The trailer for 'Cartel Land'
The escape of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the head of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, from Mexico's highest security prison is a vivid symbol of the continuing saga of government failure and tragedy for the Mexican people.
I saw this failure and this tragedy first hand when shooting my documentary Cartel Land (which VICE is helping to distribute) in the Mexican state of Michoacán. I was embedded on and off for nine months with the Autodefensas, a group of vigilantes rising up to take back their endangered communities from another cartel, the Knights Templar.
The bribery and/or complicity of government officials seems the only explanation for the air-conditioned tunnel that El Chapo used to slip away from Altiplano prison (where "La Tuta," head of the Knights Templar, was also imprisoned in early 2015). But the government's endless susceptibility to corruption is part of a much larger failure: its inability to provide order, security, and law to millions of Mexican citizens who have lived through a long reign of cartel terror. Many parts of Mexico are truly lawless zones where cartels, fueled by drug money, operate with impunity and impose their vicious authority on the local people through extortion and ruthless violence. They also control most aspects of civic life—including the local police and government—with bribes, threats, intimidation, or flat-out infiltration.
Americans have become obsessed with the Islamic State (for good reason). But there is a war that is happening in our neighboring country to the south—a war that we are connected to and a war that we are funding through our consumption of illicit drugs. In an ironic twist of fate, cartels are too often glorified on TV and in narcocorridos (musical ballads that are odes to the great cartel capos). And the latest headlines about El Chapo's escape seem to miss the greater point—the grievous suffering of Mexicans from the government failure to protect its citizens. It is estimated that since 2007, as many as 80,000 people have been killed in the drug wars in Mexico and 20,000 have "disappeared." In large areas of the country, away from Mexico City, people live in deadly fear of the arbitrary and unchecked violence of the cartels—and government institutions often work in collusion with criminals, or allow them to operate with impunity.
I'll never forget my first trip to Michoacan for the film. I was on an " operativo" with the Autodefensas as they were trying to take over the town of Apo and rid it of the Knights Templar. When the vigilantes entered the town, they were almost immediately surrounded by the Army and forced to disarm. Vehicles soon arrived filled with men, women, and children—hundreds of them—threateningly wielding wooden sticks. It soon became clear that the citizens were coming from nearby towns to kick out the convoy of Mexican Army trucks—in their eyes, the Army was a corrupt institution that had, at best, been tacitly allowing the Templars to do their dirty work and, at worst, been working directly with them. This was the Army that, in a sense, is a symbol for these citizens' absolute distrust of authority, a metaphor for the breakdown of society: The helmets and guns and helicopters flying overhead evoking fear and anger and dreams of protection that never materialized.
The citizens surrounded the tanks and trucks, wooden sticks held in the air. It was chaotic. Voices yelled various profanities, calling for the Army to leave, likening them to the cartel. In the midst of it all, Maria (I've changed her name for her safety)—a beautiful young woman with tears streaming down her face—maniacally screamed at the soldiers: "You guys are dogs! Dogs who have done so much harm to us already!"
The cacophony of screaming crescendoed, helicopters continued to make laps in the sky overhead, as the crowd chanted, "The people, united, will never be defeated!" Maria, now eye-to-eye with one of the soldiers, yelled, "If what happened to us had happened to you, you would all be on our side. Why? Because of the pain we carry!" Eventually, the soldiers retreated and the Autodefensas got their weapons back and took control of the town.
After this dramatic scene, we spent time with Maria and found out why she was so emotional. Her parents and two brothers had been kidnapped by the cartel and never heard from again. Like thousands of other family members, Maria didn't know why or how or exactly that had happened. And most likely never will. She was too scared to go to the police out of fear—fear that the police would rat on her to the cartel, fear that they were on the payroll of the cartel, or fear that they frankly were the cartel.
"Do we want to die tied up like animals or dismembered like they have been doing for more than 12 years? We decided the best way to die was to die fighting."
–Jose Manuel Mireles, the leader of the Autodefensas
And that is why vigilante groups rise up, as they have throughout history and across the world today. The leader of the Autodefensas—Jose Manuel Mireles, known as "El Doctor"—told me: "When the government can't provide basic security for its people, we can take up arms in legitimate defense of our lives, our families, our properties. We are all survivors—they've attacked all of our families. They've killed, kidnapped, or raped someone we love. Every single one of us in this battle. So it's time to decide how we wish to die. Do we want to die tied up like animals or dismembered like they have been doing for more than 12 years? We decided the best way to die was to die fighting."
I found myself asking similar questions. What would I do if my family was disappeared like Maria's or my uncle was found hanging from a bridge? Would I take up arms to fight violence? Is that right? Is that just? Is vigilantism sustainable? Over nine months in Michoacán, I discovered a wide range of motivations: justice, fear, greed, revenge, power, ego. Over time, I saw the vigilantes rout the cartel and take over many towns. But a power vacuum then existed because there was still no government maintaining law and order. In that vacuum, different factions within the vigilante movement vied for power and carried out their own agendas beyond the quest for justice. Sadly, we saw some of those fighting against evil becoming evil themselves.
At first, the government allowed the vigilantes to progress because they were doing their dirty work and doing what they had been unable to do—rid Michoacán of the Templars. However, when the government did act, it tried to stop the vigilantes, rather than deal with the cartels, and then it sought to co-opt them. In doing so, the government ended up supporting factions of the vigilantes who some have alleged are essentially the new cartel in town. The lines between vigilantes, cartels and corrupt government became ever more blurred. The lines between good and evil were ever harder to see.
My documentary Cartel Land, like the escape of El Chapo, tells a story of the terrible failure of government institutions—and underscores that there is no end in sight to the tragic suffering of the Mexican people. But the story, in an unspoken way, is also about US complicity. Almost all the drugs made in Mexico are sold in the US. Americans provide virtually all the financial support for the terrible war going on in our neighboring country. We too are deeply at fault. But, of course, finding lasting solutions has eluded the well-intentioned on both sides of the border for decades. The one constant is the terrible suffering in Mexico and the lives destroyed by drugs in the United States.
My hope is to show this stark reality through Cartel Land so that people not terrorized by cartel violence can feel, viscerally and emotionally, the tragedy of government failing to do its most basic tasks.
Matthew Heineman is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker based in New York. His latest film Cartel Land premiered in the US Documentary Competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where Heineman won the Best Director Award and Special Jury Prize for Cinematography. The film is currently playing in theaters in the US and Mexico. For more information visit: cartellandmovie.com