The Story Behind Sundance Favorite ‘Cartel Land’

Photographs Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Cartel Land, from director Matthew Heineman, presents a parallel story of U.S. and Mexican vigilantes fighting back against the powerful drug cartels on both sides of the border. The film profiles Tim “Nailer” Foley, of Arizona’s Border Recon, who leads a band of grisly, well-armed men who are focused on rooting out the cartel scouts dotting the hills of the Arizona border. Nailer’s tale is set against the story of Dr. José Mireles, a Mexican doctor from the state of Michoacán — controlled by the brutal Knights Templar— who leads the Autodefensas, an armed, paramilitary group dedicated to driving the cartels out of their towns. Heineman interviews the meth dealers who say they’d love to go straight, speaks with the victims affected by the violence, and embeds with the Autodefensas as they fight back against the cartels, capturing vivid footage of two shootouts. We spoke with Heineman about the expanding power of cartels on both sides of the border, filming through gunfire, and the current despair in Mexico. Vigilantism is something people may not understand if they live under a functional government.

What did you learn about the motivation of these men?
They have an absolute distrust of the government. They believe the government is failing them, and they believe in a lawless world, a world that is controlled by the cartels. They believe it is their responsibility to step up and take the law into their own hands. When I first went to Arizona it was amazing. This was America, but it was this otherworldly Wild West where there was no sense of any law or any institution. It really felt like this was cartel country, and the cartels were controlling what was happening there.

Why is that?
On all the hillsides and every single mountaintop where we were filming in southern Arizona there are cartel scouts. They are like air traffic control, they have high-powered binoculars, really high tech equipment, and they shepherd drug loads through the valley. We’re basically putting a thumb in the dyke to try to stop it.

What did you learn about the cartels that you hadn’t understood before?
In the past couple of years the cartels started to control everything. Now they control both the human smuggling and the drug smuggling, so they are this really omnipresent force. If you are just some poor person who is coming to America for a better life you are being shepherded across the border by someone involved in the cartel, so it is much more dangerous now. If you can’t pay, they’ll throw a pack of drugs on your back. It is indentured servitude to some degree. In Mexico, it is so tragic to be there. There is an evil force that is the rule of law. As much as there are local police around, there is no one down there who hasn’t been touched by the cartels. The Knights of Templar, which is the cartel that controls Michoacán, and predominately traffic meth, are particularly brutal. A lot of other cartels are run like businesses so all they want to do is push product. But the Knights of Templar, had a particularly vicious and violent way of exerting their power. They are this amazingly frightening group that harkens back to this mystical Christian order. They wear crosses and they feel like they are doing God’s work and they feel like they are almost holy warriors trying to rid evil. The cartel themselves think they are doing good.

What was the hairiest situation you found yourself in?
Being in a shootout. I don’t know if it can get much hairier than that. It was frightening. I tried to calm myself down and really just focused on the filmmaking side of things — making sure I was in focus, framing the shot —to ignore how insane the situation was. But honestly, the most frightening part of the filming was the interview I did with a young woman who was kidnapped by the cartel, and her husband was chopped into pieces and burned to death in front of her. To see the hollowness in her eyes — to see that life had been sucked out of her. She was a human being that was breathing, but the horror that she saw was unimaginable.

Matthew Heineman

The violence is all so close to home.
That is the most insane thing. We live in America and this is our neighboring country, and this is happening right next to us. I think that is a lot of what drives the vigilantes in Arizona for better or worse, and they fear that this bloodletting of the Mexican drug wars is going to seep across our borders.

What sort of protection did you have? Did you carry a gun?
I definitely did not carry a gun. It is unethical. I am an outside observer observing them. I wore a bulletproof vest and we had all sort of security precautions in place. We had teams of people who always knew where we were at all times, and what roads we were driving on in case we got kidnapped. There was a whole security apparatus that we had set up beforehand.

Has that desire to fight back against the cartels been squashed?
I think it has been squandered by the current state of affairs. There is a lot of despair that this beautiful thing is no longer beautiful. The horrific disappearance of the 43 students in the state just south of Michoacán — and it was police that had captured them and had handed them over to the cartel — was this very vivid example of the lines between cartel, law enforcement, and justice are so blurred. That’s what is so scary. You really don’t know who to trust. On the filmmaking side of things, we thought we knew what side we were on, we thought we knew what side we were filming with, but we didn’t.

How could the U.S. government resolve the issue?
I really made this film not to talk about policy. I will say that whatever we’ve been doing is failing. But it is somewhat of an intractable problem. As long as there is demand there will be supply, and I don’t see any stop to the demand. As weed is being legalized the states the cartels are just finding other ways to make money. The amount of weed being brought across our borders is lessening every year. The amount of meth, heroin and coke is rising every year. 

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