“I would like to be the girlfriend of a narco,” says one Mexican teenager interviewed in Narco Cultura, referring to the drug traffickers who've grown increasingly richer and more powerful in her country over the last decade. Her friend agrees, saying, “It's something that's a culture for us.” It's also a culture that's been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of people and left cities like Juarez reeling. Such a violent reality can be hard to reconcile with any idolization of the men responsible for it, a seeming contradiction that Shaul Schwarz's doc expertly confronts while exploring how drug cartels have engrained themselves into Mexican culture.
Narco Cultura jumps back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border. On the U.S. side, it follows Edgar Quintero, the Mexican-American frontman of a band that specializes in narco corridos, anthemic songs that mythologize the stories of famous drug dealers and cartel leaders. These songs are often commissioned by the narcos themselves, and in some scenes we watch as Quintero's clients listen to the products of his labor with self-satisfied amusement. And on the Mexican side, the film focuses principally on Juarez, whose beleaguered journalists, cops, and detectives do their best to work in an environment increasingly controlled by drug cartels.
Schwarz shows us how police go to crime scenes with masks on to hide their identities and protect their lives. But even if their plight is apparent, the film's overall message in these scenes can be disconcerting at first: As represented primarily by Richi Soto, a crime-scene investigator, Schwarz's vision of Juarez begins as one characterized by hardworking men and women fighting against all odds to protect their city from the cartels. By juxtaposing Soto with Quintero, who tours throughout the U.S., making money and becoming famous by aggrandizing the violence that has destroyed so many cities, the film initially creates a dichotomy between exploitative Americans and suffering Mexicans that only tells part of the story.
Fortunately, Schwarz goes on to blur those lines and challenge easy assumptions. For one, he eventually shines light on the government corruption that plagues Juarez and Mexico as a whole. One journalist explains how for every hundred murders in the country, only three get investigated and even fewer lead to a conviction. In other words, Soto collects evidence at crime scenes for no apparent reason. Later, when Schwarz asks Soto about one of the murders that seems to have been forgotten by investigators, Soto replies, “I don't know if it's okay to talk about that case.”
Meanwhile, we follow Quintero as he takes a trip down to Culiacán, home of the Sinaloa cartel. Quintero hopes that the experience will imbue his songs with more authenticity. He gets taken to a cemetery populated largely by narcos buried in grand tombs, some big enough to contain pick-up trucks. It's the film's most remarkable representation of narco culture, and a dark reminder of the fact that, if narco corridos can be a voyereustic thrill in the U.S., in Mexico the bloodshed that inspires them is impossible to hide from, a fact that makes it harder to understand the music's popularity.
Still, Schwarz isn't quick to judge. Narco Cultura isn't a polemic. Schwarz instead presents us with two men who epitomize how accepted and engrained narco culture has become in Mexico. For all the differences between them, Quintero and Soto are both men who've found a way of working within a status quo engulfed and defined by violence. What's so sad and maddening isn't their complicity, though, but how hard it is to judge them for it.