Media Frenzy Over Sean Penn’s El Chapo Interview Obscures Brutality

Matthew Heineman Cartel Land
Courtesy of Matthew Heineman

The media circus surrounding the prison escape and recapture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, a cunning peasant farmer-turned billionaire drug lord of the famed Sinaloa Cartel, has captivated the world and, in many instances, glorified a vicious killer. Yet the salacious details of El Chapo’s story, including his secret jungle meeting with a famous Hollywood actor, threaten to distract us from the grim reality of the bigger picture – America’s massive demand for illicit drugs, the utter failure and corruption of government institutions, and the long time suffering of the Mexican people.

I saw this complex reality vividly when shooting my documentary “Cartel Land” in the Mexican state of Michoacán. I was embedded on and off for nine months with the Autodefensas, a group of vigilantes who fought to take back their endangered communities from another fearsome cartel, the Knights Templar, after the government had failed to protect their families and communities. There were many hair-raising moments: I found myself in the middle of shootouts between the cartel and the Autodefensas, in meth labs in the dark desert night, in torture chambers I never could have imagined.

Yet what frightened me most were not these adrenaline-filled moments but rather the barbarism the cartel inflicted on its innocent victims. These are the moments that have stuck with me most, clouding my dreams and shaking my faith in humanity to the core.

In one town, a mass grave of bodies is discovered. I am with their relatives in the morgue as they identify their remains (or attempt to). I am with them in the graveyard, a cacophonous chorus of wailing and sobbing filling the air, as caskets are lowered into a gaping hole in the ground. In total, 15 people have been killed, 13 from the same family. Ana (a relative whose identity has been changed for her safety) reads their names to me one by one – an homage to the 100,000 people killed in the Mexican drug wars since 2007 and the 25,000 disappeared. These victims were lime workers (likely supplying the limes that you’ve enjoyed in a bar somewhere), killed because their boss failed to pay the extortion tax demanded by the cartel. Tears streaming down her face, Ana bluntly states, “They were innocent: Teenagers. Children. And the babies – They grabbed them by their tiny feet and smashed them against the rocks. Then they tossed them in the well.”

Later, I meet a young woman named Milagros, who describes being kidnapped by the cartel: “First, they burned my husband with a blowtorch while he was alive. And after that they came in with four more people. And they killed them one by one. They cut their heads, their hands, their legs, everything into pieces.” Chaneque and Caballo, the cartel hit men in charge of this killing machine, said her punishment was to live with “what I had witnessed… it would make me crazy and suffer all of my life.” And, in their utterly sadistic way, the hitmen succeeded.

I’ll never forget her deep, hollow eyes, sunken as if that is where the cartel had sucked out her soul. I will also never forget seeing Chaneque and Caballo in a shootout that I filmed as the Autodefensas raided a warehouse where they were hiding. This pair of sicarios was not what I expected: they appeared surprisingly “normal” looking – similar to words Sean Penn used to describe El Chapo after he dined with him on a mountaintop hideaway.

In much different circumstances, I was with the Autodefensas as they stormed a mountaintop bungalow in search of Knights Templar cartel boss El Chayo (aka El Mas Loco), missing him by a matter of minutes. The setting was also similarly ordinary with women and children running around, food being cooked and served. Inside his bedroom, there was a kama sutra couch, a picture of Che on the wall, and a collection of DVDs ranging from a documentary on CIA interrogation techniques to “Silver Linings Playbook.”

But the view from cartel leaders’ mountaintop bungalows is much different than the view on the ground. On the ground, there are politicians that are bribed, army units that are infiltrated, turf wars fought on city streets, kidnappings, extortions and communities beset by fear of a corrupt government that has failed to protect them. This is the reality in much of Mexico: a vicious cycle of violence and an endless stream of narcotics flowing northward to feed America’s voracious appetite for illicit drugs.

After months of attempts, I was able to get into a meth lab on our final shoot. The head chef (who has since, allegedly, been killed by his own men) made this point quite clearly: “You can’t stop the cartel, no matter what you do. It’s either Michoacán cooks it, Sinaloa cooks it, Guerrero cooks it. It’s just never gonna stop. Period. It’s just a never-ending story.”

None of this will change with the capture of a single powerful drug lord, no matter how much publicity he gets.

Matthew Heineman is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker based in New York. His latest film “Cartel Land” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where Heineman won the Best Director Award and Special Jury Prize for Cinematography. It was recently nominated for Best Documentary at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the BAFTA’s and Oscar-shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature.