A new documentary shines a worrying and grisly light on a growing Latino pop culture phenomenon in the United States inspired by the deadly drug violence which has ravaged neighboring Mexico.
“Narco Cultura” depicts the “narco clubs” of the southern and southwestern US, from Los Angeles to Atlanta, where fans come to hear popular music glorifying Mexico’s drug cartels.
Mexico’s “narcocorridos,” as the ballads are called, are catchy, up-tempo odes to a dangerous, often deadly, criminal life — likened to America’s violence filled “gangsta rap” music.
The film by Israeli-American photographer Shaul Schwarz contrasts the grim life of a crime scene investigator in Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico’s most violence-torn cities, with the glamour of a top narcocorrido singer from Los Angeles.
“The movie is really about two people, and through them you understand the whole situation,” Schwarz, a war photographer who has worked in Afghanistan, Kenya, Haiti and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, told AFP.
“I want people to think about it, to not just wave it off as a Mexican drug war far away,” he said, adding that drug-related violence has killed 60,000-100,000 people in the last seven years.
“When people do coke here tonight, it affects (people) there (in Mexico). We are all in this. It really is a very clear circle and I want people to see that,” added Schwarz.
“Narco Cultura,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, came out in Los Angeles on Friday, a month after its release in Miami and New York.
Schwarz began working on the subject in 2010, after spending two years photographing the violence in Mexico.
On the Mexican side of the border, the documentary follows investigator Richi Soto, as he investigates endless gory crime scenes — 10 murders a day in 2010 — amid spiraling Mexican violence during the partly US-funded war on drugs, launched by his country’s former president Felipe Calderon.
“We like killing.”
On the US side, Schwarz focuses on Edgar Quintero, leader of Los Buknas de Culiacan, who lives comfortably in Los Angeles while singing narcocorridos whose lyrics glorify Mexico’s drug cartels.
“With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder/Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off/We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill,” he sings from the relative safety of a bar in El Paso, just over the border from Ciudad Suarez.
He even sings it as a lullaby to his baby, only a few months old.
But the singer, who makes $5,000-15,000 per tune for writing and singing macabre lyrics for customers who typically want gory feats celebrated in song, insists they are inoffensive.
“I’m not involved directly, I simply focus on the music. You have to draw a red line and walk with respect,” he told AFP.
Schwarz said he first met Quintero after he had just spent a day covering two murders in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
He described his initial reaction upon viewing Quintero’s show as “very angry.”
“But the more I spent time with Edgar, the more I understood how they see it,” and why young people seem to look up to it.
“Ninety-nine percent of these kids are just out there, looking to connect, to have a music scene,” Quintero said.
“Latinos don’t connect to hip hop and rap — it’s not theirs.”
He added: “I understood that although this music is disturbing and controversial, it’s in style — it’s what the youth want.
Sandra Rodriguez, a journalist with El Diario de Juarez who appears in the film, said the success of narcocorridos is “a symptom of how defeated we are as a society.
“The kids want to look like narcos because they represent an ideal of success, impunity and limitless power,” she said.