Matthew Heineman’s documentary “Cartel Land” plays, at least at first, like a cowboy movie writ large and made profound by the town bandit: a vicious and violent drug making and smuggling cartel. But this story has two would-be heroes on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border: Tim “Nailer Foley,” an American veteran-turned-paramilitary who heads the Arizona Border Recon and Dr. Jose Mireles, head of the Autodefensas, a guerilla-vigilante anti-cartel group in Michoacán, Mexico. Notably absent from every shot is Heineman himself, who became embedded with with the two groups and whose footage provides a stark and immersive look at life in the battlefield in the war on drugs.
“Cartel Land” premiered at Sundance and will be released in theaters on July 3 by The Orchard. In town for screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival, Heineman sat down with Indiewire to discuss power, devastation, corruption, and the harrowing challenging of capturing the dangerous life of a vigilante.
For people who haven’t seen the movie or don’t know much about the issue, can you explain what a cartel is?
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Cartels come in many shapes and sizes, but traditionally cartels — at least in the world I inhabited in “Cartel Land” — are criminal organizations that traffic drugs, as well as [engage in] other forms of illicit activity to make money.
Jumping to the end of the film: one of the men in the cartel says that it’s an endless cycle. His operation could be wiped out and people would buy the drugs from somewhere else. That’s a pretty definitive statement. Do you believe it?
I originally thought I was telling a very simple hero/villain story about guys in white shirts fighting against guys in black hats. Over time, I realized that this story was much more complicated, and it was this complexity that drove me to try to really understand what was happening and intrigued me as a filmmaker and, obviously, put me in some very risky situations.
But ultimately, I think there is a cyclical nature to this “war on drugs.” I’m not a business professor, but I know basic economics of supply and demand. As long as there’s a demand up here in the States, there’ll be a supply of drugs from Mexico or from other places in South America, and that’s not going to stop.
How did your friends and family react to you putting yourself into some of the dicier situations?
It was a really difficult film to make. Personally, professionally, intellectually, psychologically. I’m not a war reporter; I’ve never been in situations like this before. I almost became obsessed by the story, obsessed with trying to find out the truth, what was really happening. In doing so, I found myself in really dicey situations, as you said. Shoot-outs, meth labs, torture cells. My family was not happy about it. My girlfriend was not happy about it.
I originally started making the film in Arizona, and it was going to be about the Arizona vigilantes, and then my dad actually sent me an article about the Autodefensas in Michoacán in Mexico, and the minute I read it I knew I wanted to tell this parallel narrative of these two vigilante groups on both sides of the border, fighting the “same common enemy.” I think it took a long time for my mom to start talking to my dad again…
After he sparked the idea.
Sparked the idea, yeah. My mom’s actually a journalist, [she] covers science and environmental issues. I think she understands what I did, but no one was really happy about what I was doing.
You were there as the story of the Autodefensas was unfolding. They were gaining all of this momentum and you were right there tracking it. How did you know it was time to come home?
One of the hardest things in documentary filmmaking is knowing when to stop. Often, you stop when you get that final scene. You’re constantly seeking out that final scene…once I got that I knew that I had a full arc to the story.
Are you screening the film in Mexico?
We are, and it’s something that we’re really excited about. I’m excited to see how American audiences react, but I fell in love with Mexico, I fell in love with the country, I fell in love with the people. The film means an enormous amount to me, and to see how people there react, I am very much looking forward to [that].
The few people we have been able to screen the film for have really responded to it. I think this is a film [the U.S.] really needs to see, and hopefully it will shake things up and show a world that you hear about and read about but don’t necessarily see. That was my goal: to get access to this world that you see in the headlines but you don’t necessarily viscerally feel or experience.
Going back, I understand how you went from Arizona to Mexico, but what originally made you interested in the border in Arizona?
I had just finished…”Escape Fire,” and I was riding on the subway in New York and read this Rolling Stone article called “Border of Madness” by Damon Tabor, and the minute I read it I was like [snaps fingers]! It was this crazy world I knew nothing about. I knew very little about the border, I knew very little about the war on drugs, I knew very little about vigilantism. These were all things that interested me and excited me. [The article] was a very vivid depiction of this world. The minute I read it, I wanted to make this film. I reached out to [Tabor] and we started getting together and talking about it, and then he eventually introduced me to Tim “Nailer” Foley, who is the protagonist in Arizona, and it took several months to gain access to him, and then I was down there filming.
What sense did you get from the civilians who live in the towns where these conflicts broke out?
The crazy thing about Arizona is that you feel like you’re not in the United States, that you’re sort of in this other-worldly place where it is cartel land. You look up on the hilltops and there are cartel scouts, ushering drugs through the valley. The cartels now control both the human and drug trafficking into the United States. It used to be two different industries, drug trafficking and human trafficking; cartels now control everything. So you do feel like you’re in this sort of wild west area. But you drive a hundred miles away and you’re in Phoenix or Tucson and you feel away from it all. Also, in Arizona, there’s not gunfights in the streets, there’s not a “war” going on. [Conflict at the border] is something we don’t necessarily know is happening, but it’s happening every day.
In Mexico, it’s in their face, the violence. It’s so real, it’s something they live with on a daily basis. There wasn’t one person I met who wasn’t affected by cartel violence. Since the “war on drugs” began in 2007, 80,000-plus people have been killed, 20,000-plus people have disappeared…These are crazy numbers. You think about [the numbers of the people killed by] 9/11, ISIS…this is a war we are a part of that we are turning a blind eye to. It’s crazy because it’s sort of amorphous warfare. You could have a shoot-out in the middle of the street one day, and that night people are out having tacos and drinking beers. They’ve lived and grown to be resilient and accepting of this violence, and that’s what’s so scary and so sad. At any moment, the tranquility can stop. They often find people hanging from bridges, mass graves…it is a very frightening place to be, especially in Michoacán.
For decades, people sort of walked around shrouded in fear, and the idea of stepping up and fighting back against the cartel was unheard of. So it’s important to recognize that when the Autodefensas first rose up, it was this very novel idea — and this crazy idea — of everyday citizens — farmers, ranchers, doctors — rising up to fight back against this evil entity that for many years had enacted horrific violence against their families… Obviously, the film spirals into a complex and dark place, but I think it’s very important to acknowledge that the origin of the Autodefensas movement was a very beautiful, very pure idea of citizens who had no government to turn to, who lived in a lawless society, who had no choice but to rise up and take the law into their own hands. I think the citizens, the people in the pueblos and the cities of Michoacán, unless they’re part of the cartel, were incredibly grateful for what was happening, at least in the beginning.
So, you were inspired by these two pieces of journalism, the one about Arizona and the one about this region in Mexico. What changed for you from the original inspiration to tell the story? Is it the film you thought you were going to make?
I by no means made the story I thought I was going to make. That’s why it was such a difficult film to make, because it was constantly changing. Every week the story changed. Every month, the story changed. So we were constantly re-evaluating what is the story. Where is the arc? Where is this going? Where are my main characters going? But it was a really exciting way to make a film. You end up with a story you didn’t expect and you didn’t start out making. It’s sort of cliche advice, but a mentor of mine in the film world once said, “if you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way,” and that maxim was totally true for “Cartel Land.”
Would you make a film like this again?
I want to keep making immersive films, verité films, about interesting characters. At this point I’m not sure if I want to be in a war zone again. A “war zone.” We’ll see.
To answer an earlier question, one of the scariest parts about making this film was that I really didn’t know who I was with, if I was with the good guys or the bad guys. That made it particularly frightening. You just really didn’t know who you were with.
Was it frightening on the physical level of, “are they going to turn on me?,” or an intellect level of, “oh no, am I telling the bad guys’ story?”
Both. Trying to understand the story and who is “good” and who is “bad” was difficult as a filmmaker and journalist. But physically, being in the back of a car with a group of people who have unknown motivations or unknown origins was scary.
I would be terrified.
I think one of the scariest moments for me was, despite all the gun battles and the torture and all that stuff, a moment in the film where I’m interviewing a women who describes being kidnapped by the Templars, the cartel in Michoacán. [She] describes how her husband was also kidnapped, how her husband was almost burned to death and dismembered right in front of her, and the joy which the cartel members exhibited while doing this, laughing and joking. The hollowness in her eyes, and the way in which there’s a person sitting right in front of me, but her soul had been sucked out of her, that was very disturbing. To think that we’re the same species of human beings that would do that to other people was very disturbing, psychologically. Very difficult for me to grasp and stayed with me that day, that night, that week, that month…up to today. It’s something I think about.