International

'Narco Cultura' takes a blood-soaked look at Mexico's war on drugs

Filmmaker Shaul Schwarz examines 'narcocorrido,' “music that glorifies drugs and violence

The band Buknas de Culiacan gets ready to perform in 2010. The band performs a new form of Narco Corrido that has become extremely popular. They are the subject of a new documentary "Narco Cultura."
Shaul Schwarz
Los Buknas de Culiacan.
Los Buknas de Culiacán
Shaul Schwarz

The members of Los Buknas de Culiacan are strapped with various instruments: an accordion, a Mexican guitar, a tuba and a bazooka. Wearing a gold satin shirt under his custom-embroidered suit, lead singer Edgar Quintero has the El Paso, Texas, crowd singing along to his catchy tune: “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.”

Welcome to narcoculture 2.0 — which celebrates narcosaint Jesus Malverde, favors gold-plated and diamond-encrusted .50-caliber guns and prays to Santa Muerte, or Holy Death, and in which old-time gangsters have turned into bloodthirsty psychopaths.

Shaul Schwarz, an Israeli war photographer, holds a mirror up to Los Buknas de Culiacan and the wider tragicomedy that is Mexican drug culture in “Narco Cultura,” a cinema-verite documentary that opens in New York and Miami theaters on Friday.

Showing the binational relationship at the heart of the so-called Mexican drug war (Schwarz prefers to call it the “American-Mexican drug war”), his camera follows two men on different sides of the border.

In Los Angeles, Quintero writes “narcocorridos,” or Mexican drug ballads. Los Buknas de Culiacan takes its name from the birthplace of the Sinaloa Federation, Mexico’s most powerful drug mafia, run by multibillionaire Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. But Quintero has never even been to Culiacan. He gets all his slang and song inspiration by reading Mexican narcoblogs and watching YouTube narcovideos on his computer.

Richie Soto, on the other hand, knows the realities of Mexico’s ever-growing drug culture all too well. As a forensic investigator in Ciudad Juarez, ground zero for Mexico’s drug war, the introverted Soto spends his days hustling from one murder scene to the next. He dutifully performs his job without ever poking too deep into a case that might get him in trouble with the cartels. He accepts that 97 percent of the homicides he investigates will go unsolved. By living in constant fear for his life, surrounded by intimidation and impunity, he represents the less flashy but deep-seated aspects of narcoculture.

“It was a great way to look at corruption through somebody who really means well,” Schwarz said. "I'll vouch for Richie as a good guy any day. He’s a teddy bear. He loves, he cares, he tries. He came in for all the right reasons. Yes, he becomes part of the system."

For proof that the growing popularity of narcoculture stretches far beyond Juarez and Los Angeles, look no further than TV. The 2011 telenovela “La Reina del Sur,” about a young Mexican woman who gets caught up in the cartels and becomes a kingpin herself, was Telemundo’s most successful soap opera ever. Not far behind was “Pablo Escobar: Patron del Mal,” a series about the notorious Colombian drug lord of the 1990s. English-language TV jumped on the bandwagon too. Season 2 of the hit U.S. show “Breaking Bad” featured a full-length narcocorrido sung by Los Cuates de Sinaloa in homage to the lead character and his blue meth.

Even in New York, thousands of miles from Mexico, evidence of narcoculture abounds. Posters on 116th Street in East Harlem promote upcoming performances by popular norteño band Los Invasores de Nuevo Leon alongside narcocorrido singers Grupo Exterminador. Plaza Mexico, which has two stores on 116th, sells Mexican CDs, movies and cowboy wear. Statues of Malverde line a case near the door. Norteño music plays over the radio.

Carlos Barrera, a salesman at one of the stores, said the corrido music his customers buy today is much more violent than in the days of Chalino Sanchez, a famous narcocorrido singer who was murdered in Culiacan in the early 1990s.

“(Sanchez) sang songs about bringing stuff from Mexico, like marijuana. They didn’t talk that hard about killing,” Barrera said. “And now corridos talk very hard about killing, how they kill — ‘I do this to this guy, I cut his fingers off, I cut his head off.’ Very tough.”

“I think Mexican-Americans have some kind of identity issue,” said Schwarz. “Corridos and the scene is a way to connect with what’s going on down south. They don’t care about Pancho Villa anymore. They care about El Chapo.”

Elijah Wald, author of the 2001 book “Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas,” said the recent explosion of narcoculture is tied to the dramatic escalation of violence, homicides and disappearances throughout Mexico since 2006.

Online media helped.

“YouTube changed everything,” said Wald. “Partly because people could produce stuff that was seen internationally very cheaply and very easily but partly because people started using corridos behind actual footage of cartel assassinations,” he said.

El Komander, a Culiacan-born musician who is part of the Movimiento Alterado profiled in “Narco Cultura,” is a top seller at Plaza Mexico. He also has his share of online fans. Several of his YouTube videos have racked up more than 14 million views apiece. This accessibility has helped him build audiences in cities like Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio — where he’s performing Friday through Sunday.

In “Narco Cultura,” Sandra Rodriguez, a reporter at the local Juarez newspaper who has covered the bloodshed for years, said she was shocked when she started hearing the new wave of narcocorridos from singers like El Komander.

“For me, it’s a symptom of how defeated we are as a society,” she said. “The kids want to look like narcos because they represent an idea of success and impunity and limitless power.”

But Adolfo Valenzuela, a co-founder of Twiins Enterprises, the label behind Movimiento Alterado, has a different reaction.

“It’s so cool to see regular people go to a club and they feel narco for that night,” he said. “The next day they have to go and work.”

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