Nick Quested believes the War on Drugs cannot be properly understood without examining the social, economic and political situation of our neighbors to the south. The documentarian says that Americans all too often view the import of drugs as Mexico’s problem rather than one of interconnectedness between our two nations.
“What Americans should understand is that this is a problem of economics, not of criminality,” said Quested, adding that in the poverty-stricken areas of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico, there are few opportunities for young men beyond the drug trade. “It is the perfect geographical location for a criminal gang to hide out and export to America,” he said.
Quested (“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS”) and co-director Sebastian Junger (the author of the book “The Perfect Storm”) explore that symbiosis in the drug trade in their new documentary, “Blood on the Wall.” The film, which premiered earlier this summer at AFI Docs and will bow this week on the National Geographic channel, features interviews with government and cartel figures on both sides of the border—as well as examines how migrant caravans from Central America crossing into Mexico often face the difficult choice of making desperately needed money by carrying drugs into the United States for the cartels.
One of Quested and Junger’s subjects is Lura, a Guatemalan girl of seventeen fleeing hardship at home. She and her boyfriend join the caravan for protection, but their ordeal north has only just begun. Quested, a British filmmaker now living in America, said he and Junger met Ludy early on in their production. Quested, who has directed many hip-hop music videos, initially warmed to Ludy given their shared musical tastes.
“We bonded over Dr. Dre [and] Puffy,” Quested said, adding that young Ludy was excited to meet the director of several videos by her favorite artists.
“Blood on the Wall” examines the business of drug importation from all sides, be it from the extremely poor migrants like Ludy seeking a better life, or the wealthy cartels that control the movement of thousands of tons of products into America each year. Accordingly, issues described as “moral failings” by American politicians and talking heads must be put aside, Quested said, in favor of seeing the economics for what they are. In areas the cartels control in Mexico, they effectively function as the government to resolve disputes, maintain law and order on the streets and provide safety for the people who live there.
“There’s just one power source in Culiacan, and it’s the Cartel de Sinaloa,” he said of the Mexican homebase of the notorious cartel. “It’s very much like the Old West: The law might not be written, but [the people] know what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Quested and his team were given access to the cartel’s leadership, whom he says were not only not shy being on camera—even if behind masks—but actively welcomed the documentarians into their compounds.
“I never felt in any jeopardy at all,” Quested said of filming in and among the cartel’s leaders and capos. “There were literally firearms everywhere. They had no fear of us and we had no fear of them.”
Rather, the most unsafe he reported feeling during production was during an evening filming at a particularly rundown Phoenix hotel. Quested, Junger and their crew were there to interview two cartel employees running local operations for the Sinaloa Cartel. Over three hours on a hot Arizona night, the two drug-runners smoked and snorted an appreciable amount as the filmmakers’ cameras rolled. (Quested says their subjects became “kind of toasty.”)
The interviewees then received word that a courier bringing them money had been pulled over by cops not far from the hotel, which Quested said raised their suspicions of the filmmakers. Not long after, police helicopters buzzed overhead and the drug-runners began yelling at Quested and Junger, accusing them of being narcs.
“If I tell them we’re not the police, that means nothing because federal agents undercover are lying all the time,” Quested said, adding he managed to calm the men down by saying that federal agents would not have wasted three hours interviewing them. “But there was a moment there where all these drugs are on the table [and I thought] this could be bad!”
As it turned out, the police were there responding to the murder of a drug user at a nearby hotel, but Quested insists this was the most unsafe he ever felt during filming.
Quested and Junger have worked together before, and Quested finds the experience of working with the respected journalist to be invigorating for them both. They are able to bounce ideas off of one another to figure out what will ultimately work for the project.
“If you look back at the technique we employed, it is very reminiscent of Sebastian’s longer-form writing,” Quested said, pointing to how Junger, in writing “The Perfect Storm,” weaved together weather reports and later interview material with the speculative narrative of what the men on the Andrea Gail fishing boat were experiencing (which was necessary fictionalized given they were lost in the storm). “[Junger] is a great partner,” Quested said.
Quested believes that if the issue of importing drugs into America is to ever be properly dealt with, the economic incentive of smuggling drugs must be removed.
“That’s by trying to reduce demand and trying to suppress the price, [which] is the opposite of what we are doing at the moment,” he said. “What we’re doing right now is creating incentives to smuggle narcotics into America.”
He likens what poor Mexicans who work for the cartels face to a “mortal threat” of fire or covid-19 that Americans are dealing with right now. If Americans saw the situation from that perspective, Quested believes they might be more sympathetic to the street-level workers in Mexico’s drug trade, whose choices in making money are so limited.
“We want people to walk in their shoes just for a little bit,” he said. “They may not be walking the same path, but they can walk in the same shoes, just for an hour and a half.”
“Blood on the Wall” premieres this week on National Geographic.