Review: 'Narco Cultura'

As Edgar Quintero makes his way through the expansive graveyard which holds fallen members of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, he’s regaled with tales of men who were buried with their pick-up trucks if they so desired. Others wanted tombs outfitted with bulletproof glass. Why? “They do it because they can,” he’s told, which is a pretty good rationale for Quintero’s own line of work as the writer and performer behind many a narco corrido (murder ballad), hired by his compatriots south of the border to romanticize their violent deeds through song.

It works, too. Quintero and others are shown singing to packed houses Stateside, taking to the stage in custom-made Kevlar vests, toting their own automatic weapons and leading a rowdy crowd to sing about kidnapping and killing in the drug trade. Such songs are banned on Mexican TV and radio, but that does little to stem their popularity; in fact, whenever a corrido plays on the police frequencies, the authorities know that there’s just been an execution.

In Juarez, the cops are dismissed as “bullet collectors,” unable to prevent the local death toll from reaching into the thousands on an annual basis, while El Paso -- visible just over the border -- suffers a mere fraction of the crimes. Shaul Schwarz’ sobering documentary, “Narco Cultura,” doesn’t flinch from the grisliness of crime scene photos, nor should it in its mission to address the queasy balance between the police, the public and the performers. Civilians lose loved ones and condemn the cops, while investigators like Richi Soto face unemployment if they leave their jobs, corruption and death threats should they stay.

Soto serves as Quintero’s counterpoint, someone who lives among the cartels and suffers for it much as his neighbors do. The singers, meanwhile, go on sell-out tours and star in movies of their own making, glorifying outlaw culture to which they have little actual exposure and for which they feel hardly any responsibility. The result is equally self-aggrandizing for a $40 billion narcotics industry and amoral entertainers alike. One lyric reads “Keep working at it / The gringos will keep smoking it,” an implicit condemnation of America’s own contribution to the cycle of violence, keeping drugs in demand and making weapons a regular commodity.

Yet Schwarz doesn’t get angry. He doesn’t have to. His film is informative and observant, a potent encapsulation of how fame and finance beget fear and grief on an unending basis. The sight of crowds cheering out in aloof bloodlust juxtaposed against bullet-littered vehicles in taped-off neighborhoods is simple and effective enough to do the issue justice. These people sing while some sell and others kill. Why? Because they can.

SCORE: 8.1 / 10