The U.S.-Mexico borderland has long held a fascination for filmmakers. It is a cultural grey area, neither fully Mexican nor fully American, where peoples are separated by language, religion and nationality, yet simultaneously connected by deep shared histories. It is an imaginary projection of division, manifested physically in the bends of rivers, the geometric patterns of wooden posts jutting haphazardly out into the pacific ocean, and an imposing, monolithic steel fence that cuts across the landscape like a precarious scab over an unhealed wound. Yet none of these natural and manmade barriers can thwart the inexorable flow of goods and people that long predate the petty colonial enterprises that carved up the land in the name of national glory. From prohibition-era rumrunners, to migrant farmworkers, to modern cartels with their tentacular criminal corporations, the border has always been a porous construction, defined as much by commonality as it is by contrast and conflict.
Documentary filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has dedicated his career to exploring this liminal space where two disparate worlds seemingly clash in a tectonic rift, but in reality overlap and intermingle in complex ways that are often inconvenient to peddlers of rigid binaries. In his work, Ruiz avoids easy answers and sensationalist tropes in which good endlessly battles evil or violence shatters innocence. Instead, Ruiz looks deeper into the human experience of border conflict, and approaches truths that transcend stereotypes and facile constructions.
His latest feature, Kingdom of Shadows, explores the diverse manifestations of narco conflict on both sides of the border through the words and experiences of three emblematic, but unlikely subjects: an Anglo Texan ex-drug smuggler, a Mexican-American Homeland Security special agent, and a Mexican nun who advocates for families who have suffered from the disappearance of loved ones. They are three divergent prisms through which to view the sprawling, formless conflict, and Kingdom of Shadows weaves them together to reveal deeper connections that bind these disparate experiences into one complex tapestry.
Oscar Hagelsieb is one those subjects. The Mexican-American child of undocumented immigrants, Hagelsieb was raised on the outskirts of El Paso, Texas where the promise of fast money and flashy cars made narco trafficking one of the only viable options for economic success. As he struggled to reconcile the expectations of his family and the crude reality of his surroundings, a chance encounter with an undercover federal agent led Oscar down a path that ultimately landed him one of the most important desks in federal law enforcement.
But Hagelsieb is not what you would expect of an Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Homeland Security Investigations office in El Paso. In fact, the tattooed, goateed, motorcycle riding family man looks more like a cholo biker than the stereotypical image of a federal agent. But this has arguably been his strength, and Hagelsieb has pursued his career in hopes that he could bring a human, compassionate face to the difficult reality of law enforcement on the border.
In the wake of the film’s world premiere at Austin’s SXSW Film Festival, we took the opportunity to sit down with Oscar and Bernardo to chat about the power of appearances, the days when only badasses had tattoos, and treating immigrants with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Bernardo, could you talk a little about the genesis of this project? What story did you set out to tell, and how do you feel it transformed along the way?
“There’s still this idea that a federal agent is this square-jawed Anglo from the 1950s.”
BERNARDO: What I was really trying to do was bring together voices that I felt like I hadn’t heard before in the discussion and the debate around the U.S.-Mexico narco conflict. And obviously I had made Reportero about journalists covering organized crime and political corruption, but one of the pieces I felt I didn’t have a handle on was getting the law enforcement perspective. So in the film what I try to do is weave together three stories: it’s the story of a former smuggler, a human rights activist in Mexico, and then a federal law enforcement voice as well. So that’s really where Oscar came into play. And I also felt like there’s still this idea that a federal agent is this square-jawed Anglo from the 1950s, right? There’s this idea that a federal agent has to be a very specific thing, and once I was introduced to Oscar by some journalist friends I felt like his story was so unbelievably compelling, and not something that we had seen before in other media outlets. Maybe in fiction a little bit, but I felt like I had never had a chance to interview somebody with Oscar’s background, his deep roots in the border, his ties to Mexico but also someone who’s operating as a U.S. federal agent.
How did you become aware of his work? You mentioned that somebody ultimately connected you with Oscar. What were you looking for at the time and how did you go about approaching him to appear in the documentary?
“I realized this guy who was covered in tats with a goatee, rocking a baseball cap, that this was the federal agent that I was supposed to meet.”
BERNARDO: When we started I had already wanted to put Sister Consuelo in a film and Don Henry Ford. And I knew that, here are these two pieces of a story of the U.S.-Mexico narco conflict, and I felt like Don was representing a kind of U.S. reality and a Texas reality, and Sister Consuelo is representing the Monterrey reality, and so I reached out to Alfredo Corchado and Angela Kocherga, who are two veteran border and Mexico reporters, really highly regarded in their fields, and I told them, “I’d love to talk to somebody who has experience in the U.S. and Mexico, and ideally if you know anybody who’s spent time in Monterrey, that would be incredible.” And they said, “You know what, we think we might know the perfect person.”
They set up a meeting, I flew down to El Paso and I basically was in a café waiting for this agent to come in. And even I, who’s spent my life exploring U.S.-Mexico issues and as a Mexican-American, I had a kind of preconceived notion of what this agent would look like. And I was waiting for a fed in a suit to come through and I totally missed Oscar’s entrance. He came in, ordered some coffee, and he sat down right next to me, and I realized this guy who was covered in tats with a goatee, rocking a baseball cap, that this was the federal agent that I was supposed to meet. So, what I tried to do in the film was basically mirror that experience of meeting him, of being surprised at who this federal agent was.
And Oscar, what were your initial reactions when Bernardo started talking to you about participating in the film? Did you have any reservations?
OSCAR: Quite frankly, I was a little hesitant based on the fact that in my position, if I were to agree to do something of this scale, you’re basically representing the agency. Given the fact that I’m still employed and I really enjoy my job, I was kind of hesitant and I was thinking that it’s something unusual for me, and more specifically because for years I operated in the shadows. All those years I worked undercover they never really wanted me in the office, they never wanted me to look like a cop, they never wanted me to wear any insignia that would identify me as a federal agent. So you’re doing the total opposite now, in the sense that you’re exposing your life and you’re letting everybody know who you are and what you mean. Now I really do trust Angela Kocherga and Alfredo Corchado, and they were very instrumental in convincing me that the story that Bernardo wanted to convey was a positive story about the conflicts that a Mexican-American agent with Mexican-born parents goes through to effectively combat the drug cartels along the border.
You spoke in the film about growing up in Socorro and the lack of opportunities for youth in the area, and even the prevalence of criminal activity. I’m curious what your life was like growing up in this environment. Did you feel like you would be different? What kind of dreams did you have for the future before you entered into adulthood?
“I am working at the truck wash, earning $2.35 an hour and having to work from 3pm to midnight and then do my homework and wake up at 6:30.”
OSCAR: It was a constant conflict in the sense that my parents were strict and they were very anti-cartel, anti-drug, anti-criminal, anything having to do with not doing the right thing. They were very, very adamant that they didn’t want their only son to fall in bad steps. But by the same token, going to school, hanging out with individuals that for the longest period of time were just like you, who didn’t have a lot of money, didn’t have a lot of opportunities, then suddenly like flipping the light switch, they have money, they have cars, they have anything that they could want. They’re not struggling any more. And here I am working at the truck wash, earning $2.35 an hour and having to work from 3pm to midnight and then do my homework and wake up at 6:30 and go back to school and repeat. It was very difficult, it was a conflict to do the right thing. It definitely was.
The turning point in my life was the fact that we had an outreach program. I was in a program that helped me accelerate my graduation because I had fallen behind, and in this program some sheriff’s officers went in and spoke to us, and spoke to us like the regular outreach that you see to at-risk kids. They spoke about staying in school, not doing drugs, and these are guys in El Paso County Sheriff’s uniforms. And I remember sitting there and thinking, “It’s fine that they’re telling me all this, but they don’t live the reality. They don’t live in Socorro, they don’t have parents that don’t speak a word of English.” So, I kind of listened to them, but I couldn’t really relate, and I felt that they couldn’t relate to our struggles.
But then what they said was, “We’re gonna bring somebody in that maybe you can relate to.” And in comes this guy with dirty, torn up jeans, biker boots, a big chain hanging, tattoos on his arms — and at that time if you had tattoos, you know, you were a badass. And he comes in and he starts saying about all this stuff that he does: that he’s involved in outlaw motorcycle gangs, that he’s moved meth all over the United States, that he has all this money, that he’s traveled all over the world. And I’m thinking this is a bad guy, and he got my attention. And when he unveils that fact that he’s an undercover agent, and he pulled out his sheriff’s badge that sparked a fire in me, and I said, “Wow, that’s an awesome guy, he’s effective.” And it’s just something that drove me to say, “That’s what I want to do.”
And you mentioned your father initially crossed the border illegally to start his life in the United States. Despite your own family history, what made you decide to join the Border Patrol? Was there a specific trigger, or was it something you thought about over a long period of time?
[My dad] he told me: “Treat the people with the dignity and the respect that they deserve.”
OSCAR: Well I had actually thought about it for a long time. And, quite frankly, the reason that I didn’t join the patrol earlier was the fact that I had never really talked to my dad about it, and he never really conveyed his feelings. My dad was a very reserved man. So I really didn’t understand what his feelings were towards the Border Patrol and quite honestly I think I was fearing a negative reaction from my father, just based on the stories that he would tell us about him crossing the border ever since he was a teenager. Even though he had some positive experiences — as positive as getting arrested by the border patrol can be — he also had some very negative experiences. And he was crossing at a time when the majority of law enforcement along the border was Anglo, so I’m not throwing out the racist card, but they perhaps didn’t understand what these families were going through in order to try to come to the United States and make a better life for themselves.
So that’s really the reason why I didn’t join the border patrol earlier. And like I said in the film, it was really amazing to me to hear my dad give me his blessing, in a way saying that, “It’s people like you who are going to turn what negative thoughts immigrants have on the Border Patrol and U.S. law enforcement, they’re going to turn it into a positive.” And he told me: “Treat the people with the dignity and the respect that they deserve. They’re human beings and they’re coming for a reason, and on the flip side of the coin, the people that are poisoning the streets and poisoning our youth, those are the people you need to get off the streets.”
During your career as a Border Patrol agent, did you ever find yourself in an ethically compromising situation? Did you ever feel like you were betraying your family?
“There were actually times when I helped people who qualified for some sort of immigration relief.”
OSCAR: As a Border Patrol agent, it was a conflict because, you gotta realize that when I would arrest a family that had spent all their savings, had probably mortgaged their ranch in wherever they’re from — in Mexico or Guatemala or Honduras — and they have spent weeks traveling to the border in hopes of getting smuggled into the United States and making a better life for themselves, and here I am as a Border Patrol agent encountering them and arresting them and basically ending their chase of the American dream. And here I am, I’m the bearer of bad news. I’m the person that’s going to cause them to go back to Mexico and maybe lose everything that they’ve worked for. So it was always a conflict. I would see it in their face. But, by the same token, I was able to explain to them that it’s my job and that there are legal ways to immigrate, and there were actually times when I helped people who qualified for some sort of immigration relief. I helped them even though it took more work out of me and out of the agency, I was able to steer them in the right direction where they were able to immigrate legally.
In the film’s teaser, you talk about how you transitioned into undercover work by answering phone calls. Obviously you’ve had a long and eventful career, and I’m wondering how you worked you way up from being a Border Patrol agent to having such an important position at the El Paso Homeland Security office.
OSCAR: The way that I really got into the position that I’m in, is based on the fact that I was effective as an undercover agent, and a lot of the cases that we did in El Paso and all over the United States, some all over the world, wouldn’t have been brought to prosecution had it not been for my undercover role in the case. I also took a lot of high risk posts. For example, I spent some time in Saudi Arabia. I was the agent in charge of Homeland Security there in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which at that time was responsible for most of the investigations going on in the Middle East. I also took posts in Monterrey, Mexico which was during the time when the U.S. Consulate got attacked. I took high risk positions that exposed me to our executive management and it showcased my work. And I’ve been blessed in the sense that I’ve been taking positions that have promoted my career.
And Bernardo, you managed to follow Oscar into some rather sensitive, closed door situations in the Homeland Security office. What was it like getting access to these places? Where there any unexpected complications during the shoot?
BERNARDO: From the moment I met Oscar, I knew that he had such a compelling story and I had a few off-the-record conversations with him to determine that trajectory — his narrative arc that you just heard — but we knew that we wanted access and needed access, and so we we’re prepared for a slow, bureaucratic process because it is dealing with the government and obviously there are a lot of security issues. But, interestingly, once we initiated the requests we really were granted very reasonable access. It took time, and my producer Katia Maguire really took the lead on that. What was interesting is that, once we had access, what you saw are people doing some very difficult work. Of course there are agents who didn’t want their faces seen for obvious reasons, but at least for me, it was the first time where I got an insight into the type of difficult work that a lot of agents are doing.
Oscar, obviously your appearance has been a considerable advantage in your undercover work, but has it ever caused for conflict or misunderstanding among your fellow law enforcement officers? When you’re off the job, do you feel at all like you’re singled out for the way you look?
“There are situations where I have been [judged], and not only by law enforcement, but by the general public.”
OSCAR: Yes, quite often. And I really don’t take issue with that because I think that it comes with the territory. I knew that my appearance — the way I look, my tattoos — would help me in an undercover role. It helped me because it kind of portrayed this image that I was who I said I was. But I also knew the repercussions of it. Whether I want to admit it or not, people judge you — and I don’t want to say “profile”– but people judge you. If I’m driving through a certain neighborhood that you don’t expect me to be driving through, I expect to get a second look. It’s been even comical at times.
When we travel on official business, we travel armed. We actually check in at the airport and go through different security procedures than normal citizens do because we are flying armed. There was one particular time where I’m going in with a supervisor that works for me and he goes and checks in first. He shows his credentials, he fills out all the paperwork, and he’s led on to proceed. And I come in right after him and I show them the same credentials, I fill out the same paperwork, and they actually call him back to vouch for me. They actually said like, “Hey this guy’s saying he’s an agent, do you know him? You’re with the same agency?” And — Richard Cardoza was his name — he says, “Yeah… that’s my boss.” So, yes, there are situations where I have been [judged], and not only by law enforcement, but by the general public.
[Earlier] I was talking about that Sheriff’s officer who was working undercover, who came in and did that presentation. Well, we do that now. And I do that because if they changed my life back then, if I can change one person’s life now, that would be worth it. So we do a lot of outreach, we do a lot of talking to at-risk high school students in El Paso and around the area. And we do the same thing that they did back then. My agents go in wearing the suit, they look like agents, they act like agents, they talk like agents, and then they let me walk in at the end looking the way I look. And then, when I start talking to the kids they start paying a little more attention. And I tell them that I’m a federal agent and it catches their attention. But even when I go to the schools, I almost have to have an escort, you know. Even though I’m showing my credentials and I’m saying who I am. It’s just the way that you look, people judge you.
And have you had any concrete success stories? Anybody who’s followed up with you in this outreach work you’ve been doing?
OSCAR: Yes, you know I’ve had several. I’ve been doing this outreach work for the last 5 or 6 years since I stopped doing undercover work. And, you know, there’s been several people. I’ve actually done presentations, because I do cartel training all over the United States, where I go to another sector and Border Patrol agents will come up to me and say: “You don’t remember me, sir, but I’m from El Paso. You did an outreach back whenever and it really touched me and that’s why I became a Border Patrol agent.” For me, that’s the most satisfying part of what we do.
Bernardo, what kind of impact are you hoping that this film will have? Why do you think that this is an important story to tell at this moment?
“When you’re talking about the drug war, nothing is what it seems, and so one big thing that I wanted to do is to unpack those stereotypes.”
BERNARDO: I think there are two things that I was trying to do with the film, and one is to unpack stereotypes. In the film we have an Anglo smuggler, a white drug smuggler, and we have a Mexican-American federal agent who grew up along the border with undocumented parents, at least originally. When you’re talking about the drug war, nothing is what it seems, and so one big thing that I wanted to do is to unpack those stereotypes and look at some of the grey areas in the storytelling about the border.
And the other thing that I wanted to do is, there are a lot of films out there that are focused on just the violence, and are focused on the conflict, and it’s great that those films are out there, but what I feel like is missing are the deeper personal stories of how people have been impacted by this conflict. So for me the most interesting thing are the decisions that people have to make in their lives within this broader conflict. And I think every voice in the film is a very thoughtful voice. They’re people with direct experience of the drug war, but they’re also people who kind of serve as experts. They have a perspective on the bigger picture conflict. For me I just wanted to root the storytelling in the voices of people with this lived experience. So that for me was something that I haven’t seen. There are a lot of films that touch on the drug war, the conflict, different aspects of the narco reality, but for me very few of them delve into the humanity of the people at the center of conflict.
You just had your world premiere at SXSW in Texas, and the film incidentally takes place in and around Texas. How did it go? What kind of reactions did you guys get?
BERNARDO: We had a really blowout first screening. It was an incredible screening. In addition to having Oscar here, we had Don Henry Ford Jr. here as well. I don’t remember attending any screening before where you had both a former smuggler and a current federal agent on the same stage. I think people were really struck by that. There were a lot of questions, a lot of people wanted to ask questions about the experiences and expertise of both people up on that stage. We had a really, really strong reaction and followed by a lot tequila. [laughs]
Bernardo, you’ve really dedicated most of your career to exploring issues related to the border, to U.S.-Mexico relations; what are you looking at now for future work? What’s caught your attention thematically?
“Oscar has an extraordinary story, and you don’t see these stories in other places.”
I really see this film, Kingdom of Shadows, that we made with Participant Media, as part of an ongoing body of work exploring these themes. The next film that I want to make, I hope it’s going to build on what I’ve already done with Kingdom of Shadows, but I feel like this is such a rich area for storytelling, for journalism, for filmmaking. Oscar has an extraordinary story, and you don’t see these stories in other places. So for me I feel like what I want to do is continue to deepen this type of storytelling. Each film is an incredible opportunity to learn something, and I feel like in the last year I’ve learned so much from being in Monterrey, spending time with Don and learning about his smuggling at the height of the “Just Say No” era, and spending time with Oscar in HSI and learning about his undercover days. Oscar’s a series in his own right. You could make an incredible compelling series based on his experiences alone as an agent. I think this is such a rich area for storytelling, and I don’t think that the Latino experience gets explored in any kind of complexity in big media. So I want to keep building and working on these stories. I feel very passionately about these stories and I want to do more of them.
And as Don said, which I think was a really important point made in the film, the border region on both sides — on the U.S. as much as in Mexico — is kind of a shared culture. It’s a really complex region that has hundreds of years of history that goes beyond whatever urgent, topical issues we’re facing right now. So dealing with the U.S. border in a way is dealing with a whole culture and a history, so it’s really ripe for unpacking.
“[We] can’t even agree on the name of the river that separates the two countries. In Mexico, it’s the Río Bravo and in the U.S., it’s the Rio Grande.”
BERNARDO: I think you’re absolutely right, and it’s so interesting that the U.S. and Mexico can’t even agree on the name of the river that separates the two countries. In Mexico, it’s the Río Bravo and here in the U.S., it’s the Rio Grande. So I think that just says a lot. There are a lot of dueling perspectives and overlapping perspectives, and for filmmaking, for storytelling it’s a very fertile, very rich area.
So any closing remarks? Anything you’d like tell our readers?
OSCAR: The only thing I want to add is that it was a great opportunity for me. It was an eye-opening experience because I also learned a lot. I also learned a lot from Consuelo, and I learned a lot from Mr. Ford in just humanizing the experience of different perspectives. I also wanted to thank Bernardo for giving us the opportunity to highlight a lot of the work that goes on in federal law enforcement, specifically agents that are working undercover who for the most part really don’t get to showcase their efforts. They don’t get the public praise that I’m getting right now based on the fact that I was in this film. And this last couple of screenings that we’ve had, I’ve had people approach me at the end of each screening to thank me for my service and for what I’ve done. And that’s very gratifying to me because I feel proud that I did it, but it’s also a reflection on every undercover agent that’s putting their life on the line protecting our home.
Kingdom of Shadows will open in theaters this fall. Visit takepart.com/shadows for updates. Photos and clip courtesy of Participant Media.
Catch Kingdom of Shadows on September 23, 2015 at the San Francisco Latino Film Festival.
UPDATE: Kingdom of Shadows premieres on PBS September 19, 2016 as part of POV.