'Cartel Land' Follows Vigilantes Fighting Mexican Drug Gangs Director Matthew Heineman embedded himself up close in the action — and the moral ambiguity — of citizen groups who are fighting back against drug cartels in Mexico.
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'Cartel Land' Follows Vigilantes Fighting Mexican Drug Gangs

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'Cartel Land' Follows Vigilantes Fighting Mexican Drug Gangs

'Cartel Land' Follows Vigilantes Fighting Mexican Drug Gangs

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

What would you do if armed cartels held sway over your community and nobody could help you? Would you take up arms and resort to fighting violence with violence? An Oscar-nominated documentary called "Cartel Land" tackles that question in a new way, capturing the desperation of those overwhelmed by drug violence in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border. The film's director, Matthew Heineman, embedded himself with two vigilante groups working to combat the drug cartels on both sides of the border. And he took extraordinary risks while capturing close-up violence, corruption, greed and more. "Cartel Land" has already won several top honors. And this weekend, it's up for an Academy Award in the documentary category. Heineman's last film was about health care. He'd never covered a conflict before. I asked him what drew him deep into the story of cartels and vigilantes.

MATTHEW HEINEMAN: I was so struck when I first started making it, at the suffering of the people of Michoacan, the people of Mexico that I was filming with. You know, living in a society where institutions have failed and ineffective government that was allowing the cartel to operate with impunity. They controlled almost every aspect of civic life, from the local judicial system to the local police, you know, and extorted people from, you know, multinational corporations to tortilla makers. So a very scary world that they live in, and it, you know - it's amorphous warfare. There's no sort of safety zone and danger zone. You know, violence can erupt at any moment. And almost every single person down there is touched by it in some way.

WESTERVELT: Well, you certainly take us into the action. I mean, you get shot at. The camera sort of puts us, you know, in the battle scene. Let's take a listen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CARTEL LAND")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

WESTERVELT: Matthew, tell us how you got such intimate access to these groups.

HEINEMAN: You know, I'm not a war reporter. I've never been any situation like this before. But the film let me into, you know, crazy situations - shootouts between the vigilantes and the cartel, meth labs, places of torture. This specific scene, you know, is an example of some of the access that I was able to gain, which, you know, didn't happen overnight. You know, I spent almost nine months down there, one to two weeks every month gaining the trust of these guys. And, you know, they are risking their lives to sort of fight for what they believed in. And, you know, I was risking my life and the life of my crew to capture this. And I think there's a level of respect that came with that.

WESTERVELT: On the American side of your film, you have Tim Nailer Foley, who leads a small paramilitary group called the Arizona Border Recon. Let's listen to a clip of him.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "CARTEL LAND")

TIM FOLEY: Technically, we're vigilantes upholding the law where there is no law. But the phrase vigilante, it's been given a bad name by the media. This is what I consider to be the wild, wild West. There is nothing down here. There's no law.

WESTERVELT: Tim Nailer Foley has his own backstory. I mean, he was a former recovering drug addict who worked construction and then sort of the bottom fell out during the Great Recession.

HEINEMAN: When he lost his job, you know, he was angry. And he blamed his inability to get work on illegal immigrants who were taking his jobs. And so he went down to the border to patrol the border to try to stop the flow of immigrants coming across the border. And he, over time, realized that the real enemy was not them in his mind, that the real enemy was the cartel that controlled everything.

WESTERVELT: The other storyline you follow is that of Dr. Jose Manuel Mireles, a surgeon in the Mexican state of Michoacan who becomes a leader of a citizen vigilante militia group made up of, you know, fisherman, lumberjacks, bricklayers and other folks. I mean, as you are making this film, did your perspective on his vigilante movement change?

HEINEMAN: For sure, yeah. I mean, when I first started, I really felt like it was a sort of heroic story of citizens rising up to fight against this evil cartel. And then over time, these lines between good and evil that seemed so stark when I first started became ever more blurry. And those who are fighting against evil started to become evil. And, you know, as it's happening, it got more and more interesting. It also got more and more scary. You know, by the end of the film, I could be on an (speaking Spanish) - on a mission and look to my left and look to my right and not know if I was with the cartel or the people fighting against the cartel.

WESTERVELT: For me, it was a pretty sad movie. I mean, as someone who's been immersed in this, what do you think the way forward might be, especially for some of these ordinary folks, you know, caught up and living in these cartel-controlled areas?

HEINEMAN: You know, unfortunately, the sad reality which we see vividly in this film is the cycle repeating itself. And this cycle is perpetuated by America's voracious appetite for drugs. You know, it's not a policy film, but the elephant in the room, even as stated as these meth cookers who I speak with refer to America's appetite for drugs. And, you know, it's basic supply and demand, it's basic economics. As long as there's a demand for drugs here in the States, there'll be a supply of drugs coming from Mexico and South America. And with that, the violence. And with that, all this suffering that we see so vividly in the film. And, you know, we've become obsessed with ISIS; we've become obsessed with all of these conflicts around the world. But here's this conflict that we're connected to, that we're funding, we're fueling through our consumption of drugs. And so I really wanted to, you know, shed light on this with this film.

WESTERVELT: Matthew Heineman - his film, "Cartel Land," is up for best documentary at Sunday's Academy Awards. It's available now on demand and streaming on Netflix. Matthew Heineman, thanks for speaking with us.

HEINEMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

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