REVIEW: Narco Cultura – Of Drugs, Murder, and Polka

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.