In a remote forest clearing in Mexico’s war-torn Michoacán State, armed and masked men are cooking crystal methamphetamine to be sold by their cartel in the United States.
After unloading barrels of chemicals and equipment from military trucks, the night air is soon filled with thick white smoke produced by their crude method of narcotics production.
‘We produce large amounts of narcotics and most of it goes to the United States,’ says the gang’s leader, who oversees the operation carrying a fearsome assault rifle.
‘Of course we are doing harm,’ he admits frankly, ‘But they can’t stop us.’
These narcotics are not being produced by a drug-smuggling cartel.
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Shockingly, they are being made by one of the government-sponsored ‘self-defense’ groups which were specifically created to rid Mexico of the gangs which terrorized the country.
The state of Michoacán in south-west Mexico, where these vigilantes produce their best selling product, went through a violent revolution last year.
After Mexico legalized the country’s growing number of vigilante brigades, thousands across the country took up arms to join so-called self-defense groups.
They rose up to fight the brutal Knights Templar cartel – responsible for drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping and arms trafficking – and freed themselves from the violence and terror that had plagued their lands for decades.
These ‘gangsters’ cooking up crystal meth deep in the Mexican jungles still wear the white dove of peace on their clothing – the symbol which came to represent the vigilante struggle against organized crime.
They have now taken on their vanquished enemies’ business of extortion, kidnap and narco-trafficking.
And they produce and distribute the same drug that has destroyed entire communities both north and south of the US-Mexico border.
‘Now that we’re part of the government we have to lay low,’ says the group’s leader dressed in his ‘Rural Force’ uniform.
‘It will always happen, and if not here then somewhere else in Mexico. You can’t stop it no matter what you do.’
Highlighted in a shocking new documentary released on Friday, this is just one example of the blurred lines between the drug cartels and the government in Mexico.
‘Cartel Land’, directed by Matthew Heineman, goes deeper into the criminal world of Michoacán than any documentary before.
Graphically showing the torture, shootouts and terror caused by vigilante justice, the film has sent shockwaves through Mexican society since its North American release two months ago.
The film tracks the descent into criminality of a vigilante force originally established to defend the public against organized crime.
‘By the end we see the lines between self-defense groups, government and cartel all meshed into one,’ said the film’s director Matthew Heineman in an interview.
One scene documents the funeral of six children who have been victims of the cartel. As the weeping families of their murdered young bury them alongside one another, an interview with one of the deceased’s mother tells the story of life in modern Michoacán.
‘There’s no hope here, only tragedy,’ she tells the camera as she tries in vain to hold back her tears, ‘This is what life is in Michoacán. The authorities do nothing – in fact they even help the criminals.’
‘I wanted to make a film about what happens when government institutions fail and citizens are forced to take matters into their own hands,’ he said.
Matthew spent nine month travelling throughout the crime-ravaged state of Michoacán in documenting the vigilantes’ descent into criminality.
‘I didn’t just want to parachute in and out,’ he said, ‘I wanted to be there and to be involved. It was only that way that I would be able to properly tell their story.
‘When I started the project I thought it was going to be a very simple hero-villain story, just like in the classic westerns with guys in white shirts versus guys in black hats.
‘Over time those lines between good and evil became ever more blurry.’
The gritty documentary deals with the issue of vigilante justice, and follows the self-defense groups’ leader Dr Jose Manuel Mireles on his quest to rid his beloved state of the insipid Knights Templar cartel.
Teaching townsfolk how to defend their communities from organized crime, the doctor and his men give the local people the knowledge, tools and courage to extract the rot of organized crime from their towns.
Yet as the movement grows in strength the group’s methods start to mimic those of the hated Knight Templar, the very scourge they are trying to rid themselves of.
In the troubled town of Uruapan, a man suspected of involvement with the Knights Templar cartel is forcibly taken from his wailing family to the self-defense group’s base.
INSIDE MEXICO’S WAR AGAINST POWERFUL DRUG-RUNNING CARTELS
The ‘Mexican Drug War’ is the government’s ongoing battle against various drug-trafficking gangs.
By the end of former president Felipe Calderon’s term in office, the official death toll stood at 60,000 although some estimated the true number of those killed could surpass 120,000, with 27,000 missing.
The government’s main goal since the army was brought into the conflict in 2006 has been to decrease drug-related violence, rather than stopping drug-smuggling altogether.
Cartels have existed for decades but their power and influence increased with the fall of the Colombian Cali and Medellin gangs in the 1990s.
A disturbing report from the Congressional Research Service claimed Mexican cartels were responsible for 90 per cent of the cocaine entering the United States in 2007.
It also said: ‘Mexico, a major drug producing and transit country, is the main foreign supplier of marijuana and a major supplier of methamphetamine to the United States.’
The same report claimed that gangs earned between around £9billion and £30billion from these illegal sales every year.
Once trapped in the vigilantes’ headquarters, he and other local men accused of involvement with the Templars are kept like caged animals, waiting for their turn to be tortured.
Whipping their suspects with belts, tazering them repeatedly and forcing admissions under duress and agonizing torture, the self-defense groups themselves become the villains, exacting a form of frontier justice that is sickening to watch.
‘It was a terrible thing to see,’ said Matthew Heineman, who travelled throughout the crime-ravaged state in the process of making his documentary, ‘In the end, the documentary says more than I possibly could about my opinion of vigilante justice.
‘It’s something we wrestled with every day during the shoot,’ he said, ‘And in the end it’s a film about the inevitability of power corrupting.’
Dr Jose Manuel Mireles, whose heroic fight for the citizens of Michoacán, was finally arrested last year after when he refused to merge his movement to the Mexican government’s fight against the cartel.
‘Despite his personal flaws, the doctor is one of the only ones who stays true to the idea of not giving into the government,’ said Matthew, ‘He always said that if we give into the government they’re going to screw us.
‘Ultimately because everyone else in his movement gave up their principles he as become the phenomenon’s biggest victim.
‘There were a number of times that I feared for my life during filming,’ the director said.
‘All the shootouts were terrible but the first was absolutely terrifying, particularly because for a lot of those scenes, I was filming by myself.
‘I dealt with the fear by trying to concentrate as much as possible on being behind the camera and the craft of film-making rather than the situation I was in,’ he said, ‘That would actually calm me down in these really intense moments.
‘Despite those more adrenaline-charged moments like the torture and the meth lab, the scariest experience for me was the interview with Milagros.’
Milagros was a woman who had been kidnapped by the ruthless Knights Templar cartel alongside her husband.
Her abductors raped her and then forced her to watch as they murdered her husband and hacked his body into pieces. Then they released her to warn others of the consequences of crossing the cartel.
Matthew said: ‘Hearing her describe the horrors of what they did, and then thinking that we’re the same species of human being that would do that to other people.
‘That mentally stuck with more than any of the terrifying things I lived through and saw first hand.’
The film also showcases vigilantes on the other side of the border – American groups who claim to defend their country against the ‘invading force’ of illegal Mexican immigrants and cartels.
Matthew spent six month gaining the trust of a band of vigilantes who call themselves the ‘Minutemen’ and patrol the Arizona stretch of the US-Mexico crossing.
When asked about his own opinion on the merits of vigilante justice, the director said: ‘I can completely understand why the self-defense groups rose up.
‘They were living under the tyrannical rule of the Templars with no protection from their government.
‘But is vigilantism sustainable? Well clearly in the case of the self-defense groups it wasn’t.
‘At the end of it all the cycle has repeated itself,’ says the director, ‘The violence has continued, the kidnappings have continued, and things are as scary as every in Michoacán.’
‘You can’t stop the cartel, no matter what you do,’ the final interview of the documentary with the government official – and crystal meth cook – tells the camera.
‘If it’s not us then it’s Sinaloa, or Guerrero or whoever else. While there is demand, there will be supply.’