‘Cartel Land’ Filmmaker on Mexican Drug Wars: ‘There’s Danger Around You at All Times’

Sundance Film Festival Cartel Land

Cartel Land” director Matthew Heineman put his life on the line to take viewers into the heart of the drug wars that are ripping Mexico apart.

But his camera doesn’t stop on that side of the Rio Grande. The documentary also focuses on Tim “Nailer” Foley, the head of a paramilitary group in Arizona that polices an often porous border. In Mexico, Heineman focused on Dr. Jose Mireles, a doctor by day and the head of a citizen task force called the Autodefensas that is trying to weaken the stranglehold the cartels have on their daily lives by taking up arms.

In Heineman’s hands, “Cartel Land” paints a portrait of vigilantism that is both galvanizing and deeply troubling, and the lengths to which some brave men and women are willing to go when governments fail in their duty to protect and safeguard their citizens.

Variety spoke with the documentary filmmaker about the dangers he faced in bringing the story to the screen, as he crisscrossed between the United States and Mexico, across meth labs and hideouts, in an effort to make sense of the lawlessness that threatens people in both countries and the drug trade that fuels it. “Cartel Land” will screen at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, having previously earned strong notices at the Sundance Film Festival.

Why did you decide that Foley and Mireles would be your protagonists?

I wanted to create this parallel story about vigilantism on both sides of the border with this shared common enemy — the Mexican drug cartels. There’s obviously big differences in these two different movements and these two different characters, but there are many things that tie them together as well. That dichotomy. That parallelism fascinated me.

My previous film, “Escape Fire,” was a more expansive look at how and why our health-care system is broken. I wanted this to be a more deeply personal and character-driven film, not a survey film or a film with talking heads. I wanted it to be experiential, in which I was embedded with the subject. I ended up getting a lot closer than I thought that I would.

You were on the ground during several shootouts. It seems dangerous, to put it mildly. Were you scared for your safety?

It was frightening, there’s no way to deny that. I’d never had any experience shooting in a war zone. A lot of times I was behind the camera for a lot of those scenes. That had some sort of calming effect. Just focusing on framing, you know composition, that allowed me to slightly calm my nerves when bullets were flying or I was in a meth lab.

Were you ever in a situation where you felt, ‘I’m out of my depth here’?

Many times. Every single minute you’re down there you have your antennas up. There’s danger around you at all times.

We had a security firm that was tracking us with a beacon, so if something bad happened we could press an SOS button and we could be extracted. They’d also know if we got kidnapped, where we got kidnapped from. Every morning we’d have a set of journalists around Mexico that we’d call and tell them what road we were driving on and what towns we were going to so they’d know if we got kidnapped where we’d be. We took as many precautions as we could, but at the end of the day when you’re in a shootout, there’s not much you can do.

When that first shootout happened I definitely thought, “What am I doing here and did I go too far?”

Was it hard to readjust to life outside of Mexico?

It was very hard for me to come home after being in places like that and situations like that and come back to Manhattan. It often took me days to sort of become normal again. It still affects me. It’s still something I think about. I dream about. I have nightmares about. I still worry constantly about the people in the film and the implications of the release of the film on them and on my local crew.

There was one interview, with that young woman whose husband was kidnapped by the cartel and chopped up. Sitting across the table from her and in the same room with her, seeing this woman whose body was next to me but whose soul was ripped out from the inside and whose eyes were so hollow, that interview affected me more than any other experience. Just to think that we’re the same species as human beings that would do that to somebody it messed with me.

You’re looking at two different forms of vigilantism in this picture. What point were you trying to make about people who take the law into their hands?

The thing that provoked me to make the film was what would I do if violence came to my door? What would I do if my sister was raped or my brother was murdered by the cartel or hanged from a bridge? Would I stand up? Would I take up arms? Is vigilantism sustainable? Is it just?

Without spoiling the film, it becomes clear that the Autodefensas are deeply flawed and morally complicated. Did that surprise you?

Originally, I thought I was telling this simple hero/villain story of guys in white shirts fighting against this evil cartel. Slowly over time I realized that the story was much more complicated. That grayness, that complexity, is what drove me to keep going down there to find out the truth of what was happening.

You start to see things that provoke you to wonder. Where are the guns coming from? Where are the bulletproof vests coming from? Where are the armored cars coming from? Who’s funding these people? How are these every day townspeople, farmers, ranchers, businessmen, how are they beating back the cartel?

The whole situation just seemed hopeless. Some people stand up, but the violence continues and the demand for drugs is just as strong. Can anything change?

I’m an eternal optimist. I really wanted to believe that this citizen revolution would succeed and that this experiment would work, but it didn’t. Even if the Autodefensas beat back the cartel, there’s always going to be someone making meth. There’s always going to be somebody in the states consuming that meth. As long as there’s demand here, there will be a supply from down there.

There is some hope. You can’t forget that five years ago, 10 years ago, 30 years ago that people never would have even considered speaking out against the cartel. You’d walk around shrouded in fear. The idea of Jose Manuel Mireles standing in the middle of town speaking to 5,000 people and saying to the head of the cartel, ‘I’m going to come after you’ — no one ever dreamed of doing that.

Right after we submitted to Sundance, 43 students were killed in Guerrero, Mexico, just south of where we filmed. That led to hundreds of thousands of people marching through Mexico City in protest. There’s a bit of a Mexican Spring happening. People are protesting angrily about the collusion between the cartels and the government, as well as the absolute lack of justice in Mexico. The movement in the film speaks to that anger and the impatience and the feeling that the status quo cannot continue.

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  1. dgarzaftw says:

    Free Dr. Mireles!

  2. Zebu says:

    Dr. Mireles. Stupid autocorrect

  3. Zebu says:

    No mention in any of these reviews that Dr. morale us has been locked up since these events…

  4. matt says:

    this film is very good but it shows things that we already know and there is no suprises to what is said in the documentary.

    i have a couple of friends who are making a documentary that covers the goverment side of the drug war in mexico and the u.s. we were able to penetrate into how goverment officials from both sides collabrate with top drug bosses..given that a friend of a friend is a top goverment official we were able to hang out with hidden cameras and capture the true business of drugs and how it has consumed top american officials to be just like their mexican counterpart.. we were able to shadow the dealer who import a specific load of drugs into the US that traveled directly into the hands of the hollywood elite. the film will show the specific areas, faces, parties, offices, and homes where the product was consumed.

  5. “Competing Mexican drug cartels are destroying each other … and that’s where ‘Warrior’ begins …”

    … with Mexican drug lord, Carlos Eldoran (Ron Joseph, “Navy Seals”, “Barfly”, “Scarface”, “Born in East L. A.”) ruthlessly executing an informer, then bribing the government’s new anti-drug czar, General Figueroa (Hector Mercado, “Delta Force 2”), to conspire with him in the perfect partnership … using the military to establish a drug traffic monopoly by building a secure operation deep in the remote jungles of Costa Azul.

    Unknowingly … the General is about to invade the quiet and peaceful enclave of the Native American Esselen Indian Tribe who are hiding deep in the Mexican jungle … and meet an opposing force he could never imagine … the supernatural son of a divine force with magical powers: Dreadmon (Vincent Klyn, “Cyborg”, “Point Break”), who, separated from his biological parents at birth and having discovered that he has been adopted by the Chief of the Tribe, has set off on a quest to find the secrets of his true identity. Dreadmon must use his magical powers only for good or lose his powers and feed the strength of the evil witch Mootin … the supernatural daughter of the divine force … if he misuses his powers.

    As General Figueroa’s soldiers clear the jungle to build their drug manufacturing and distribution center, they invade the tranquil existence of the Esselen. Dreadmon, witnesses the execution of his adoptive father in cold blood and, contrary to the “way” he has been taught, reacts in anger and unleashes a lethal charge of electricity and fire … driving off the soldiers … but drawing to him the evil Mootin … who is re-ignited with the desire to seek him out and destroy him.

    After an argument with his “brothers” about whether to flee or fight the soldiers, Dreadmon leaves the exotic jungle behind and enters the concrete jungle of Puerto Vallarta … to seek help from the local “policia”. The local police captain is a cartel puppet who tells Eldoran that Dreadmon is seeking help to defeat the slave raiders who have killed his father. And when Dreadmon is arrested after using his supernatural powers in a bar fight, the cartel’s hit man (Matt Gallini, “End of Days,” “Crimson Tide”, “Rudy”) bails him out and takes him to meet Eldoran, who cons Dreadmon into using his powers to destroy competing drug cartels.

    To see through Eldoran’s deception and become the Warrior he must become to save his adopted homeland, Dreadmon must undergo an agonizing inner battle, which calls forth his own inner spirit in the form of the Midnight Sun (international rap star recording artist “Yukmouth of the Luniz”). Only when Dreadmon surrenders to the truth does he gain the strength he needs to defeat the treacherous Eldoran drug cartel … and face the dreaded Mootin in spectacular climactic combat.

    “Warrior” is a richly photographed action/adventure fantasy, filmed on location in the exotic jungles of Costa Azul and the urban grit of Puerto Vallarta in the State of Jalisco, Mexico, which matches mythological powers against modern day corruption in a unique portrayal of the classic confrontation between “good and evil”.


  6. James jansen says:

    Living in Mexico is like walking in honey in an uncleaned bathroom. My children were threatened
    by kidnappers. We left 48 hours later under armed guard. It was leaving a business and a house and good friends. Those who could left. Those who couldn’t live in fear and insecurity. Viva Mexico!

  7. J.E. Vizzusi says:

    “Personally I have been on Holiday in Mexico as well as with crew on two mid-size USA based Features and have stayed in several states from the East Coast to the West Coast as well as Baja CA. and I have never seen even a gun for the exception of the Federales whom have always been a considerable help.” Generally speaking the Mexican peoples have been wonderful.

  8. Sam says:

    Matt and crew- this film affected me profoundly, and brought me a new awareness of how intimate a documentary can be. It’s an incomparable account of humanity and inhumanity.

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