Filmmaker Charlie Minn didn’t originally plan to make a film about the surging violence in Ciudad Juárez, where the death toll related to drug violence has surpassed 10,000 since 2007. But after an initial 2009 stop on the border for another project, he says, he was “shocked” by what was going on across the border from El Paso.
More than two years after his initial stop there, he’s touring the country to promote 8 Murders a Day, an 85-minute documentary that debuted Friday in Austin at the Regal Metropolitan. He spoke with the Tribune before a screening of his movie last week about his motivation for doing the film, his thoughts on Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s drug war, why he thinks Mexican reporters are some of the bravest in the world and the criticism he has received for the project.
Watch the film's trailer below.
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TT: What prompted you to do this movie? Was it just being in El Paso, seeing it in the news every day?
Minn: Yeah, I was in Las Cruces, N.M., doing A Nightmare in Las Cruces, which is about an unsolved bowling alley murder from 1990. But like a lot of people, you don’t how bad it is [in Juárez]. So when you’re there, you read the El Paso Times, Las Cruces Sun-News, it’s like “holy cow!” Even to this day, two years later, I am still shocked by the body count. We’re talking about a shocking wave of violence that’s happening in a city of 1.2 million people. We have about six to eight dead people a day. None of these murders are being looked at, just the highest level of corruption, you name it — it doesn’t matter, from the mayor possibly, to the police, the federal or municipal police. Someone is doing something dirty. So that’s what we have right now is that the situation in Juárez, and in a lot of parts of Mexico, you just run around and do whatever you want, it’s a free-for-all. You can murder someone, and you can get away with it.
TT: There is a lot of writer Charles Bowden, researcher Molly Molloy and professor Tony Payan in the film. They have been very critical of Calderón and of his initiatives. They call him a treasonist, they say this is genocide against his own people. Do you agree? Do you take that same attitude that they take?
Minn: It’s so hard to pinpoint because what of what we have right now. I would say 75 percent of the information coming out of Mexico is nebulous at best. You wonder how much of it is manipulated by organized crime. So many times you get numbers contradicting each other. The situation with Calderón is very interesting. I’ve heard everything possible about this man: He’s putting on this fake war, this whole fake presidency to stay alive possibly. I’d like to think he’s doing the right thing. The Mexican people are sick and tired of his policies. That’s obviously very understandable. To his defense, a lot of the people are applauding his courage to take on the cartels. It wasn’t the fact that he did what he did, it was how he went about it. The Juárez situation symbolizes that. You have the federal police and the municipal police and the army not on the same page. If anything they’re shooting at each other, or joining the cartels.
TT: Why not interview any government officials that say, “This is the only logical step. We are being criticized, but this is what we had to do?”
Minn: One regret I have is that there should have been more from the Juárez side. That is a very fair point that I will take the hit for as a director. The problem with that was I had a crew that was, literally, too scared to go in there, people dropping out at the last minute. This was a mini miracle that it came together, and it was a miracle that it was 85 minutes.
TT: Do you advocate for U.S. intervention in Mexico, military intervention in Mexico?
Minn: I would say that should be one of a few options because it’s become so bad. We are watching a country bleed before our eyes, and we’re doing nothing about it.
TT: The numbers may be shrinking, but still a majority of Mexicans don’t want that. They respect their sovereignty, and they are very proud of their sovereignty.
Minn: That’s true. But there’s a big debate on what should happen to Mexico. Should Mexico have a countrywide revolt like Egypt? Should the U.S. send troops over there? Should the U.S. legalize drugs? That’s one of the biggest [questions], and that debate has been going on since the 1960s and it’s not going to happen. If you legalize drugs, then it gets more complex: Are you talking about all drugs, certain drugs, where do you draw the line with this? There’s too much red tape, and there’s too much politics behind it.
TT: After doing the film, do you consider yourself a filmmaker, a journalist that tells both sides of the story, or an advocate that favors one side over the other?
Minn: Good question. A little bit of all of that. I consider myself a documentarian. I look for social injustices, crimes that are unsolved. In this situation, you have at least 95 percent of the murders, not just in Juárez but in the country, that are going uninvestigated.
TT: Did you ever feel like an outsider? You’ve been criticized for putting too much of yourself in the movie, or coming off like an expert even though you’re not originally from the border. How do you respond to that?
Minn: I don’t see what’s wrong with me putting myself in the movie. I really don’t. Michael Moore does it, Oliver Stone does it, and Spike Lee does it. I am not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. I don’t see those guys getting criticized for it. Granted, I am not in their league yet. It would be one thing if I were doing it gratuitously. If I thought it was adding to the story, then I’ll put it in there. But I am a little surprised at the backlash. I don’t know what the big deal is.
TT: Did you feel any guilt for Univision cameramen or other Mexican journalists that have to live there when you could leave whenever you wanted?
Minn: I don’t think people realize how heroic these journalists are. We are talking about men and women who don’t make a lot money, and they are putting their lives on the line everyday to inform the citizens about what the heck is going on. There’s a lot of confusion in this so-called drug war and because nothing is investigated. You’re left with three questions: Who is being killed? By who? And why?
TT: In your follow-up, Murder Capital of the World, why are you still focused on Juárez? Why not branch out to Monterrey, Tamaulipas, Guerrero or Veracruz?
Minn: I developed quite a comfort zone in the El Paso-Juárez area. I know them, they know me. Juárez is a symbol of the violence, still. I am obsessed with Juárez, and I am fascinated by it, and I still can’t believe what’s going on. It almost plays like a movie script — especially in El Paso, because El Paso is so safe.
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