It’s impossible to watch Shaul Schwarz’s grueling documentary about the Mexican drug wars and their influence on the whole of Mexican society without wondering how on earth such a hell on earth could have erupted right in our back yard. Rampant, longstanding government corruption is a factor, with murderous megagangs such as the Sinaloa Cartel paying off everyone with any civil stature, or, just as frequently, executing them as a warning to the police, the army, the politicians, and, randomly, the terrified citizenry. Chaos reigns and severed heads roll in the street, while good cops are seemingly stymied at every turn by their bribed superiors. Is Mexico a “failed state”? Schwarz’s film suggests so. No wonder the working class is desperate to cross over into the U.S., even at tremendous personal (and familial) risk.
”Ninety-seven percent of the 10,000 murders in the last four years have not even been investigated,” says the articulate but exhausted-looking Sandra Rodríguez, a journalist with the Juárez newspaper El Diario. “And none of them have been punished … it’s a symptom of how defeated we are as a society.”
Narco Cultura smartly and movingly focuses on the cultural cycle of violence, beginning with a young, Los Angeles-based rapper, Edgar Quintero, whose main job is penning lyrics celebrating the orgiastically violent lifestyles of the drug thugs for his band Buknas de Culiacán. These narcocorridos carry a populist echo of the Depression-era fascination with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, but with a far more brutal, amoral, and gruesome edge. Narcocorrido singer El Komander – who struts out on stage wielding a bazooka – regularly sells out high-dollar venues north of the border, but this is light years beyond the gangsta posturing of NWA, which seems tame by comparison, and the lyrics would probably make even Ice-“Cop Killer”-T shudder. Regarded as latter-day Robin Hoods by the impoverished youth of Mexico, the drug lords kill at will, and then are heralded for their savagery.
It’s worth noting here that Walmart, effectively the musical tastemaker for the youth in so many small and rural areas in the U.S., is making a literal killing in retailing narcocorrido stars such as El Komander. This from an allegedly “family friendly” corporation that previously banned from its shelves – among others – Nirvana and Sheryl Crow, for containing “objectionable content.” It is to laugh.
On the other side of the law – what little of it remains, that is – are some hard-working but effectively impotent federales. Schwarz introduces us to the drooping, middle-aged, Juárez crime scene investigator Richi Soto, who lives with his mother. “We simply do our job, and we don’t know why,” he mournfully intones as images of dead little girls and unidentifiably hacked-up corpses crawl by. As his co-workers are assassinated, one by one, by the cartels, Soto becomes an achingly sorrowful metaphor for his country’s descent into trigger- and machete-happy madness.
Narco Cultura ends up in a sprawling city of the dead, with Ford F-150s entombed in bulletproof ossuaries alongside their late owners. Those who can afford the high price of infinite maintenance in this mort couture cemetery are assured a lasting peace, if only in their own shotgunned skulls, and everywhere the feral dogs prowl, waiting for a bone.