The Blurry Lines of Cartel Land

Matthew Heineman examines the ugly realities of drugs on either side of the U.S./Mexican border

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Depending on how you look at him, Matthew Heineman is either brave to a T or a madcap with a death wish. The very notion of willfully exposing oneself to the routinely barbaric activities of Mexican drug cartels, both south of and along the U.S./Mexico border, sounds completely ludicrous: Most Americans are lucky enough to live far beyond the reach of that conflict (though as films like 2013’s Narco Cultura suggest, maybe we’re not quite as removed as we like to think). Why would anybody break the distance separating them from the atrocities of cartel violence?

Because caught in the cartel wars’ fracas, there are deeply complex, achingly human stories that need to be told, and someone’s gotta tell them. Heineman’s film, Cartel Land, documents the ugly realities of how the cartels operate from a nation-spanning lens: He devotes his attentions to two separate vigilante groups combating the cartels both at home, where army veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley’s Arizona Border Recon group patrols the region’s mountains for cartel scouts, and in the Mexican state of Michoacán, where the self-defense organization Grupos de Autodefensas, headed by José Manuel Mireles, lead a homegrown campaign against cartels.

Sounds like the plot summary to a Hollywood crime drama, but Heineman’s film is the real deal, shaded with nuances that color Cartel Land with brush strokes of gray. We got the chance to chat with Heineman recently about the risks he took to make his movie, the complexities of his subjects, and the impact vigilante efforts can make on cartel operations.

Paste: So, I’m in a bit of a state of shock just having watched the movie today…
Matthew Heineman: [laughs] Oh yeah?

Paste: I’m so curious—what compelled you to embed yourself on both sides of the conflict the way you did here? That, to me, is just kind of mind-blowing, that you’d put yourself in that kind of situation willingly.
Heineman: Yeah, so I actually read a Rolling Stone article about the Arizona side of the conflict. The minute I read it, I was just fascinated by this world that I knew nothing about. I knew very little about the border, the drug war, about vigilantism, and it just fascinated me. So I spent several months gaining access to [Tim “Nailer” Foley] and his guys, and then filmed there for several months as well. Then, my father actually sent me an article about the Autodefensas in Michoacán, and I right then I knew I wanted to create this sort of parallel narrative of vigilantes on both sides of the border, fighting “the same common enemy,” and then set about gaining access to that side of the story.

I think for me, one of the things that really drove me in making this film was trying to understand, “What would I do if violence came knocking on my front door? What would I do if my sister was raped, and my brother was hanging from a bridge?” Would I take up arms? Would I fight violence with violence? Is that just, is it right, is vigilantism sustainable? These are all questions that drove me to really make this film.

Paste: I definitely identify with that question. We’re asked it point blank by [Dr. José Mireles]. I think the other big question for me in the film is, “Who do you trust?”—particularly toward the end, with the fracturing of the Autodefensas, between Mireles, Papa Smurf, and other people. Was that something that also cropped up in your mind, or did it wind up seeping into the film organically?
Heineman: First of all, that was one of the scariest parts about making this film, that you truly didn’t know if you were with the good guys or the bad guys. You know, originally, I started making this thinking that I was telling this very simple hero/villain story of guys in white shirts fighting guys in black hats, and very quickly I realized that the story was much more complex, much more nuanced, and that there’s a much blurrier line between good and evil. That complexity is what really fascinated me. That’s what drove me. I really almost became obsessed by this story, and trying to find out what was really happening, who these guys really were. But I had absolutely no idea where the story was going when I started, and it was only over time that the film evolved, or devolved, depending on how you’re looking at it.

Paste: Do you think we can believe in complicated heroes? I mean, the Doctor seems sort of like the epitome of “good guy” when we first meet, and then we learn he’s more complicated than that as the film goes on. Then there are the complications of Nailer as well. Is it possible for us to put our trust into these kinds of people or at least find them compelling?
Heineman: Of course! You know, to me, that’s exactly the type of film that I wanted to make. I didn’t want to create a sort of whitewashed portrait of these men. I mean, on a film level, this is a film about the conflict between idealism and violence, and what sort of drives men and women to take up arms, and the motivations that we all have. Since in many ways the film is a character portrait of these two men, the leader of these two groups, I really wanted to show the complexity of who they are, the complexity of their motivations, the complexity of their characters. That’s what fascinated me. I think a lot of narrative films and TV shows are able to create these complex characters, but often in docs you find a much more simplified take on somebody, and I really wanted to avoid that with this film.

Paste: I think the film captures just how complex they both are very well. You said you started off shooting in Arizona, correct?
Heineman: Mmhmm!

Paste: Did you ever think, once you’d started shooting in Mexico, of maybe tuning your focus down to just one of them? Did you ever feel like you maybe would be better serving the movie by making it about Nailer, or making it about the Doctor?
Heineman: I always knew I wanted to create this parallel narrative, this parallel story, and really this character-driven story about these two men. At its heart, it’s about Nailer and the Doctor: They’re both 55 years old, they both believe that the government has failed them, they both have taken “the law into their own hands,” in the effort to fight against evil. And although those are all the similarities, there are stark differences in the two stories. In Mexico, the violence is visceral. The violence [is] real. I mean, 80 thousand plus people killed since 2007, 20 thousand plus people disappeared. The violence and the corruption is unimaginable, whereas in Arizona obviously we’re not seeing that level of violence. It’s much more theoretical. It’s much more of a fear that this violence will seep across our border.

But you do feel in both places that you are in a lawless area that’s controlled by the cartels. Even in Arizona, there is a sense that you’re very far from government institutions, and you really are in “cartel land.” You look on the mountaintops and there are cartel scouts watching you. They’re shepherding drugs, pushing drugs through the valley. You can hear them talking about you as you drive below them. So even there, you feel like you’re in an area that’s controlled by the cartels.

Paste: The funny thing about the lawlessness, to me, is that even when the law does intervene, it doesn’t really feel like it. They’re either getting chased off or, from my perspective, being otherwise ineffectual. In the face of that, how effective do you think the Autodefensas’ or Nailer’s efforts really are?
Heineman: In what sense? In the long term, in the short term?

Paste: Are they really making a difference in combating the cartels? Watching them, I get this sense, particularly in the coda of the film, that fighting the cartels feels a lot like ice skating uphill. It feels like the cartels will always win. Are these people making short-term gains or long-term gains against them?
Heineman: I mean, each side of the border has its own answer to that question. In Mexico, yeah, the Autodefensas rose up because they were living under the yoke of the cartel. For years, the Knights Templar had really controlled the state of Michoacán. They were extorting people, from the local tortilla makers to multinational corporations, and beheading or killing anybody that got in their way. So after years of enduring this violence and fear, citizens rose up to fight back against it. It was sort of this crazy idea, this crazy concept of citizens rising up and fighting against the cartels. At first, they were operating within their towns, and trying to expel the cartels out of their individual towns, and then they started expanding across the state. In many ways they did dismantle the Knights Templar cartel.

But I think what we see in the film is that within that vacuum of power, somebody will always will it, and that’s the disheartening part of the story, that there will always be a need for drugs to move northwards. There will always be a demand, and there will always be a need for that supply, and it just so happens that Michoacán is a very rich state, agriculturally and in terms of drugs as well. Most of the drugs that we consume in the U.S.—excuse me, most of the meth that we consume in the U.S. comes from Michoacán. And so, even though the Autodefensas got rid of the Knights Templar, somebody needed to take over that business, and obviously in the end of the film… I don’t know how to say this without giving away the end of the film, but there’s a vacuum of power and it needs to be filled.

Paste: Gotcha. Right, yeah, and I think maybe that’s the part that stuck with me, and I agree—not to give away the end of the film, but I feel like when meth cooks have that kind of down-to-earth perspective, which might be a weird way to put it, you know that something is wrong. They have the correct long view of how this conflict will continue.
Heineman: Mmhmm.

Paste: I really liked that you kept on revisiting the border fence as an image, because we have two sides to the story here, the Arizona side and the Mexico side. What did that recurring image mean to you throughout the film?
Heineman: Yeah, the fence means many things. As Nailer says, the first time that we float over the border of the film, he says, “There’s an imaginary line out there between right and wrong, between good and evil. I believe what I am doing is good, and I believe what I’m standing up against is evil.” And I think that motif, that idea, that theme is something that we see play out throughout the film, and you’re constantly as an audience member, hopefully, sort of wondering what side of this line you’re on, whether you’re on the side of good or evil, and the blurriness between those two. So using the fence as a sort of metaphor for that was really important to me. It also shows the sort of fragility and the complex divide between the U.S. and Mexico, the stark differences that exist between Nailer and the Doctor, as well as their similarities. We share that border both figuratively and literally between these two stories, but the border also divides the two stories. And even as we see in the beginning, you can walk right around that fence. That fence is penetrable.

I’m speaking in lofty language, I don’t know if that makes sense.

Paste: No, that makes total sense. Obviously, at times throughout shooting you were in pretty great danger. Would you ever think about doing something like this, inserting yourself into a situation like this again?
Heineman: It’s really hard for me to answer that question. I’d never been in a war zone before, I’d never shot in conditions like this, I never for the life of me could have imagined that I’d be in the middle of shootouts or in the middle of the dark desert night in a meth lab. I never really expected that I’d get in as deep as I got in with this story. I sort of became obsessed with trying to get to the bottom of what was happening, and that led me to some pretty dangerous places.

But I will say though, that despite all these moments in the film, for me the most impactful was the interview I did with the young woman whose husband was hacked into pieces in front of her by the cartel. To sit next to her and to see her, to see this human being whose body was there but whose whole soul had been sucked out of her, to see her hollow eyes and to hear her describe the horrors of what happened to her and her husband, and to think that we are the same species that does that to other human beings…it was unimaginable to me, and that really stuck with me more than anything.

Paste: That’s kind of the harrowing breakpoint of the entire movie. That’s sobering.
Heineman: We are lucky, lucky people.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.