It’s truly stunning to see something so horrendously volatile as the Mexican narcotics trade glorified to the point of celebrity by naïve outsiders far removed from the front line assaults it cultivates. While the city of Juárez wasn’t necessarily “safe” back in 2006 with 300+ homicides, it became a fully-formed warzone afterwards with death counts growing to over 1000 in 2007 before climbing to 3,500+ in 2010—the same year El Paso, TX right across the border was America’s safest city with only five. Shot and directed by Israeli war photographer Shaul Schwarz, the documentary Narco Cultura provides uncensored access into this violent world. We watch Juárez crime scene investigator Richi Soto risk his life daily, while ex-con Angeleno Edgar Quintero profits off the carnage with popular corridos vaulting the criminals responsible into pop culture icons worthy of adolescent idolatry.
The dual subjects allow Schwarz to portray two sides of the conflict with proximity, informing upon the disparate roles each plays within the culture. Soto sees his career as crucial to ending the suffering he’s watched his city endure for half a decade. His home is transformed into a hell that forces him to wear a mask while working in order to hide his identity from crime scene bystanders who could easily be the murderers looking to learn who they must kill next to ensure their freedom. When filming started he already saw three men from his unit ambushed and assassinated with a fourth added as the project wore on. His family pleads for him to quit, his girlfriend wants to move to El Paso, but he can’t help seeing both options as abandoning his nation and adding to the problem.
Conversely, Quintero dreams of one day visiting cartel epicenter Culiacán to voluntarily witness the culture first-hand. In his mind idol El Komander—the world’s top-selling narcocorrido songwriter—only has to look out the window for inspiration while he must troll the internet for new deaths and “heroes” to write about. To him seeing an actual outlaw in Mexico get friends together to shoot AK-47s in his honor is something to raise a glass to and bask in his growing popularity. Whether he fully understands he’s promoting a way of life responsible for over 60,000 deaths or not, it’s a jarring realization for us to see a jump-cut progression of him smiling on stage, footage of a teenager declaring her wish to become a narco’s wife, and the charred remains of a Mexican victim while a distraught mother wails at her loss.
These are the sorts of juxtapositions Schwarz fearlessly creates throughout to force all who watch into seeing the bald truth stripped of any glamour some believe it possesses. Narco Cultura earns its R-rating in this matter-of-fact depiction of dead bodies, bullet-hole ridden crime scenes, and actual drug use inside a world of infinite power wielded with impunity. At one point Schwarz is on Mexican government property filming Soto and his coworkers leaving the office for the day when hushed voices begin to talk about a suspicious vehicle parked outside. As they stand there scared of what this discovery may mean for them once they leave the gate, gunshots ring out in the distance. It’s a harrowing experience to watch as these helpless protectors of the peace freeze in the knowledge they probably won’t make it to retirement.
As a result, this isn’t a documentary constructed purely from gruesome photos and salacious footage of a city ravaged by a violence and greed we can’t even imagine. It also doesn’t necessarily try to put a face on the problem, only a briefly mentioning Sinaloa Cartel drug lord billionaire El Chapo to expose how Western media bolsters his fame. The film instead sheds light on mankind’s penchant for wealth and success and the lengths taken to pretend exploitation isn’t simply justified but also a right. It’s an issue we’ve experienced in America with gangsta rap and its glorification of gang life and its spoils courtesy of unnecessary collateral damage, but on an even bigger scale. Children are now a targeted consumer of a music genre built upon the blood of amoral psychopaths sung about as modern-day Robin Hoods producing a business our youth should aspire towards.
Narco Cultura is a wake-up call to anyone who doesn’t understand the genesis of corrido music. Schwarz follows Quintero’s band BuKnas de Culiácan as they tour the Southern United States, playing to sold-out crowds with bazookas strapped to their backs and bullets across their chests. Fans may dismiss the connection to actual drug life, safe in the knowledge their favorite singers are American and without physical relationships to the horrors in Mexico, but we’re shown they’re wrong. Yes, Quintero is a family man who exited jail a changed man. Yes, he’s a success story with fame and rockstar cred so many fantasize about achieving. But as soon as he enters the subject of his songs, we see it’s not just business. He condones the lifestyle as long as he’s shielded from the dismembered torsos and decapitated heads it produces.
He doesn’t know about Soto’s dead peers, the officials forced to retire from death threats sent to government buildings, or the Mom and Pop stores being extorted without even the lie of receiving “protection” in return. It’s Soto who hides behind a mask everyday or face the vehement ridicule and disgust of terrified citizens wondering why the police can’t stop the violence. He knows 97% of the murders he catalogs go nowhere and the 3% that do don’t earn convictions. He knows the system is corrupt and that his “trivial” job is actually a legitimate stand against the monsters. And as the culture spills across our border and burgeoning icons like Quintero continue to paint dangerous men as heroes, men like Soto fighting the good fight can’t even drive to work without wondering if the next car holds a bullet meant for him.
Narco Cultura opens in limited release on Friday, November 22nd.