Review: Narco Cultura

Note: This article was originally published at Movie Mezzanine.

How can we fight evil when it comes to be admired?

That’s the driving question behind Narco Cultura, a probing and haunting documentary from director Shaul Schwarz that follows the growing popularity of “narcocorridos,” polka-style drug ballads that combine accordion riffs with lyrics that celebrate money, power, and violence. It’s a uniquely Mexican subgenre that has become so popular that musicians are routinely hired by actual criminals to compose melodies about their exploits. A catchy song can boost a gangster’s reputation, and it isn’t unusual for throngs of fans to sing along to narcocorridos in both Mexico and the U.S.

One of the film’s subjects, Edgar Quintero, is a fast-rising composer of these songs, performing at sold-out concert venues in both Mexico and the United States. He’s inspired by “El Komandante,” a narcocorrido superstar who struts around the stage with a replica bazooka resting on his shoulder, crooning about AK-47s and decapitations. Much of this music has been banned by the government as part of President Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on crime, but that doesn’t stop it from spreading illegally through underground markets and finding new fans. It’s unnervingly easy to work details about real-life atrocities into the lyrics: what Quintero doesn’t learn directly from his clients, he discovers in the pages of the daily newspapers, and on blogs that primarily showcase photos and videos of crimes committed by the cartels.

Narco Cultura juxtaposes Quintero’s interactions with fans and clients with a cold, hard look at how Juarez has become the murder capital of the world. There are five major cartels fighting for power in Mexico, the largest of which is run by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. He earns so much money from drug trafficking that he regularly makes Forbes’ annual list of billionaires, and after the death of Osama bin Laden he rose to the top spot of the publication’s list of Most Wanted Fugitives in 2011. He’s responsible for the deaths of thousands, yet many in Mexico consider him a role model, one of the few people in their country who escaped poverty and has the power and money to do whatever he wants. He’s a modern-day Scarface, and it isn’t uncommon for his name to pop up approvingly in the narcocorridos of amateur drug dealers hoping to mimic his success.

The film’s other primary subject is Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator who refuses to change careers even though his job is one of the most dangerous profession in the world’s most dangerous city. Many of his colleagues have been murdered by the cartels, and he has to wear a mask whenever he visits a crime scene to avoid being targeted by nearby gangsters. There are dozens of murders every day, and it isn’t uncommon for a narcocorrido to be heard playing over police radio channels: a signature of sorts whenever a cartel executes someone.

Soto seems to be fighting a losing battle, unfortunately. Schwarz interviews Juarez residents that gather around crime scenes, and they express frustration in the inability (and in some cases, unwillingness) of police to find the people responsible. There’s widespread corruption in law enforcement agencies around the country, and police are hesitant to do anything that might make them or their families a target for reprisal.

There are thousands of murders every year in Juarez (and the number keeps growing), but a few miles away lies El Paso, the safest city in the United States, with only five murders a year. Schwarz mostly keeps his film centered on the Mexican side of the border, but he isn’t afraid to note how narcocorridos are growing in popularity in the United States, and how the cartels are the largest supplier of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine to Mexico’s northern neighbor. There’s a somber air about the film, a lamentation for how Juarez’s violence isn’t just widespread, it’s largely ignored by people close by.

Narco Cultura never feels heavy-handed, and while Schwarz doesn’t shy away from graphic images of real-life crime scenes, the tone is one of restraint, as if a tremendous wave of anger and grief is barely being kept in bay. The children of Juarez are surrounded by bloodshed. Mothers weep for the loss of their loved ones. Law enforcement officials are too scared to leave their homes. Yet there are thousands of people singing about the glory of murder, and narcocorrido musicians are gradually building relationships in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Narco Cultura sheds light on an epidemic that’s often ignored by American audiences, and it’s a powerful wail about how entertainment violence is culturally linked to real atrocities, whether we like to admit it or not.

Grade: A-