One of the memorable scenes in the American TV series “Breaking Bad” was a music video opening scene for one of its episodes. While three musicians, who are the members of Los Cuates de Sinaloa, perform a cheerful Spanish ballad, many horrific images of guns, drugs, and dead bodies are intercut with their performance, and you will probably get some pretty good idea about what these guys in black clothes are singing about even if you don’t speak Spanish.
When I later heard about Shaul Schwarz’s debut documentary “Narco Cultura” and its disconcerting subject in last year, that musical scene immediately came to my mind, and I come to learn more about “narcocorrido”, a recent variation of the Mexican northern ballad genre. While ‘non-narco’ corridos in the past were usually about revolutionary fighters like Pancho Villa, narcocorridos, which dates back to the 1930s, are about drug gangs, and the lyrics of these songs are quite disturbing to hear sometimes because they frankly depict those horrific real-life criminal activities over the Mexico-US border region. I must confess that my eyes were rolling while reading the translated lyrics in the film, and I was not so surprised about this sub-genre being compared to hip-hop or gangster rap.
Whether you like it or not, it is undeniable that this questionable music genre reflects the immense social problem affecting both Mexico and US even at this point, and the documentary shows us gut-chilling sights while looking around the hopeless bloody chaos caused by this problem. Senseless and ruthless violence committed by drug cartels reigns over streets and alleys as terrifying ordinary citizens no end, and its latest rampages become a source of inspiration for criminal ballads, and they are popular among not only criminals but also others who can be next victims or next criminals – and it goes on and on.
The documentary focuses on two people who cannot possibly be more different from each other. Richi Soto has been working as a crime scene investigator in Juárez, Mexico, and his phlegmatic narration tells us about how his city has been turned into a war zone where he and other policemen should be very careful whenever they go out(they usually wear masks during their work for not being identified, for example). When he was younger, the city was relatively safe if not affluent, but now it becomes one of the worst cities in Mexico because of the expanding influence of Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico. According to the documentary, the amount of money collected through drug and other illegal businesses by this cartel is so enormous that its former boss, who was arrested early in this year, was even ranked as one of the most influential businessmen around the world by the Forbes Magazine(Of course, the Mexican government was outraged by this in public).
During 2008, the number of murder incidents in Juárez was 1,623, but then it was increased to 3,622 during 2010. That makes a striking contrast to El Paso, its neighboring American city which has been one of the safest cities in US and where only 5 murder incidents happened during 2010. These two cities are only separated by the Mexico-US border, and they look like heaven and hell when the camera beholds these two contrasting cities together in its wide view.
After watching Soto struggling with his ever-frustrating police work on the streets of Juárez every day, we later see him spending some free time in El Paso, and that makes a striking change of mood. He can be relaxed for a while as not worrying about any possible sudden attack, but he muses on how comfortably alien the city feels to him. He sometimes thinks about moving to El Paso with his girlfriend, but he likes his job despite the constant danger he has to face everyday, and he still cares about the city where he has been living since his birth.
On the opposite, we meet Edgar Quintero, a young member of a popular narcocorrido band named Bukans de Culiacan. He was once in prison, but now he become a family man living in LA, and he is willing to use his musical talent for earning money for him and his family. Like others, he gets inspiration for his songs from latest criminal incidents(there is even a website providing him and others all those grisly details about them), and he sometimes directly deal with street thugs when they need his service. We see him and other band members doing performances in LA and other cities, and, as far as I can see, they are good musicians, though they go a little too far when they bring a big bazooka(no kidding) on the stage during one of their concerts.
As they go around the country, we meet other musicians in their rather shady music industry which has been known to be associated with prominent Mexican drug cartels. Most of them are popular among Mexicans and the Spanish-speaking population in US, and it is uncomfortable to see those violent criminal stories in their songs being embraced by their fans. Sure, there is not anything heroic or romantic about being criminal, but any opportunity to get out of poverty looks cool to many people living in poor environment, and they are all wiling to be the next big-time drug lord, although they will be replaced by others sooner or later even if they make it to the top.
Regardless of what I think about his songs, I think Quintero is a nice man who seems to have his own lines not to cross due to his past experience, but he is not above acting like a gangster wannabe while looking as harmless as, say, Tupac Shakur. His motive for his ‘pilgrimage’ to the area under the control of Sinaloa Cartel may be just searching for another source of inspiration, but we cannot easily laugh when he is near guns and bags of methamphetamine crystals or tries some cocaine in front of the camera(I guess there will not be much legal trouble with that when you do it in Mexico).
And then there is a memorable scene in which he visits a big cemetery previously shown in “El Velador”(2011), another interesting documentary about Mexican drug culture. Many drug lords were buried in this place, and we see various mausoleums for these criminal millionaires here and there in the cemetery. These crypts are usually two or three stories tall while decorated with domes, crosses, and bulletproof windows, and they make the cemetery look like a morbidly fancy town for the dead when you look at them from the distance.
While struggling to survive in their poor and unsafe environment, the living keep suffering from crime and violence as usual meanwhile. Even when there is a massive angry civilian protest against the increasing number of gang-related murders, there come the latest murder incidents to be handled by Soto and his colleagues. A concerned newspaper reporter tells us that only 3% of the murder cases are properly handled by the police, and she also bitterly points out that perpetrators usually get away with their crimes even in that case.
“Narco Cultura” is a dark, harrowing documentary which alarms us and then fascinates us with the long connection between one controversial Mexican music genre and the ongoing bloody tragedy reflected through it. It is easy to blame those narcocorrido musicians for packaging horrible crimes into popular songs, but those musicians may be just the messengers to tell us how things are getting worse and worse – and how that environment generates another bad influence through twisted market logic. As you know, crime sells even if it does not pay, and there is always supply wherever there is need.