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Inside the Drug Wars: A Conversation with 'Cartel Land' Maker Matthew Heineman

By Corinne Gaston

Editor's note: Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the films that have been honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an Oscar® nomination in the documentary category. You can see Cartel Land on Saturday, February 27 at DocuDay, the IDA's daylong celebration with back-to-back screenings of the nominees at the Writers Guild of America Theater. This article was first published in July, 2015.

Autodefensa member standing guard in Michoacán, Mexico, from CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew Heineman

The drug wars among the handful of cartels in Mexico over the past decade have cost tens of thousands of lives, as the nation south of the border struggles to imagine a world beyond the extraordinary level of violence and brutality that has dominated the landscape. North of the border, Americans have helped fuel the narcotics industry with an ongoing demand and an increasingly sophisticated trafficking network that spans all 50 states.

Into this seemingly endless fray stepped filmmaker Matthew Heineman, whose previous film Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, which he directed with Susan Froemke, covered decidedly less treacherous territory. For Cartel Land, Heineman eschewed the pundits and policy makers, taking a tenacious, ground-level route to gain entry into paramilitary groups on both sides of the border: Autodefensas, a vigilante force combatting the notorious Knights Templar cartel in Michoacán; and the Arizona Border Recon, a faction whose aim is to thwart cartel violence from spilling into the US. 

Cartel Land opens with a nighttime scene of a mobile meth lab in the jungles of Michoacán, where heavily armed men cook the product driving the drug trade and spurring the chaos at the US/Mexican border. This stunning footage foreshadows the cinematic adventure that Heineman brings to the screen in his borderland journey. Along the way, he dodges bullets in a hair-raising shootout and even lingers outside a torture chamber.

The resulting film, for which Heineman earned awards for directing and cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, is a visceral document of the bi-national ramifications of the drug war—and the drug industry. We caught up with Heieman via email.


How did you gain the trust of your subjects, and how did they gain yours?

The key to gaining the trust of my subjects was transparency and time. On both sides of the border, I was very clear that I didn’t have an agenda in making this film —that I wanted to document their stories and the worlds that they inhabited.

But time was really important too. There’s so little money in long-form journalism. There were people covering this story in Mexico, and they would often come in for a day or two or three days. It is really difficult, if not impossible, to tell a layered, complex story in that amount of time. I was fortunate to be there for nine months (one to two weeks a month), and I developed deep relationships and contacts as well as storylines and characters.

Dr. Jose Mireles addressing a crowd in Michoacán, Mexico, from CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew Heineman

What steps did you take to ensure the safety of your team?

Having never filmed in dangerous situations before, we talked to journalists and filmmakers before heading to Mexico, had an amazing local crew with intimate knowledge of the area, wore bullet-proof vests, and took what security precautions we could. But at the end of the day, you can only plan for so much, and most situations were on-the-ground judgment calls.

Cartel Land pushed me into some pretty precarious places. I was in shootouts on the streets of Michoacán and in Breaking Bad-like meth labs in the middle of the dark, desert night. Utilizing small crews or shooting by myself, my goal was to be there to capture in real time each chapter of the ever-evolving and arcing stories, with the camera in the action, not observing it from the outside. It was a wild adventure and a grueling film to make. I ended up with a story I could have never imagined.


What were the challenges of balancing the two narratives—the story in the US and the story in Mexico? The Mexico story is arguably more action-packed than the US story. How did you resolve this?

To me, so much of the film is about what motivates men and women to rise up in arms. At the heart of Cartel Land are the leaders of these two vigilante groups: Tim "Nailer" Foley, an American veteran, the head of a small paramilitary group called Arizona Border Recon, whose goal is to stop Mexico’s drug wars from seeping across our border; and Dr. Jose Mireles, a small-town physician known as "El Doctor," who leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel that has wreaked havoc on the Michoacán region for years.

They are both 55. They both believe that their respective governments have failed them. And they both have “taken the law into their own hands” to fight for what they believe in. Yet, the circumstances are quite different. In Mexico, the violence is visceral and real—80,000+ people have been killed since 2007 and 20,000+ have disappeared since 2007. In Arizona, that violence is a bit more theoretical. You still feel like you’re in a lawless area controlled by the cartels, but the violence isn’t comparable. It’s much more about fear that the drug wars will encroach our borders.

Meth Lab in Michoacán, Mexico, from CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew Heineman

Which stories affected you the most?

The scariest moment for me was not the meth lab or torture chambers or shootouts, but instead, an interview with a young woman who, along with her husband, had been kidnapped. She witnessed her spouse being chopped into pieces and burned to death. To sit in the room and talk to this woman whose body was there, but whose entire soul had been sucked out of her; to look into her eyes and to see the hollowness there; to hear her describe the horrors of what she had witnessed; and to think that we are the same species of human beings that would do that to other people: That stuck with me much more than those “adrenaline moments.”


You’ve said that you expect this documentary to be interpreted in many different ways, but what does this film mean to you and how did it affect your opinion of the violent struggle caused by the cartels?

The more time I spent down there, the more complex the story became. It was partly an ascent of people seeking to fight evil and partly a descent into hell as they took the law into their own hands, with many twists and turns in between. It is about elemental issues of order and chaos, of the desire for law but also of terrifying brutality and lawlessness.

I became even more motivated, almost obsessed, as the lines between good and evil became ever more blurred. The film doesn't offer simple answers and, instead, presents a story that I believe will be interpreted and understood in many different ways.

It is this moral ambiguity that intrigues me, and it emerges naturally in the story and in our characters. For me, it became a timeless story of the conflict between idealism and violence, which has eerie echoes throughout history and across the world today.

In some ways, Cartel Land is a cautionary tale of what happens when men and women take up arms in a lawless society. But I originally thought that this was a very simple story, especially on the Mexican side. Over time, I realized that this story was much more complex and much more gray—that the lines between good and evil were not that clear. I became obsessed with trying to figure out what was really happening, who these guys truly were, where the movement was going, what the endgame was.

Autodefensa members in Michoacán, Mexico, from CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew Heineman

What would you want your audience to take away from the film?

We as Americans have become obsessed by ISIS and frightened by ISIS. But there is a war that is happening in the country to the south of us. Roughly 80,000 people have been killed since 2007. Some 20,000 people have disappeared. And this is a war that we are connecting to. We are feeding it.


Have you shared this film with any of your subjects? If so, what were their responses? Has the film impacted any of their lives?

Some of my subjects have seen it and found it to be a truthful and honest portrait of their experience. One of my main subjects was arrested and imprisoned at the end of the production process and has been in jail ever since. This might be changing very soon, though we can’t be sure. I look forward to having him see it, if that’s possible.


Corinne Gaston is a writer, editor, activist and researcher originally from Pennsylvania. Tom White, editor of Documentary magazine, authored certain sections of this article.