New documentary offers close-up view of violent cartels

Cartel wars have been raging for years now in Mexico, with civilians getting caught in the crossfire. To document the struggle against these cartels, Matthew Heineman embedded with two vigilante groups. He joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss his new documentary, “Cartel Land.”

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    Finally tonight: violence and suffering in Mexico's drug wars captured in close-up detail.

    Jeffrey Brown has our look.


    It's the stuff of the nightly news, the violent drug wars in Mexico and along the U.S. border. But the documentary "Cartel Land," which won awards at the Sundance Film Festival for directing and cinematography, takes the viewer along on a sometimes wild and scary ride at ground level.

    Filmmaker Matthew Heineman embedded himself with meth cooks, self-appointed lawmen and others. We spoke recently at the AFI Docs Festival in Washington.

    MATTHEW HEINEMAN, Director, "Cartel Land": For me, there's been a lot of really wonderful documentaries, news stories, articles about the drug war, about policy, about this issue. And I really wanted to put myself on the ground in the middle of it.

    I wanted to get into places that people hadn't seen before. I'm not a war reporter. I have never been in situations like this before.


    You never have?




    That's exactly the kind of situation Heineman found himself in. He tells his story through the lens of two modern-day vigilante groups, Mexicans in the state of Michoacan led by the charismatic Dr. Jose Mireles, and a paramilitary group of Americans patrolling the U.S. border led by Tim Foley of Arizona.


    On some level, it's a character-driven film about these two men. They're both 55 years old, one living in Arizona, one in Michoacan, Mexico. But both believe that the government has failed them.

    And they both have sort of taken up arms to fight for what they believe in. Access and trust are everything, and developing that trust with my subjects was really important, obviously especially on the Mexico side. You know, it was really frightening.

    I mean, I — you really didn't know if you were with the good guys or the bad guys. And very quickly, I realized that this story was a lot more complicated, that the lines between good and evil were much more blurry.


    Complicated, indeed. And we watch as key figures are compromised. Leaders and citizens in Mexico begin to act more and more like the cartels they're fighting.

    That's also when it started to get scary for you, you're saying.


    Yes. And for the citizens living there, it's horrible. They have been living in these conditions for years. And there's no government institutions. Often, the government is colluding with the cartel. So, there's really no one to turn to.

    And that's what's also so scary about it. And that's why — that's what this movement was born out of. It was born out of this desire to bring order in chaos, to bring safety in terror.


    There is in fact this incredible scene in the back of a car, right, in a van, where a vigilante group in Mexico has grabbed somebody off the street and is holding him at gunpoint, accusing him of being one of the cartel members.

    Tell me about that, because you — it's remarkably shot. It's a horrifying moment because you don't know if — we don't know if the guy is actually guilty of anything.


    I was in the back of this car as they were interrogating him, running a gun up and down his head. And it was frightening. As a human being who cares about people and cares about the world, to see this violence, you know, viscerally right in front of me, obviously, my human instincts were trying to stop it, but I'm there to document what was happening.


    Near the end of film, one of the characters says it's never going to stop, period.

    Is that what you came to think?


    I really do think this problem is cyclical.

    And I do — you know, as long as there's a demand for drugs in the States, there will be supply for drugs in Mexico and South America flowing northward.

    I do find some hope that people are sick of this in Mexico. I find hope in people standing up and saying, we can't take this anymore. Whether that results in change, you know, who knows, but I think it's important that people out there are talking about it, because for years people often walked around shrouded in fear, and even mentioning the cartel, people never even dreamed of saying that.

    So I think, you know, I find some hope in that.


    The film "Cartel Land" can be seen in select theaters around the country this summer.

    From Washington, D.C., I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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