The documentary Narco Cultura paints a sobering picture from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in a drug war that has claimed more than 60,000 victims in the past seven years. The film cuts back and forth between gruesome murders in Mexico and the culture of narcocorridos ballads that revel in the exploits of drug cartels.
Filmmaker Shaul Schwarz says he was fascinated by the juxtaposition "this two-sided monster and how it's so linked and so connected and so bizarre."
As a photojournalist, the Israeli-born New Yorker had covered conflicts and disasters around the world for National Geographic, Newsweek and other publications. For his first film, he and his sound engineer traveled to Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Another night, another murder. Behind yellow police tape at a crime scene in Juarez, family members wail and onlooking children converse about AK-47s and the victim being "liquidated."
As always, crime-scene investigator Richi Soto is there to collect the bodies.
"People hear the sirens and see us as angels of death," the soft-spoken Soto says as he drives through the streets of his hometown. He wears a mask over his face to conceal his identity from dealers and their informants and hit men. The film shows him tagging bodies in the morgue, collecting bullets and classifying evidence that simply gets warehoused. Filmmaker Schwarz says the work of the CSI never ends.
"They fill out all the paperwork, they take it very seriously. They go out to every crime scene and God knows there are plenty of them," Schwarz says. "And nothing ever happens; 97 percent of the cases in Juarez were never investigated. That was fascinating, and what I think the film wanted to portray was to show how it feels to be that person, how repetitive that feels and how hopeless they become. And, to me, that's the story of Juarez. And, in a larger way, that's a story of Mexico. It's a distrust that people have in the system from years of being powerless. They can't do anything, and their lives are at stake if they do."
Cut to Los Angeles, where a young nightclub crowd is partying and singing along to the latest narcocorrido.
"We're bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill," they sing.
Onstage, the boisterous members of the group Los Bukanas de Culiacan wear bandoliers of bullets and brandish a prop bazooka. The group's enthusiastic lead singer and songwriter, Edgar Quintero, is the film's other protagonist, a young Mexican-American born in L.A. One minute, he's at home with his wife and babies. The next, he's sitting in a van, taking a wad of $100 bills from a shady character who wants a narcocorrido written about him.
At this point in the film, Quintero has never been to Mexico or seen the violence firsthand. So his understanding of the situation seems a little naive.
"In Mexico, there is no other way to win respect than to pick up an AK and be an influential person in the mob," Quintero says. "You gotta do what you gotta do."
A few weeks ago, I met up with the singer in his Los Angeles recording studio as he was working on his latest song about the founder of the Guadalajara cartel. Quintero likens what he does to gangster rap.
"A lot of people say, 'How can you sit there and glorify these people?' And I'm telling them, 'You can't hang the messenger.' You know, I'm not the one that caused this," Quintero says. "All we do is give people what they want, which is hardcore Spanish rap songs. That's what they want. They want the truth, so my songs are the truth. You're either gonna love it or gonna hate it. One or the other."
Narcocorridos are popular on both sides of the border, with popular music videos, sold-out concerts and CDs sold at Wal-Mart. The documentary shows teens in school uniforms saying that being a narco's girlfriend would be cool. And the filmmakers interviewed people like Oscar Lopez, who produces action films about drug traffickers.
"Narco culture has grown so much," Lopez says, "because these guys see narcos as modern-day Robin Hoods."
The musicians profiting from the drug violence and from the whole narcocorrido scene horrified Schwarz and prompted him to make the film.
"I hated them at the beginning," Schwarz says of the musicians and partygoers. "As time went along, I was just less mad about them, and I really thought they're a product of the bigger picture, they're a product of the policy, they're a product of what we're ignoring."
For his documentary, Schwarz filmed countless dead bodies. He interviewed a tattooed prisoner describing a hit he did for a cartel. And he included scenes of a woman whose son was found chopped into 16 pieces.
"This drug war is killing our children," she pleads, "and no one will listen."
But the beat goes on.
Though Quintero defends his music, he says he's nervous about how audiences will react to seeing the culture of violence depicted in Narco Cultura.
"As I was watching that, I did put myself in that situation for a second, and it did give me a little knot in my throat. It did get to me," Quintero says from his studio in L.A. "That just goes to show how in the United States, we're just so blinded. Kids from here, they're just in these nightclubs; they don't even know what's going on out there. And I guess that's gonna be the good thing of this movie. It's gonna open a bunch of eyes."
Since Narco Cultura was filmed from 2008 to 2010, the cartels have shifted their violence beyond Juarez and into other parts of Mexico. Narcocorridos are now banned from the airwaves in Mexico. And Quintero says the lyrics are not quite as graphic, though the narcocorrido scene is still going strong.