Cartel Land, the new documentary by director Matthew Heineman in theaters July 3, follows Dr. José Manuel Mireles, a small-town physician known as “El Doctor,” who leads the Autodefensas, a citizen uprising against the violent Knights Templar drug cartel in the state of Michoacán in Mexico. The above clip, exclusive to Longreads, features Mireles attempting to gather volunteers and support from one town.
Things have changed for both the Knights Templar and the vigilantes since the film’s completion. As Heineman told Variety: “Very, very quickly I realized that this story was much more complex and much more gray, that the lines between good and evil were not that clear. I became obsessed with trying to figure out what was really happening, who these guys truly were, where the movement was going, what the endgame was.”
More Stories from Mexico’s Drug War:
1. “The Hunt for El Chapo” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker 2014)
2. “The Murderers of Mexico” (Alma Guillermoprieto, New York Review of Books 2010)
3. “The Mistress and the Narcotraficante” (Ricardo C. Ainslie, Texas Monthly 2013)
Cheri Lucas Rowlands | Longreads | Oct. 2 2014 | 10 minutes (2,399 words)
Three years ago, Sarah Menkedick launched Vela Magazine in response to the byline gender gap in the publishing industry, and to create a space that highlights excellent nonfiction written by women. Last week, Menkedick and her team of editors launched a Kickstarter campaign to grow Vela as a sustainable publication for high-quality, long-form nonfiction, to pay their contributors a competitive rate, and to continue to ensure that women writers are as recognized and read as their male counterparts. Menkedick chatted with Longreads about her own path as a writer, the writer’s decision to work for free, building a sustainable online publication, and the importance of featuring diverse voices in women’s nonfiction.
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Let’s talk about Vela’s origins. You created Vela in 2011 as a space for women writers in response to the byline gender gap — yet it’s not a “women’s magazine.” Can you explain?
Like so many women writers, I was discouraged by the original VIDA count in 2011. I was also a bit disenchanted with a certain narrowness of voice and focus in mainstream magazine publishing, which tended to be very male, because men tend to dominate mainstream magazine publishing. Talking about the alternative to that gets really dicey, because it’s icky to talk about a “womanly” or “female” voice. I wanted to say: nonfiction and literary journalism written by women doesn’t have to sound like this sort of swaggering male writing, or like the loveable snarky-but-sweet meta writing of John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace. It can be like . . . and there we run short on models, because there aren’t very many women being widely published whose work falls into that middle zone between “creative nonfiction” — which tends to be more academic, more experimental, more the types of essays appearing in literary magazines — and traditional journalism.
Born in Mexico City, Guillermoprieto has covered Latin America for NYRB since 1994, and she has also written for The New Yorker, The Guardian and the Washington Post. Today’s feature, “A Visit to Havana,” is about her return to Cuba for Pope John Paul II’s arrival in 1998.
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(Illustration by Kjell Reigstad)
(Subscribe to Longreads to receive this and other weekly exclusives.) This week, we're proud to feature a Member Exclusive from Alma Guillermoprieto and The New York Review of Books. Born in Mexico City, Guillermoprieto has covered Latin America for NYRB since 1994, and she has also written for The New Yorker, The Guardian and the Washington Post. Her books include Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution and Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, which includes the below story, "A Visit to Havana," about her return to Cuba for Pope John Paul II’s arrival in 1998.
Dozens of reporters have been killed in Mexico over the last 12 years by drug traffickers, and very little has been done to investigate their deaths and bring the murderers to justice:
Let us say that you are a Mexican reporter working for peanuts at a local television station somewhere in the provinces—the state of Durango, for example—and that one day you get a friendly invitation from a powerful drug-trafficking group. Imagine that it is the Zetas, and that thanks to their efforts in your city several dozen people have recently perished in various unspeakable ways, while justice turned a blind eye. Among the dead is one of your colleagues. Now consider the invitation, which is to a press conference to be held punctually on the following Friday, at a not particularly out of the way spot just outside of town. You were, perhaps, considering going instead to a movie? Keep in mind, the invitation notes, that attendance will be taken by the Zetas.
Imagine now that you arrive on the appointed day at the stated location, and that you are greeted by several expensively dressed, highly amiable men. Once the greetings are over, they have something to say, and the tone changes. We would like you, they say, to be considerate of us in your coverage. We have seen or heard certain articles or news reports that are unfair and, dare we say, displeasing to us. Displeasing. We have our eye on you. We would like you to consider the consequences of offending us further. We know you would not look forward to the result. We give warning, but we give no quarter. You are dismissed.
Jay Caspian Kang (pictured above) is an editor at Grantland. His work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine and The Morning News. His first novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in August 2012.
This is the sort of piece you want to compare to other writers like Didion or Carver or even James Baldwin, but you hold off because you don’t want to piss off the author by getting it wrong. Yes, there’s a bit of Didion’s calmness here, a bit of Carver’s bleariness, and a bit of Baldwin’s honesty-at-all-costs, but David Hill’s prose sings with a melancholy that’s truly original. The one piece from 2011 that had me punching the wall with jealousy. By far my favorite read of the year.
Great crime writing. Thoroughly reported and well constructed.
My thoughts on Guillermoprieto can be found here.
This is gut-wrenching. Goldman’s novel, Say Her Name, is somehow even more powerful.
When this very funny piece about robots is over, you start thinking a bit differently about love. I don’t know how Jon Ronson achieved that effect, but “Robots Say the Damnedest Things,” was my most fun read of 2011.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
2011 was a banner year for long-form journalism and storytelling on the web, and correlatively a time to appreciate people like Mark who have propelled the Longreads movement forward. I love how this site started as a hashtag on a soundbite-filled medium like Twitter, pulling away the noise to highlight the words and weightier pieces that engaged us all. It has never been easier to find something good to read.
And as I travel, I find myself connecting the dots between disparate countries or foods, drawing parallels within the stories I digest as I go. It’s extremely hard to whittle down the many fantastic pieces this year to a short list, but the pieces I’ve picked below are ones that had a significant impact, and are now baked into my memories of the places where they were read.
1) The Man who Sailed His House (GQ): This piece could have been written matter-of-factly or reported as the news that it was at its base level: a man, lost at sea after Japan’s devastating tsunami, is finally rescued days later. Instead, Michael Paterniti’s beautiful prose turns this astonishing tale into the surreal, raising it above anything else I’ve read about Hiromitsu Shinkawa. Through the patchwork of photos from the tsunami and its vast scale of destruction, the sincere humanity of this story is not something you want to miss. [Read it in: Casablanca, Morocco]
2) In the New Gangland of El Salvador (New York Review of Books): I’ve been a fan of Alma Guillermoprieto’s ability to tell a heartbreaking story with grace for quite some time, and her longread about El Salvador is no exception. Returning to El Salvador after 30 years, the piece swings between descriptive travelogue and somber reporting, digging into the history of the country’s ferocious gangs and why they are so prevalent. [Read it in: Montreal, Canada]
3) The Possibilian (The New Yorker): I first discovered David Eagleman when I read Sum, 40 short stories about an imaginary afterlife. At times funny, at times sad and each packing a punch in a short two-page read, I’ve been foisting Sum on those learning English as the creativity and short chapters make it an ideal learning book. So it was fascinating to learn more about Eagleman and his own brush with death, how he has collected hundreds of stories like his, and how “they almost all share the same quality: in life-threatening situations, time seems to slow down.” In Burkhard Bilger’s wonderful profile of the quirky neuroscientist, not only do we get insight into how and why Eagleman writes the way he does, but we learn about the philosophies behind his prose and how his own history naturally braids in, pushing him further to take risks beyond most of our comfort levels. [Read it in: Chiang Mai, Thailand]
4) Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert (The Awl): I have Wikipedia bookmarked on both mobile and laptops, and it’s an argument-solver, fact-checker (with a pinch of salt) and using the random article generator, a great way to learn about new things you had no idea existed. In her Awl piece, the talented Maria Bustillos discussed the pros and cons of the service, noting that “Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic.” Instead of being told how it is, you’re given the facts to make your own editorial decision. Great read. [Read it in: Bangkok, Thailand]
5) Deep Intellect: Inside the Mind of an Octopus (Orion Magazine): One of the more unusual and vaguely discomfiting pieces of the year (“Am I really sympathizing with the brain of an octopus? Yes, yes I am”), Sy Montgomery’s loving investigation of animal we often eat but rarely personify was a wonder to read. Whether talking about the study of octopus intellect, the description of octopus behaviour or Montgomery’s awe as he spends time with a 40-pound giant Pacific octopus, I couldn’t put it down. I’ll never look at octopuses the same way again. [Read it in: Istanbul, Turkey]
Bonus reads (hard to pick only five!)
1) Breaking Caste (The Globe and Mail): Veteran journalist Stephanie Nolen reports on Sudha Varghese, the remarkable woman who built a school for the Dalit girls (India’s Untouchable caste), giving them new hope. Nolen’s writing style and obvious research make the piece that much more interesting to read and her background section on Varghese’s life gives the story an additional human connection. [Read it in: London, England]
2) When Irish Eyes are Crying (Vanity Fair): With Moneyball‘s marketing campaign in full force and Boomerang on the shelves, Michael Lewis is everywhere these days. However back in March when Vanity Fair published his longread on the Irish financial crisis, his buzz had yet to crescendo. The piece sets out the background and confluence of factors that led to the Irish economic crash, as well as some unpopular opinions on how it could have been avoided. Very interesting read. [Read it in: Mae Hong Son, Thailand]
3) My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant (The New York Times): Brave piece from Jose Antonio Vargas “coming out” as someone who has worked as a journalist and award-winning writer for years, all while hiding that he was not legally permitted to do so in the United States. Living this otherworld reality meant that Vargas went about his days in fear of being found out, something he had spent years trying to avoid. Vargas attributes his decision to share the true story after reading about four students who walked from Miami to Washington to lobby for the Dream Act. [Read it in: New York, NY]
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
As US immigration policy has focused on deporting the greatest possible number of undocumented migrants, no matter what their situation, a great many Salvadoran deportees, some of whom grew up in the United States and hardly speak Spanish, have found themselves back in their country of birth. A number of these unwilling returnees are mareros, who either join the local branch of their organization or try to flee back home (that is, to the United States), joining a migrant trail across Mexico used by hundreds of thousands of would-be US immigrants every year. Along the way, the mareros are often recruited by Mexican drug traffickers, who have developed highly lucrative sidelines in white slavery, child prostitution, and migrant extortion. Assault, robbery, and rape are now an expected part of the migrant journey through Mexico.
Jay Caspian Kang is a fiction writer living in San Francisco. He is the author of The High is Always the Pain and the Pain is Always the High, an essay on gambling addiction that appeared in the Morning News and has been named on several “Best of 2010” lists.
In no particular order.
THE LEGEND OF BLACK SUPERMAN — Rafe Bartholomew, Deadspin
I’m typing this in a Starbucks in the Robinson’s Place Mall in Manila. Everywhere I go in this city, I am reminded of Pacific Rims, Bartholomew’s chronicle of the place of basketball in the culture of the Philippines.
The excerpt on Billy Ray Bates was my favorite sports read of the year. Any documentary filmmaker who wants a subject…
THE MURDERERS OF MEXICO — Alma Guillermoprieto, New York Review of Books
What else could you possibly ever want out of a journalist? Fearless, measured and whip-smart with an eye for narrative detail that should be the envy of every writer who has ever read her work.
Her reflections, observations and opinions on the war in Mexico should tower over every other work on the subject, the way Orwell towers over the Spanish Civil War. Hopefully, before it’s too late, someone in publishing will drive up to Guillermoprieto’s door with a suitcase filled with money, because if there is going to be another Homage to Catalonia, it will be Alma Guillermoprieto on the Narco Wars.
INSANE CLOWN POSSE: AND GOD CREATED CONTROVERSY — Jon Ronson, The Guardian
The perfect companion for the world’s most baffling music video. I wish someone had done this for the Wu, circa 1994.
Ronson also broke open the seal for long-form articles written specifically to explain baffling youtube videos. Like somebody please write 3,000+ words on how they got that fucking bird to dance to that Willow Smith song. Choire Sicha, I’m looking you straight in the eyes and I am saying please.
PELE AS A COMEDIAN — Brian Phillips, Run of Play
There are so many reasons why this essay should annoy me. It’s about a really kinda bad David Foster Wallace essay, it’s about soccer and it involves a lot of footnotes. And yet, it took me about a paragraph to discard all those hang-ups and just revel in the quality of writing, the intelligence of the mind at work.
RICHARD LAWSON’S AMERICAN IDOL COVERAGE — Richard Lawson, Gawker
The only reason I still watch the show. And, along with temperate weather and Mexican food, one of the three reasons why I love living on the West Coast. Because on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, I can wake up and have Lawson’s mammoth recaps already posted on Gawker.
Sometimes, I find myself typing and deleting twitter messages to Richard Lawson. Mostly, they are about how my day is going. Sometimes, they are jokes about Crystal Bowersox. Once, it was a suggestion he get cloned so he could also write about the Biggest Loser.