Kingdom of Shadows explores the human toll of a crisis that's claimed thousands of lives
Mexico's bloody struggle with narco-violence has mostly faded from headlines in the US, but two documentaries are helping put the story back in the spotlight.
Matthew Heineman's Cartel Land came out in July, a visceral look at the drug war and the rise of controversial self-defense groups on both sides of the border.
Now comes Kingdom of Shadows from director Bernardo Ruiz, which explores the drug war from the perspective of three people -- Mexican nun Sister Consuelo Morales; Texas rancher Don Henry Ford Jr., who became a smuggler in the 80s, and Oscar Hagelsieb, who went undercover to infiltrate the drug trade.
He tapped my shoulder and I kind of did a double-take. I realized this was in fact a federal agent.
Kingdom of Shadows opens Friday in select cities including Los Angeles [Downtown Independent in downtown LA], Pasadena [Laemmle's Playhouse 7], and New York. It also becomes available on VOD on Friday.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with director Bernardo Ruiz and Oscar Hagelsieb, now with the Dept. of Homeland Security, about the film and whether there is any way to stop the narco-mayhem.
NFF: Firstly, Bernardo, how did you come into contact with the characters in the film, including Oscar?
Bernardo Ruiz: I thought, “Okay, if I’m going to make a film about the US-Mexico narco-conflict, I want to bring together characters that I haven’t seen in other places.” I relied on two great journalist friends -- Alfredo Corchado who's with The Dallas Morning News and Angela Korchega [director of the borderlands bureau of Cronkite News at Arizona PBS]. I told them I really wanted to talk to a law enforcement person who really knows this stuff well.
They set up a meeting for me in El Paso [Texas] but they kind of played a trick on me. They didn't tell me who I would be seeing. I waited at a cafe and I was expecting a federal agent -- like a square-jawed anglo federal agent. I saw Oscar walk through the door but I did not take him for a federal agent at all. He was wearing a short-sleeve shirt and his arms were covered in tattoos. He was wearing a baseball cap, he had a chain. I mean he looked like a biker to me, what some people might even think of as a drug dealer. And it wasn’t until a few minutes later and he tapped my shoulder and I kind of did a double-take that I realized that this was in fact a federal agent. As soon as I started talking to Oscar I realized that there was a really compelling story and his personal story kind of mirrors the recent history of the conflict. So I was really excited to be able to include him in the film.
NFF: Oscar, what were your initial thoughts about Bernardo? You're turning your story over to him, to some degree.
Oscar Hagelsieb: Bernardo [told me] he wanted to do a project that was realistic, that would bring to the surface the struggle of the drug war along the border and specifically in Mexico. And so it was worthwhile for me to participate. And honestly I had my doubts that my department would allow me to do this because it’s unheard of for an individual in my capacity to be authorized to participate in a documentary. So for the Department of Homeland Security to allow me to do this means that they felt it was a worthwhile endeavor in characterizing and bringing the struggle along the border to light.
NFF: Oscar, you grew up along the US-Mexico border and dabbled as a young man in the drug trade. What are your thoughts about the catastrophic loss of life from the drug war in Mexico?
Hagelsieb: It’s multiple factors that contributed to the way the country is right now. One of them specifically is the fact that the Mexican government took a concentrated effort to combat the cartels head first. That’s very controversial because you’re kind of poking and prodding a monster and it’s going to react. The other factor that contributed to the violence is the fact that the Zetas got into the drug game... The longstanding cartels knew the rules — don’t cause unnecessary violence, don’t kill anybody that’s not involved in the drug trade and definitely don’t go after US interests. But the Zetas, they don’t care. They’re military, they don’t have that legacy of their families being in the cartels so they don’t follow any sort of rules.
Ruiz: The high-impact violence that you’re talking about — if there’s a logic to it it’s a kind of messaging tool or a communication tool and usually a very effective one. And if the desired message is to create silence or provoke fear [it has] been very successful at doing that.
When you look at Mexican civil society, there are cases all over the country of people who have gone missing or who have been disappeared. The latest official figures are 26,000 disappeared since 2007 during the period that Oscar was referring to when the former President, Felipe Calderón, declared a kind of frontal war on the organized crime groups. And that speaks to a very big human rights -- what some would call a crisis. And the total impunity in Mexico -- the fact that life is cheap, crimes can be committed without any kind of effective law enforcement.
NFF: It's almost impossible to get one's head around the scale of the depravity -- beheadings, bodies hanging from bridges. Corpses disintegrated to prevent identification. And for the families of the disappeared there is special agony.
Ruiz: I think Sister Consuelo says it very well in the film. She said it’s one of the worst crimes because it leaves you in limbo. You don’t know if someone is alive or if they’re dead, if they’re suffering and they need help... I chose to close the film in a series of portraits of these family members and to me that kind of gets at this moment that Mexico’s in. There’s a combination of pain and profound loss but at the same time a kind of dignity where people haven’t given up and, for whatever reason, they are pushing back and they’re still on their feet seeking justice. It’s hard not to be moved by people looking for really basic answers about their missing loved ones.
NFF: Oscar, you went undercover with the narco-traficantes. That's terrifying to me. Why would you be willing to do that, at great personal risk?
Hagelsieb: For the most part when I was doing undercover work I was single. I didn’t have kids. So it was a young man’s game, you know. It was adrenaline. It was what you get into law enforcement for for the most part — you’re an alpha male, you want to be the protector. But working undercover is even more above that because it’s very — it's less than one percent of the individuals in federal law enforcement that actually do undercover work. It was a sense of pride and it was a sense that I knew that I could infiltrate them — successfully infiltrate them — and I knew if it wasn’t for my undercover role in the case these individuals would still be operating. And so in a sense it’s kind of an adrenaline rush and also a sense of duty to protect the homeland.
NFF: Was there a particular moment in your undercover work that you recall as being the most dangerous?
Hagelsieb: One day I was doing an undercover deal at a Wal-Mart close to the border and I was supposed to meet the Juarez cartel representative there. We were going to negotiate the transportation of some cocaine to Chicago, I think. And like any other day I show up and I’m in my semi truck, you know this big tractor trailer, and I park and I’m waiting for the individual to show up. And right beside the truck a vehicle parks and I recognize the vehicle. It’s my dad. And he’s going to the Wal-Mart to shop, not knowing that his son is in the semi truck and is about to negotiate a potentially deadly [deal]… and he could have been caught in the crossfire... It really touched my heart that here my dad, innocent, elderly person, going to Wal-Mart to get some vegetables, that he was in the middle of a narco transaction. And so that really was the moment that I said, man, we don’t realize what is going on in the border and films like this bring that to the forefront and are very important.
NFF: Were you concerned your dad might blow your cover?
Hagelsieb: When my dad would see me in public he would never talk to me because he knew what I did [for a living]. My mom worked at the truck stop in the local area in El Paso. Very often we did deals at the truck stop -- the traffickers felt relatively safe in that place. But my mom knew not to say hi to me. Like she would look at me like I was just another person, which is sad in a sense because I -- my father unfortunately passed away a couple of weeks ago. I think, now that I’m a parent, how worried they must have been. You know when you’re young and you’re doing this kind of stuff you’re kind of selfish. You don’t really think about what you’re putting your family through.
NFF: There's a kind of futility to the whole enterprise of the drug war. In the film you sort of suggest things were better in Mexico when a single drug lord ruled the trade, and there wasn't so much turf fighting among rival cartels. That sort of begs the question of how we are ever going to get out of this situation.
Ruiz: What I would say as someone who’s been reporting on this for a while is that, first of all, I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle. I don’t think that’s going to happen. But what we can talk about, if you’re going to talk about reform, is reducing harm, right. I don’t think we’re going to make organized crime and the cartels go away overnight. But what can happen is you can begin to reduce harm in communities. And for Mexico that means strengthening the rule of law, strengthening human rights, really moving forward with a kind of more transparent judicial process. And in the US I think we need to have a conversation around reducing consumption. We need to have a really honest conversation about talking about the use of narcotics as a public health issue
I think there are many different pieces to it. It’s a very complex puzzle. A lot of people refer to the drug war as a kind of perfect storm of elements — you have poverty and inequality in Mexico, high demand in the United States, these kind of linked economic destinies. And so I think what we can reasonably talk about at this point is just ask the question, how can we reduce harm? How can we keep communities safe and what can we do for families like the ones that you see in the film. What they’re after is just the right to truth. All they want to know is what happened to their loved ones and I think strengthening that kind of human rights piece represents a pathway forward.
NFF: Don Henry Ford Jr., the Texas rancher and former drug smuggler in the film, gives an interesting perspective on what the border drug trade was like in a "simpler time," back in the 80s.
Ruiz: The first time Oscar and Don met was in Austin. We had our premiere at South by Southwest and I was very nervous about a lawman and an outlaw meeting for the first time. And actually they ended up in the same vehicle en route to one of the screenings… [By the time they arrived] the two were kind of like thick as thieves. They actually had a lot to talk about, which is kind of two sides of this coin — law enforcement official on one side and a former smuggler on the other.
NFF: Ford benefitted from the fact that he was arrested and convicted before mandatory minimum sentencing laws were imposed. What do you think about the fact that in this country, among both Republicans and Democrats, we're starting to have a conversation about the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentencing and mass incarceration?
Ruiz: I think there’s a reason why people are talking about releasing low-level non-violent offenders. If you’re on the right of things and you don’t want to spend government money there is a clear argument for reducing prison populations. If you’re on the left of center and you’re talking about things on humanitarian grounds and having people being productive members of their communities and not being totally alienated or cut off from the economic system, then that’s the other side of it... I think we’re having a reckoning and clearly it’s a long overdue conversation.
NFF: Finally to Oscar, from your perspective in the Department of Homeland Security, how are we doing in our efforts to interdict drugs and protect people?
Hagelsieb: How we’re doing? I think we’ve come a long way. I think that specifically films like this that don’t glorify the whole narco-culture aspect of the drug war are very important. And for my story coming out and for the citizens [viewers] to realize that there’s people that don’t fit that mold of what you would think a federal agent should be. There’s people that look like me that are not your stereotypical federal agents that are risking their lives. They’re in the shadows right now. You can’t stereotype. I think the film does an excellent job breaking stereotypes and kind of showcasing the efforts that we as Homeland Security do.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.