Los Niños Sicarios, the title of Rob Lambert’s 2015 short, refers to the child hitmen who work (in America) for Mexican drug operations by eradicating the cartel’s enemies. ‘Work’ is the key word, as impressionable and disenfranchised youth are trained for and assigned gruesome hits, in exchange for a financially more comfortable life than these teenagers knew before. Lambert’s film exposes this scarcely-reported issue of child exploitation and does so in a profoundly personalized way, as we’re granted insight into the multiple lives these little assassins lead. I spoke with the writer/director to find out how he became familiar with this phenomenon.
Rob, what prompted you to make a film of this subject matter? What brought your attention to the issue?
I’ve always been interested in niche crime stories, especially in the American Southwest. In the early 2000s I stumbled across the author Charles Bowden. He was one of the first writers to write about the drug war and Cartels in Mexico and along the Southwest. I read all his books. He seemed to be the only writer talking about what was going on and living to tell about it, as all the Mexican writers and journalists were being killed if there was anything in the press about the inner workings of the Cartels or reporting on the government turning a blind eye. So around 2008/2009 when I came across news stories about American kids working for the Cartels as assassins I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
What kind of research did you do for the film? Did you speak with any real life child hitmen?
I was able to link up with some young guys living in LA who were originally from Sinaloa. I got a very real sense from talking to these men what was really going on. I ended up hiring these guys to do the Skype phone calls VO that bookend the short. I also read a ton of online materials and public record documents.
The wife of the murdered was kept essentially anonymous, with her back to us. Was this in an effort to convey how identity-less the targets and their families are to the hitmen?
What I really wanted to show with that “hit” scene was how unsuspecting the targets are, and how out of place that type of activity is in the American suburbs. The real message is if you cross the Cartel, they can and will get you, no matter the setting or circumstance.
What did you hope to achieve with the making of this documentary? Did you feel there was a need for alternative/ perhaps more realistic depictions of Mexican drug culture, as TV shows like Narcos and Breaking Bad slightly glamorize that world?
The short is meant to show the bones of what this world is, how cunning and careful it is. The kids sadly are pawns, the same as child soldiers in the Middle East or Africa. The biggest difference for me is that these kids are living lives as normal American teens, until they work. Their introduction into this world is every bit as violent and rough. The things some of the kids are made to do in terms of torturing enemies etc is as bad as it gets. They don’t have a chance at being normal, even though we are led to believe that if you are in the US, you have every chance anyone else has. These kids would disagree.
The mundanity of the task is striking. Was this something you were conscious to portray (its everyday-ness)?
Ultimately it’s a job for these kids. They go from living in the poorest sections of border neighborhoods to living in a suburban house, making decent money and driving nice cars — all before the age of 18. They’ve been trained to be numb. They’ve experienced and seen much worse than shooting someone with a gun. At this point it’s all they have.
Is it these kind of social issues you’re most interested in in your filmmaking, or what other projects have you lined up?
Definitely. This is really the only type of filmmaking I’m interested in. Real stories with real consequences. I’ve developed a TV series and Pilot around the idea, as well as a feature film script. I’m equally interested in documentary work in the same vein.
What got you into filmmaking initially? Have you any advice for those looking to emulate a career like yours?
Well I’m still figuring it out myself but I’d say don’t put your time into any projects that you don’t ultimately think you can spend 5+ years working on/thinking about etc. That doesn’t apply to paid gigs. Take whatever paid gigs you can get.