Teun Voeten

Drug violence in Mexico has been raging now for nearly a decade. Approximately 80,000 people have been killed, but news hardly reaches the West anymore. Only the most extreme incidents, sickening massacres or the discovery of grizzly mass graves are able to grab the headlines. Even less well known is that a whole new culture has sprung up around the universe of drug trafficking. The narcos have their own fashion and lingo – they even have their own patron saints to beg for protection. And, of course, they have their own music – narco corridos – the Mexican version of gangsta rap, so to say, in which the exploits of notorious drug lords are celebrated and crime and murder glorified.   

Photographer and filmmaker Shaul Schwarz has followed the drug violence in Mexico for years and has now made an impressive documentary. Narco Cultura, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, to be distributed by Cinedigm, is actually not just film about music. It uses the phenomenon of the narco corrido as a pretext to explore a realm of perversity and absurdity that has emerged around drug violence.

Schwartz juxtaposes two extreme worlds that that are mentally and geographically separate, but occasionally touch one another, revealing synergistic contradictions.

On the one hand, there is Edgar Quintero, a musician who lives safely in the balmy suburbs of Los Angeles with a lovely wife and a cute kid. Quintero is obsessed with Mexican drug violence – much like a kid hooked on computer war games – and composes violent songs with lyrics like: We’re bloodythirsty, crazy and we like to kill/We are the best at kidnapping/Our gang always travels in a caravan, with bullet-proof vests, ready to execute. But Quintero has a bit of a problem: He has never lived in Mexico and gets his inspiration only from research on the Internet, watching sensational news clipping on specialized blogs and gory videos posted by narcos themselves. Once in while, a real gangsta calls him and suggests some realistic material.

On the other side of the border is the soft spoken forensic detective Richi Soto, working in Ciudad Juarez. At the time the film was shot, Juarez was the most dangerous city in the world, with a death toll of 3,662 in 2010. Soto rushes from crime scene to crime scene where, unlike Quintero, he is confronted with grim reality: Blood spattered car windows shattered by dozens of bullets, friends and family members who break down after finding out their loved ones have been murdered and, most shockingly, the bodies of the victims that are sometimes mutilated or have been doused in gasoline and set afire. Two of Richi’s colleagues Richi have already been murdered, and the documentary shows the director of the Forensic Institute receiving death threats in a nasty narco video posted by traffickers on Youtube.

The workload of the SeMeFo – Servico Medico Forense – the Mexican CSI, is beyond imagination. Most of the time, evidence is only picked up and classified, which earns the investigators the nick name “bullet collectors”; they are inevitably called to the next case before making much headway on the last. In a giant stockroom in the basement, evidence is classified and stored, shelf after shelf, box after box, a monument to the enormous magnitude of crime in Juarez. An estimated 98 percent of murders in Juarez will never be solved, creating the atmosphere of near total impunity.

Meanwhile, Quintero, the musician, realizes he may be out of touch with reality and decides it is time to pump up his street cred. He travels with another band member to Culiacan, home turf of the Sinaloa cartel and cradle of the narco cultura. He hangs out with some local homeboys (a pistol tucked in his waistband), snorts coke and visits a ranger with a crystal meth lab. There, he actually fires for the first time in his life a real gun, but in such a clumsy way that it is a miracle that he does not shoot himself.          

Things get hairy when Quintero is invited to play at a party of a real capo who has a luxurious villa up the mountain, and we see him realize that the real world out there might be dangerous indeed. Interestingly, apart from some footage at the entrance of the narco mansion, very little is shown of the party that takes place. Quintero performs in front of an empty dance floor, but we get the idea.

Meanwhile, Richi goes on with his work in Juarez, where he buries another colleague – the third one. We see Richi on a trip to the other side of the border, in a glitzy shopping center in El Paso where he wanders uneasily in a glitzy shopping center in El Paso. His family declares him crazy for continuing his work, but Richi explains that he still loves Juarez because for him, he says, his hometown remains beautiful.

Choosing to structure of such a complicated phenomenon around a binary opposition is always tricky since it is easy to wind up in clichés. But the characters portrayed in Narco Cultura are so strong and outspoken. They represent two sides of a multilayered reality that the viewer is able to feel and imagine with corresponding depth.           

Having covered the violence in Juarez and Culiacan myself over many years, I know how difficult and dangerous it is to get access to the different players. Schwarz managed incredible access and is able, in Narco Cultura, to present an almost complete portrait of the madness and depravity that has engulfed this dimension of Mexican life. Schwarz interviews a convict in prison, who painfully admits torturing a victim to death. We see a woman suffering a mental breakdown after learning that her son was cut into twelve pieces, the body parts strewn around as a warning. We see schoolgirls idealizing the narco life style. In a country where youth unemployment and poverty is rampant, for many, the gangsters have become role models. Schwarz even manages to come to the core: the all pervading corruption that has infiltrated the authorities. When he interviews a dignitary and asks critical questions, the man becomes suddenly very nervous and insecure. You can literally smell that something is rotten and that the man knows too much - things that can never be said.

Narco Cultura is a stunning testimony of one of the bloodiest conflicts at this moment at the Western Hemisphere. It painfully shown that this conflict, like most wars in the world, is not caused by evil design, but is a result of a mixture of greed, stupidity, ignorance, indifference and, yes, a pinch of cruelty that gets out of hand. But most important, the movie shows there are always people who, faced with incredible odds, turn out to be courageous heroes. In this case, it is the unflappable Richi Soto, living proof we should never give up on humanity.

Teun Voeten is an anthropologist and war reporter who covered the drug war in Mexico between 2009 and 2012, resulting in his photo book “Narco Estado: Drug Violence in Mexico.” Currently, he is working on a PhD thesis on the same subject at Leiden University.