Juarez has become ground zero for the Mexican drug war, and its murder rate has increased tenfold in under a decade. Only a tiny fraction of the murders are even investigated; officials are paid off or intimidated. Narco Cultura, directed by filmmaker Shaul Schwarz, is cinema verite at its most stirring and tragic.
What's most compelling about the film is the way it filters the violence (dismembered bodies, brutal beatings with baseball bats) through the lens of the drug trade's influence on pop-culture. One of film's primary arcs follows a Los Angeles based singer named Edgar Quintero, who sings "narcocorridos," or drug ballads.
The songs are the soundtrack to the drug war with lyrics like:
Heads flying off anyone who dares
We're bloodthirsty madmen
We like to kill
The music -- traditional ballads with a danceable horn beat -- has been around forever, but exploded once America began its war on drugs. The latest wave of narcocorridos, called the movimiento alterado, differs in that it features both horns and accordions, which gives the music its menacing sound. It has become massively popular in the United States as well as Mexico. Their performers are mainstream stars, selling out theaters.
Ballads are often commissioned by the gangsters themselves. In the film, Quintero bounces lyrics off a narco called "El Ghost" over speaker-phone -- details including what caliber machine gun he carries. (He's paid a thick stack of hundreds for a song and, later, given a pistol with an embroidered grip as a bonus.)
It's how he feeds his young family, and to get a better sense of his craft eventually he travels to Culiacan -- ground zero for the drug cartels who commission him. (Culiacan is in Sinaloa, where narcos tend to reside and which is often shouted-out in the genre's songs.)
Quintero gets high, fires off guns, and briefly lives like a tough himself. We also meet kingpins of the narcocorrido industry, twin brothers Omar and Adolfo Valenzuela. Their Burbank, California based company -- Twiins Music Group -- releases Quintero's music and other massive artists like El Komander.