As lyrics go, “We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill” doesn’t leave much to the imagination. But painting a bright scene with cartoon exaggeration and over-the-top swagger is what the narcocorrido scene is all about. In the half-vivid and half-mournful documentary Narco Cultura, photographer and director Saul Schwarz digs into where that imagined swagger comes from.
Like other forms of rebel music, particularly gangsta rap, narcocorrido songs are ripe with adolescent-male fantasies of violent impunity. In this case, it’s not American drug dealers who are the objects of fascination, it’s the gun-crazy cartels who have spent the last several years turning parts of Mexico into veritable war zones. Unlike even most of the grittiest gangsta rap during its 1990s heyday, though, narcocorrido bands don’t tend to bother with much of any justification (revenge, pride, etc.) for most of the violent stories their songs celebrate: it’s often just murder for murder’s sake.
Schwarz splits his murder ballad of a film into two narratives. One is his splashy on-the-road story about Buknas de Culiacan, one of the star bands of the Los Angeles narcocorrido scene, and its leader, Edgar Quintero. A bright-eyed entrepreneurial spirit, Quintero goes beyond just telling stories about the cartel wars taking place just over the border. He happily takes requests directly from the narcos themselves, who are obsessive followers of the scene and eager to get a popular song to burnish their rep. One scene has Quintero on the phone from a client named “Ghost,” taking notes on important details, such as what kind of weaponry he uses. When the crowd sings along to Buknas’ songs, the artistic distance between singer and subject seems practically to disappear.
The second narrative takes place in the Mexican border city of Juarez. CSI investigator Rich Soto is part of the city’s infrastructure that’s been pushed well beyond the breaking point by the recent explosion in violence. Since the government crackdown on the cartels began in earnest in 2008, men like Soto have been running nonstop to keep up with a body count that rivals that of a full-blown civil war. A small, quiet man who has to wear a mask at crime scenes so he doesn’t get recognized, Soto is like an investigative monk, going from home to work to crime scene to home. There is an air of futility to it all, with one journalist noting how pitifully few murders are even truly investigated (possibly as little as three percent of the last four years’ 10,000 killings). The investigators are referred to dismissively as “bullet collectors.”
The hopelessness of Soto’s grinding work and the bodies piling up in the city morgue serve as a necessary antidote to the movie-star image being portrayed of the narcos. Not that anybody seems to care; after all, the narcocorrido stars making a living off all the violence live in comparative safety in Los Angeles. The film catches the ironic scene of an indie movie studio making a low-budget narco thriller with vainglorious Scarface-esque shootouts, while out in the street the nameless and frequently dismembered bodies pile up. Schoolgirls hanging around outside the shoot sigh wistfully about being able to date a narco.
A final morbid absurdity is captured when the film visits Juarez’s cemetery with its famously over-the-top mausoleums built by the narcos. Given the nearby city of the living being ground into the dirt by the unceasing violence, these miniature mansions for the dead seem less like the mere extravagance of a criminal class than they resemble some late-stage pharaonic death cult.
There are some loose ends in Narco Cultura that Schwarz doesn’t tie up. It’s too impressionistic a piece to dig into the real reasons behind why so many people identify with such an emptily glitzy and nihilistic subculture. Maybe it’s a search for authenticity; Soto notes on a shopping trip into El Paso that it just seems too quiet over there. Or maybe, like with gangsta rap in its heyday, people aren’t even listening that much to the words. The beat goes on. The dead stack up.