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'Cartel Land' Follows Vigilantes Fighting Mexican Drug Gangs

The documentary Cartel Land looks at Mexico's drug war from a unique perspective: the people who chose to take up arms against the drug gangs.

Filmmaker Matthew Heineman during filming of <em>Cartel Land</em>.
/ Courtesy of The Orchard
Courtesy of The Orchard
Filmmaker Matthew Heineman during filming of Cartel Land.

The film's director Matthew Heineman embedded himself with two vigilante groups working to combat the drug cartels on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. He took extraordinary risks to film the shootouts, corruption, greed and torture chambers that make up life in the drug fight. The film explores the sometimes convoluted moral ambiguities of vigilante justice.

Cartel Land follows the doctor José Manuel Mireles, who in 2013 rose to prominence as a leader of the Autodefensas, a vigilante group battling the Knights Templar drug gang in the Michoacán state of Mexico. On the other side of the border, Heineman meets Tim "Nailer" Foley, a former construction worker who leads Arizona Border Recon. The group wants to stop the drug wars from spilling onto U.S. soil.

The film has already won several top honors including a George Polk award. It's up for an Academy Award Sunday for best documentary.

Heineman spoke with NPR's Eric Westervelt about why he became interested in the topic and how he got so close to the action.

Interview highlights contain some web-only extended answers. Click the audio link above to listen to the interview.

Interview Highlights

On what drew him to cover the drug wars

There's been so much coverage of the drug wars in media — in many ways it's been glorified in movies and TV shows, and I really wanted to put a human face to this violence. Not talk about it from the outside, not talk about it through experts or from a policy perspective, but put myself right in the middle of the action to see how this cartel violence was affecting everyday people. The response of everyday people rising up to fight back. And then the ramifications of what happens when citizens take the law into their own hands.

I first started filming with a group in Arizona, filmed there for about four or five months. Then embedded myself with a group in Mexico after reading an article and heading down there.

On getting close-up access

I really wanted to tell the story in the present tense. I wanted to be there as the story unfolded, and I ended up with a story that I never could have dreamed of or imagined or predicted. I'm not a war reporter, I've never been in any situation like this before, but the film led me into crazy situations. Shootouts between the vigilantes and the cartel, meth labs, places of torture. ...

There's a couple things that allowed me to get this — one was time, it was the relationships that I was able to create. They were risking their lives to fight for what they believed in, and I was risking my life and the life of my crew to capture this. I think there's a level of respect that came with that.

And again, when I first started, I didn't have any sort of goal or preconceived notion for the story — I was very open-minded, and I think they appreciated that. I think they appreciated that I didn't have a slant or an angle or a script that I was following. I really wanted to let the story unfold.

On Tim "Nailer" Foley, who heads the paramilitary group Arizona Border Recon

One of the main questions that sort of fascinated me and drove me to make this film is: What provokes men and women to take up arms? And obviously in this story, it's specific to the drug war. There's a wide range of motivations that led folks to patrol the border, to be part of Arizona Border Recon.

When [Foley] lost his job he was angry and he blamed his inability to get work on illegal immigrants who were taking his jobs. And so he went down to the border ... to try to stop the flow of immigrants coming across the border. And he over time realized that the real enemy was not them in his mind, the real enemy was the cartel that controlled everything.

On José Manuel Mireles and the Mexican vigilantes battling cartels

When I first started I really felt like it was this sort of heroic story of citizens rising up to fight against this evil cartel. And then over time, these lines between good and evil that seemed so stark when I first started became ever more blurry. Those who were fighting against evil started to become evil. And as this happened it got more and more interesting. It also got more and more scary. By the end of the film I could be on an operativo, on a mission, and look to my left and look to my right and not know if I was with the cartel or the people fighting against the cartel.

One of the reasons that I wanted to make this film is [that] I was so struck when I first started making it at the suffering of the people of Michoacán, of the people of Mexico that I was filming. [They were] living in a society where institutions had failed, in the face of a very ineffective government that was allowing the cartel to operate with impunity.

[Cartels] controlled almost every aspect of civic life — from the local judicial system to the local police — and extorted people from multinational corporations to tortilla-makers. So a very scary world that they live in. And it's amorphous warfare. There's no sort of safety zone and danger zone. Violence can erupt at any moment, and almost every single person down there is touched by it in some way.

Meth lab cooks in Michoacán, Mexico in a scene from <em>Cartel Land.</em>
/ Courtesy of The Orchard
Courtesy of The Orchard
Meth lab cooks in Michoacán, Mexico in a scene from Cartel Land.

On what the future holds for people in these areas

Unfortunately, the sad reality that we see vividly in this film is the cycle repeating itself. And the cycle is perpetuated by America's voracious appetite for drugs. ... You know, it's basic supply and demand, it's basic economics. As long as there's a demand for drugs here in the States, there'll be a supply of drugs coming from Mexico and South America. And with that the violence and with that all the suffering that we see so vividly in the film.

We've become obsessed with ISIS, we've become obsessed with all these conflicts around the world. But here's this conflict that we're connected to — that we're funding, we're fueling through our consumption of drugs. And so I really wanted to shed light on this with this film.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.