Within a six-year period between 2006 and 2012, 60,000 people were murdered in drug-related violence in Mexico, and the border city of Juárez has been an epicenter. Whatever industry once flourished in Juárez has long since departed, and the businesses that do remain have to factor cartel extortion into their general expenses. It’s tempting to think about Juárez as a primary battleground in the War On Drugs, a site where rival cartels engage in endless turf wars and retributions, where the authorities face constant threats and corruption within, and ordinary citizens are often collateral damage. But the impression left by Narco Cultura, a brave and despairing documentary, is much grimmer still: This is a war the cartels have already decisively won, but it just keeps on escalating. All that’s left for investigators to do is pick up the bodies—or the scattered pieces thereof.
Director Shaul Schwarz occasionally steps back to give the audience a sense of the enormity of the problem, but he wisely narrows his focus to two men with sharply contrasting roles in the conflict. In Juárez, Schwarz trails Richi Soto, a crime-scene investigator who has watched his native city turn from a relatively peaceful place into a lawless free-for-all where fear and hopelessness has risen along with the astronomical murder rate. Many of Soto’s fellow investigators have been wiped out—in one powerful moment, Schwarz blots out the departed from a group photo, leaving Soto alone in the middle—and his department lacks the ability to follow through on the evidence. A shocking 97 percent of murders are never investigated, thus ensuring that gangsters can more or less continue to kill with impunity. When Soto mentions that some refer to him and his peers as “bullet collectors,” he can’t dodge the insult, but he isn’t in a position to do anything about it, either.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Schwarz profiles Edgar Quintero, a musician who makes a dubious living on narcocorridos, an outlaw (and outlawed) musical genre that romanticizes cartel violence and high living, and that continues to gain traction in Mexico and the United States. Comparisons to gangsta rap are common, but insufficient. While gangsta rap often glorifies criminality and the lifestyle it affords, it can also be more ambiguous about its antiheroes and more reflective of social malaise. By contrast, Quintero’s corridos, which he performs as frontman for the popular band Buknas De Culiacán, are not only tributes to the badassery of the Sinaloa cartel, but frequently commissioned by members for thick wads of cash. Though narcocorridos have been banned from Mexican TV and radio, underground sales and club appearances have made it a lucrative enterprise for Quintero and his labelmates at Twiins Music Group.
Schwarz, a photojournalist with experience in conflict zones, doesn’t explicitly condemn Quintero, or even challenge the singer’s moral vacancy, which is no doubt possible because he lives a safe distance from the carnage. But there’s no mistaking the queasy juxtaposition between Soto, who cautiously pokes around the hornet’s nest of Juárez, and Quintero, who seems cocooned within a Scarface fantasy in which the gangster lifestyle comes at no human cost. In one astonishing sequence, Schwarz’s cameras follow Quintero on his first trip to Sinaloa, where he performs, poses with pistols and AK-47s, and glad-hands cartel elites. He wants his music to be informed by a more authentic feel for the country, but it’s about as true a picture of real drug culture as Corona-sucking spring breakers get of the real Acapulco.
Narco Cultura doesn’t propose any answers, and it needn’t. Soto, for his part, seems more committed to surviving the day than thinking about the bigger picture, and many of his colleagues have quit over the danger and futility of their jobs. But Schwarz does everything he can to suggest that current tactics are worse than ineffectual, from the military response of former Mexican president Felipe Calderón to U.S. border security that does nothing to stem the flow of drugs and cash. Narco Cultura makes it abundantly, forcefully clear that the illicit business of narcocorridos thrives on the illicit business of cartels—and business is still booming.