015 by Indiewire's The Playlist and by Paste Magazine, which also named Heineman as the best new filmmaker of the year. On December 1, the film was selected as one of 15 shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.