Right across the border from El Paso, Texas, the world’s most violent city lies in wait. Juárez, Mexico seems to be the hotbed of a war between the various drug cartels that have Mexico in a bloody grip. As Narco Cultura’s narrator Richi Soto tells us at the start, murders in Juárez have risen beyond all proportion, going from the mere hundreds to the tens of thousands over a space of two years, as the cartels try to carve out their niches with brutal tactics, seemingly unhesitant in their slaughter of anyone who gets in their way. To hear Soto tell it, there seems to be a fresh body to deliver to the morgue every thirty minutes, whether it’s a whole body with gunshot wounds, one that’s been doused in gasoline and set afire, or a human jigsaw puzzle in 16 pieces.
In the comparatively comfortable city of Los Angeles, California, a new musical movement has been born of this violent lifestyle called narcocorrido – translated as “drug ballad.” Gangsta rap it ain’t, but picture the most violent lyrics of gangsta rap overlaid on traditional Mexican folk music (the kind we Americans hear in Mexican restaurants), and you’ve got it. Some of the lyrics are as graphic as anything you’d find on a horrorcore record, such as those found in a song by Los BuKnas de Culiacán: “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.” Also literally performing these songs in front of adoring crowds with a bazooka on his shoulder, lead singer Eddie Quintero’s lilting vocals provide a seemingly odd contrast with the lyrics coming out of his mouth.
Narco Cultura director Shaul Schwarz has dared to go to Juárez and other places in Mexico renowned for the violence plaguing their streets to bring us this affecting look at a country torn apart by bloodshed. We follow Soto, who’s a forensic detective for the Mexican police, as he doggedly drives from one crime scene to the next with seemingly no respite. At one point, Schwarz’s camera holds on him at a stop light, his eyes darting from mirror to mirror, looking out for any kind of suspicious vehicle or movement. This is his fearful life on display, never knowing if he’s going to make it home to his family (he still lives with his parents) or if he’ll wake up to see the next day. As he picks up corpse after corpse and buries colleague after colleague, his despaired resolve to keep fighting the good fight is tested, but never broken.
The juxtaposition of his poor life and Quintero’s high-rolling ways couldn’t provide more evidence that something is very wrong with this picture. Quintero seems to be making money from glorifying the criminal life, jumping into nice cars and vans, traveling the country with his band, and having people screaming his vicious lyrics back at him. What strikes me as funny about this is that Quintero’s band is called Los BuKnas de Culiacán, and he’d never even been to Culiacán before the visit shown in the film. While Quintero rakes in his cash, smokes his weed, and sings his ballads about decapitation, Soto actually has to live with the aftermath of these crimes, with images of homicides from which neither he nor we can shield our eyes.
Schwarz delineates the cultural disparity of those trying to do right and those who adulate these crime figures as folk heroes with no words of his own; instead, he lets the topic, the people, and the culture speak for themselves. All he has to do is point the camera in any given direction, and it’s there for him to show us. He never turns his camera away for the sake of alleviating the viewer’s discomfort; instead, he plants you right on the front lines, almost daring you to come with him as he goes further into the lives of Soto and Quintero. Narco Cultura is a passionate, unforgettable film that speaks to our fears and our want for things to get better, but how much hope can you have in a city that has none?