Drug Murders and Murder Ballads
I left Shaul Schwarz’s documentary about Mexico’s raging drug war and the peculiar musical genre that it has spawned feeling drained and somewhat hopeless. Is that Schwarz’ fault? Does he have a duty as a documentarian to make learning about a hopeless situation seem less like a downer? Of that I’m not sure, but I’m 98 percent convinced of both the importance of his work and the massive size of his balls.
Schwarz’ documentary, Narco Cultura, about Juarez’s out-of-control drug war and the popularity of the narcocorrido ballads romanticizing its villains, is largely the story of two men: Edgar Quintero, the Los Angeles-based lead singer of up-and-coming narcocorrido group Buknas de Culiacan, and Richi, a CSI investigator in Juarez, often the first witness to all of the carnage, or at least its aftermath. Richi has the thankless, insanely dangerous task of cleaning up after the daily mass murders, while passing his findings on virtually unsolvable cases on up the chain of corruption-rife Mexican law enforcement, all while receiving the collective scorn of the populace for never being able to solve anything and dodging death threats from the drug gangs who all think he and his partners are on the take from rival cartels. Or maybe they don’t. It’s hard to know what the cartels are thinking. Richi and his partners know only that one day you’re at work, and the next day you’re bleeding out in a dusty gutter somewhere, and all it takes is a few whispers in the wrong place. Three or four members of Richi’s division of about 20 people get assassinated over the course of the movie, and his commanding officer flees town after being cited as on the take from the Sinoloa cartel by a masked soldier being tortured by rivals in a YouTube video. Intense shit, right? I saw this f*cking movie at 8 in the morning.
For his nearly suicidal bravery, Richi’s reward is a shitty room in his mom’s house that he can barely leave if he wants to remain above the piss-soaked dirt streets that make up Juarez. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Quintero, a 27-year-old Mexican-American who’s done some jail time but is largely a wannabe when it comes to criminal enterprise, maintains close relationships with actual banditos, who tell him what kind of guns they use and pay him thick wads of 100-dollar bills to write songs glorifying their exploits, which he then sings to sold-out crowds of adoring fans, who sing along to choruses like “we’re crazy, bloodthirsty, and we like to kill” and “we’re the best at kidnapping,” while Quintero’s band, Buknas de Culiacan, none of whom are from or have even been to Culiacan (home base of the Sinaloa cartel) dance around waving AKs and bazookas onstage. It’s somewhere between surreal and tragicomic.
Quintero and his patrons at his record label think narcocorridos “are the next gangster rap,” but they’re really more like medieval minstrels, glorifying the narco lifestyle in lyrics so flowery and unironic that they’d make Kim Jong-Il’s biographer blush. If you listen to, say, Eazy E’s “Boyz N the Hood”, you’ll hear a line like “knowing nothing in life but to be legit, don’t quote me, boy, because I ain’t said shit,” that, as much as you want to say the music glorified being a gangster, gave you a hint that the boasting was a type of posturing used for survival, and perhaps not strictly the literal truth. Likewise, in “Hit ‘em Up,” one of Tupac’s most brutal songs, where he’s basically talking about murdering everyone and their kids and everyone they know, he’s talking about killing as a means of vengeance against people who wronged him, not really murder for its own sake. Though the sample size is admittedly limited here, the narcocorridos’ songs seem to literally be about how awesome it is to murder people. But Juarez’s drug war is orders of magnitude worse than anything that went down during the height of the crack craze in the US’s inner cities, so maybe the narcocorridos are just a reflection of a different reality. Maybe I just don’t understand murder art.
Seeing the juxtaposition of headless bodies and murdered teenagers (and Narco is about as graphic as the Arabic Al-Jazeera, complete with morgue and autopsy footage) make you feel like all the drunken revelers singing along to murder ballads in LA and El Paso are real assholes. But if Buknas et al feel any shame about exploiting violence for material without having to experience it, you don’t see it here. Quintero visits rapidly expanding gangster cemeteries – including bizarre tombs where rich dealers are buried with their pick-ups – full of 20-somethings and seems to think it’s all totes neat. He’ll look up beheading footage on YouTube and then write a song glorifying the beheaders without blinking an eye. You’d think he’d be considered a poser or a tourist, or face backlash for profiting off tragedy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, and his music seems to enjoy popularity on both sides of the border, even by people living in constant fear of the murderers he sings about. Maybe it’s the melody? The sweet accordions? I don’t know. As the “Cultura” of the title might suggest, there seems to be something in the culture where a similar desires spur people to join drug gangs, others to sing about them, and others to enjoy songs about them.
Quintero comes off as a bit of a villain in my eyes, and I wondered how he’d feel about how he was portrayed in the movie. Fantastic Fest being Fantastic Fest, the director happened to be standing three feet away as I was wondering aloud about this at a bar (I swear it happened this way), so I asked him. According to Schwarz, whose name sounds like something you have to say in Sean Connery’s voice, Quintero’s only concern about his portrayal was being shown doing cocaine. Go figure.
Narco Cultura is fascinating, bizarre, and beautifully shot, but if I have one criticism, it’s that I feel like I left with more questions than answers. Maybe it’s the material, maybe it’s the messenger, probably it’s a little of both. Either way, it’s the kind of movie you should watch, regardless of grade, even if it’s hard to. It definitely makes it harder to care about the latest Star Wars rumors afterwards, which is a good thing.