Risking his life to chart the struggle against Mexico’s ruthless drug cartels, filmmaker Matthew Heineman spent over a year embedded with activists on either side of the US border. Cartel Land documents the efforts of folk hero ‘El Doctor’ (Jose Mireles) and his citizen task force the Autodefensas as they seek to bring peace to the cities of the state of Michoacan. Meanwhile, in Arizona, self-styled vigilante Tim ‘Nailer’ Foley and his Border Recon crew take the law into their own hands to stem the tide of drug trafficking onto American soil.

Heineman talked to HeyUGuys about the dangers of telling this disturbing story and his hopes for the future of those caught in the crossfire of the drug wars.

What inspired you to tell this complicated story?

I was in New York and had just finished my last film, which was about healthcare in the US (Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare), when I read a story about the Arizona vigilantes in Rolling Stone called ‘Border Madness’. I knew nothing about the drug wars in Central America but it was a world that fascinated me. So I spent several months speaking with Nailer (Arizona Border Recon head honcho Tim Foley) and gaining his trust before we started filming in the summer of 2013. I was a few months into the project when my father called me and told me about the Autodefensas (a citizen task force fighting against the drug cartels and led by the charismatic Dr. Jose Mireles). I knew right then that I wanted to paint a parallel story about vigilantism on both sides of the border.

Did any of your previous projects prepare you for the intensity of this one?

No. I’m not a war reporter and I’d never been in any situations like this before but this film led me into some pretty wild scenes… Shootouts between the vigilantes and the cartels, places of torture, meth labs… That’s where the story took me. It was quite a terrifying film to make.

Given the inherent dangers of your behind enemy lines approach what was the best advice you received before you began filming?

An old journalist said to me that if you’ve got a long life ahead of you it’s not worth dying for the story and the most practical piece of advice was to make sure I was on the winning side of a shootout! But seriously though, I did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of journalists with experience in these areas so I could evaluate the dangers. But at the end of the day so much of it is instinctual and surrounding yourself with people who know the area you’re in. In my local crew the cameraman and producer would know which roads were okay to drive on and which hostels were safe to stay at. But when you end up in the middle of a shootout there’s not much anybody can do for you…

How did you prepare for your time embedded with Nailer and the Autodefensas? Did you learn how to handle a weapon yourself?

No I never carried a weapon. You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight! Also, carrying a gun or having a bodyguard wouldn’t have worked because you only get access like this if you can develop trust with your subjects. When I would film the Autodefensas going out on their missions they would ask me where my gun was but I would joke with them that the camera was my gun. They had a good chuckle at that.

How did you eventually make contact with their leader Jose Mireles?

I read a profile of ‘El Doctor’ and knew I wanted to meet him. I talked to the writer of that piece and asked her what he was like as a person and she told me he was the single most compelling man she’d ever been around. As a filmmaker those are nice words to hear. She connected me with him and the next day I was speaking with Mireles and being invited down to Mexico… Two weeks later and filming began. I originally thought I’d be down their for a week or two to get enough footage to create the parallel between the vigilante groups on both sides of the border… But I ended up filming two weeks a month for nine months. That amount of time enabled me to develop a rapport with the people I was filming which led to the storylines and character arcs of Cartel Land allowing me to achieve some intimate moments. These people were risking their life to fight for what they believed in and I was risking my life and the lives of my small crew to tell that story. There was a level of respect that came with that and this helped me get access where others had failed.

In the film you highlight the infiltration of the 20,000 strong Autodefensas by the cartels themselves and the emerging power of the group to do both good and bad in the Michoacan communities it was set up to protect. Did you ever feel out of your depth or did the rapport between you and your subjects make you feel safer?

Not really much safer because as time passed other things were happening. At first it seemed like a very simple heroes and villains story… Over time the lines between good and evil became ever more blurry. That grey area made it much more dangerous to shoot in because you didn’t really know who you were with. On a mission with the Autodefensas it was hard to distinguish if these were the good guys or the bad guys. Even though I became more comfortable with the process the situation on the ground became more dangerous. At the end of the film Mireles has to go into hiding, kicked out of his own movement he’s alone and being hunted by the government, former Autodefensas member and the cartels. Simultaneously we’re there with former rebels now putting on a government uniform so it was a very complicated world to navigate.

Was there ever a moment when you feared for your life?

Many. I learned the minute you start feeling ‘too’ comfortable is when you start making bad decisions. The key is too constantly operate with your antenna up at all times even in the most mundane situations just driving in the car with Mireles. That’s what’s so sad and so scary for the citizens of Michoacan because violence can erupt at any moment. It’s really amorphous warfare… In most warfare there’s a line, then a safety zone and a danger zone. But here it’s so unpredictable… There have been 80,000 people killed since 2007 and more than 20,000 who have disappeared during that time. Citizens live with that fear that maybe today is the day a group of masked men will arrive at their doorstep and take somebody away.

cartel landWhat was the most difficult moment to shoot?

There’s a complicated sequence in the film where I’m in the car with Mireles and we get shot at, so we go on this witch-hunt through town looking for the culprit. They end up finding this guy who happened to be driving the same coloured car as the one the shots were fired from. It’s a very dramatic scene where the guy is taken away from his family and his daughter is crying. Many people in Mexico have lived through a moment like that seeing a family member stripped away from them by an armed group. It was particularly disturbing to be a few feet away while someone is being interrogated at gunpoint. As a human being, obviously you wanna reach out and stop it or say something but not only would that be downright dangerous and journalistically wrong, to cross the line and become a participant or influence what’s happening, my job was purely to document and bear witness.

What kept you going? As the story unravelled what compelled you to continue?

There was a huge responsibility to show what was happening and highlight the struggles of ordinary people by putting myself in that situation to capture the torture that ensued. I’d heard the stories and then I could literally hear the torturing happening so it was really important for me to be able to show that because it was part of the truth of what was going on. If I’d not shown that I would not have been doing my job as a filmmaker and as a journalist.

In the end was it always a losing battle for someone like Dr. Mireles to eradicate corruption without his own organization falling prey to the Cartels and others hungry for power? What is the legacy of his work?

The negative legacy of the Autodefensas is that the unfortunate reality of their story is that it just highlights the cyclical nature of the violence and the corruption. And in the end the Autodefensas, the cartels and the government are all one. There’s a scene in my film where you see a guy running a meth lab but he’s wearing a government uniform. That’s deeply emblematic of the problem. Unfortunately the cycle repeats itself and the government essentially legalizes the formation of a new cartel with the Rural Defense Corps, then the violence and kidnappings continue. Even in the last few weeks a number of revenge killings of former Autodefensas leaders have been carried out so it’s still a scary environment for citizens who get caught in the crossfire.

What did you see that warmed your heart?

It’s important to remember that not everyone’s corrupt. The positive legacy has been that citizens have risen up to fight back against the cartels to say they’re not gonna take this anymore. The very idea of people standing up in their town squares and speaking out against the horrors was virtually unheard of in Mexico.
Just before the film made its debut at Sundance we saw the story of 43 students who were kidnapped and murdered in the state of Guerrero just south of Michoacan make headlines around the world. The local mayor had ordered the arrest of the students and then the police handed them over to the cartels who incinerated them into ashes… It’s a horrific story but it also unified hundreds of thousands of people who marched through the streets of Mexico City saying we’re not gonna take this anymore.

What has the reaction to the film been like from Mexican audiences? What do you hope they will take away from the experience?

It was really emotional for me to go down there and experience the reaction at screenings. It was extraordinarily emotional for them too. My hope was that it would generate a really important discussion, and it has. One of my goals was to go beyond the headlines and, in many ways, the glorification of this violence in TV shows and Hollywood movies and instead show the reality of what’s happening on the ground and how it’s affecting ordinary people and their response. Even in Mexico, where they’re super saturated with this stuff, we were able to show a world people had never really seen up close and personal before.

What did Nailer think of the film?

I think he was happy he took part in it and felt it was an honest representation of what was happening, his character and the complexities of his group. (The film shows the vast stretch of the US border in Arizona almost impossible to police effectively and stop the cartel’s drug mules).

What have you discovered about yourself as a filmmaker?

I’ve learned that I want to keep making films like this about people going on dramatic journeys, so I’m keen to live alongside people again to watch a story evolve. Artistically another film like Cartel Land is where I want to be going with my career.

Who has inspired you and helped you the most during the making of this film?

I’ve been very lucky to have the help of several people who’ve served as mentors to me including John Hoffman at HBO and Susan Froemke who I directed my last film with. But it was actually Albert Maysles, who made a big impression on me when I heard him speak once. He said: “If you end up with the story you started with then you weren’t listening along the way.” That’s not just good advice for filmmaking but for life itself. I adhered to this everyday making Cartel Land as the story was constantly shifting and evolving. Being open to the story changing and not bringing my own agenda was key. It was important not to try and put these characters and this story in a neat little box but to revel in the nuances of humanity.

Cartel Land is out in cinemas now – you can read our review here.