Here’s a sample lyric from a popular narcocorrido, the musical genre that celebrates Mexico’s drug cartels and their brutal bosses: “With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder/ Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off/ We’re bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill.”
Photojournalist Shaul Schwarz’s powerful documentary “Narco Cultura” gets inside the world of two men who, in very different ways, inhabit this horror. Edgar Quintero is a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter and frontman for the band Buknas de Culiacán. He compares his narcocorridos to gangsta rap (as do others). He is often hired to compose personally crafted songs for drug lords.
Richie Soto is a crime-scene investigator in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, ground zero in the drug-cartel wars and often described as the murder capital of the world. In 2007 there were 320 murders in Juárez. By 2010, the number had risen to 3,622. El Paso, Texas, across the river from Juárez, had five murders in that same year.
Schwarz, without being schematic about it, cuts back and forth between these two men and their opposing lives. Quintero, with a beaming wife and young child, is an affable go-getter. He and his band mates dress up for concerts in gang regalia, sometimes toting fake AK-47s.
Although banned in Mexico, narcocorridos are increasingly popular. Do the young people who listen comprehend the connection between the lyrics and the reality? If they saw “Narco Cultura,” they might think twice about what they are mouthing. Cartel bosses are glorified in these songs as Robin Hoods who give to the poor. Compared with someone with such swagger, a dogged soft-spoken investigator like Soto doesn’t stand a chance in popular culture, although he is the true hero.
When we see Quintero, in a tender singsong voice, warbling one of his violent ditties to his child, the dissonance between truth and fiction is almost unbearable. For Quintero, he is merely reflecting, and not fomenting, the Mexican drug-war mind-set. As he told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “I’m not going to change the world if I start singing about peace and love.”
Meanwhile, back in Juárez, where the streets run red, Soto is denigrated by the gangsters and their idolators as a mere “bullet collector.” And in fact, partly because of internal corruption at the highest reaches of the justice system, very few of these drug crimes are ever prosecuted. Many of Soto’s colleagues, who wear masks to avoid detection when they investigate crime scenes, are fearful for their lives and have left the force. Some have been murdered. He says of his workday: “You always go out with a prayer on your lips.”
Schwarz doesn’t make it clear why Juárez is ground zero in the drug wars. Is it because of its close proximity to the US border? He also doesn’t indict the buyers in the United States who are overwhelmingly the chief consumers of the illegal narcotics coming out of Mexico. His concern is more human-scaled, and his bravery in making this film in some ways matches Soto’s steadfastness in the face of grave danger.
Interviewed in the film, Juárez journalist Sandra Rodriguez offers up this grim summation: “That these people represent the ideal of success, impunity, and limitless power is symptomatic of how defeated we are as a society.” Grade: A- (Rated R for grisly graphic images of disturbing violent content, drug material, language, and brief nudity.)