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Review: ‘Narco Cultura’ Is A Disturbing Look At The Mexican War On Drugs & The Idolatry Within

Review: ‘Narco Cultura’ Is A Disturbing Look At The Mexican War On Drugs & The Idolatry Within

Since 2006, when the War on Drugs was officially declared in Mexico—a joint operation by Federal Police and the Mexican military known as Operation Michoacan—approximately 60,000 known murders have been recorded. At the epicenter of the major narcotics trafficking and drug cartels that ravage Mexico is the city of Juarez. Its murder rate has absolutely skyrocketed—4,500 people have been killed since 2006 making it the homicide capital of the world, and just across the border is El Paso, Texas, named one of the safest cities in the United States. This juxtaposition is staggering, and marks the impetus for the film.

Israeli-born filmmaker Shaul Schwarz—an award-winning war photographer who started his photographic career in the Israeli Air Force and whose work has appeared in Time, National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Newsweek among others—began documenting the cycles of violence in Juarez in 2008. Haunted by the imagery he captured in this chaotic and dangerous environment and disturbed by just how cheap the value of life appeared to be, the photojournalist knew he had to return to continue documenting these images of death, crime and violence.

Some four years in the making, while Schwarz’s feature-length documentary debut, “Narco Cultura” does chronicle the death and devastation drug trafficking has brought to Mexico as well as the bleak and depressing futility of the war on drugs, the film also angles itself on a disturbing and growing trend in the country: a pervasive acceptance that has calcified into idolatry known as narco cultura.

First and foremost in narco cultura is the narcocorridos — the Mexican equivalent of gangster rap. Songs that glorify the drug traffickers as modern day Robin Hoods; iconic outlaws who have paved their own roads to “fame,” success and narco-luxury (the ironic, borderline absurd element of narcocorridos is that they essentially sound like every day corny and polka-flecked Mariachi songs set to violent lyrics boasting about who they’ve murdered and what caliber they carry—to the untrained ear, they are anything but bad-ass). “Narco Cultura” follows several groups, many of them on the American border that make narcocorridos. Often times they are called directly by members of the cartels who formally request (and pay good money) for a narcocorrido tribute to be written on their behalf (the showrunners of “Breaking Bad” picked up on this phenom fast and had one written for Walter White in the early seasons).

But narcocorrido and narco culture extend beyond these glorified gansta songs into film, TV, and other media such as blogs that chart and celebrate the cartels’ exploits, often depicting graphic images and videos of decapitation and other horribly violent atrocities. Schwarz also documents gigantic and ostentatious mausoleums commemorating assassinated kingpins. Even in death they are legend, practically rock stars with immense shrines as testament to their once luxurious lifestyles.

Perhaps the true chilling aspect of narcocorrido and these drug ballads is how accepted, omnipresent, and permeating they are. Seen as a viable way to get rich or die trying, no one blinks an eye at the social implications of a culture so inured and dispirited by violence that they’re willing to turn around and give full consent, and this is where “Narco Cultura” is quietly powerful. While gangster rap was generally absorbed by teens and admonished by the adult media in the United States, narco anthems are close to mainstream, widely popular and listened to by many quadrants of the population in the country. Several concert sequences are unnerving, with the brutally violent lyrics joyfully sung along to by drunken crowds, happily engaging in the music.

The drug cartels’ pop culture influence in the documentary is depicted on both sides of the border: via an L.A.-based narco ballad singer (and family man) dreaming of stardom and a quiet Juarez crime scene investigator fighting the battle on the frontlines. The singer is typically brash, naive, a would-be Tupac dying to go to Mexico to “live the lifestyle” so his narcocorridos with be authentically full of experience. The crime scene investigator’s existence is discouraging; living at home, staying on the job because it’s the only one he knows, and living in fear as his co-workers are picked off one by one and murdered by the various cartels. Corruption is rampant, and 90% of the murders remain unsolved, barely even processed. Ineffectuality is an everyday occurrence.

While most war-on-drugs documentaries are talking head style with newsreel footage, “Narco Cultura” is cinema verite, with Schwarz and his camera right in the thick of the action either with the police, the narcocorridos singers, or on the streets just mere feet away from bodies. A chilling, dangerous air pervades many nighttime scenes, and one has to assume the documentarian put himself and his crew at risk several times by simply driving around in Juarez making this documentary. Acting as his own director of photography, Schwarz’s imagery is just as striking as his photographs, and “Narco Cultura” looks both beautiful and eerie when police lights streak through dark city streets looking to collect the next discarded body.

Produced by Parts & Labor  (“Beginners,” “Cold Weather”) and Ocean Size Pictures, “Narco Cultura” is gripping, gruesome and arresting; a disquieting look a pop (sub)-culture phenomenon that is mushrooming all over the United States and Latin America. Mexico’s present situation is chilling, and “Narco Cultura” is a haunting and sobering portrait of the crossroads where crime and culture are inextricably linked. [B+]

Photographs from Shaul Schwarz can be seen on his websiteThis is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

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Malcolm Kyle

Some simple facts:

* Our policy regarding drugs is in the hands of frauds, liars and two bit crooks, and until they are in handcuffs, poverty will increase, injustice will prevail and perversity will rule the planet.

* In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. This has resulted in the number of people infected with HIV who are drug addicts dropping from 50 per cent to 20 per cent, and new diagnoses of HIV among addicts dropping from approximately 3,000 to below 2,000 annually. The number of drug overdose deaths declined from 400 to 290 a year between 2001 and 2006, and “problematic” drug use and drug use among adolescents has decreased.

* Prohibitionists have always been murderous parasites: In 1926, during alcohol prohibition, the federal government began a campaign of deliberately poisoning vats of liquor with kerosene, gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, acetone, methanol, and several other deadly toxins. Estimates place the body count above 10,000.

* Illegal Drug Cartels cannot operate without the support of politicians, bureaucrats, and police officers.

* Keeping various psychoactive plants and their derivatives illegal and unregulated means robberies, home invasions, murders, broken families, shattered lives—all mostly done by law enforcement agencies. Add to that list: environmental devastation, poisoning of lands, streams and wildlife—all preventable by regulated legalization.

* Prohibition has been a slow but relentless degradation (death by a zillion cuts) of all our cherished national and international institutions that will leave us crippled for numerous generations.

* The US federal government is now the most dangerous and corrupt corporation on the planet; it is solely comprised of traitorous, lying hucksters who spy on us—in the MPICIC (military/police industrial corporate intelligence complex), the 99% are all probable suspects.

* In 1989, The Kerry Committee found that the United States Department of State had made payments to drug-traffickers. Concluding, that even members of the U.S. State Department, themselves, were involved in drug trafficking. Some of the payments were made even after the traffickers had been indicted by federal law enforcement agencies – or even while these traffickers were under active investigation by these same agencies.

* The involvement of the CIA in running Heroin from Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Afghanistan, and Cocaine from Central America, has been well documented, by the 1989 Kerry Committee report, academic researchers Alfred McCoy and Peter Dale Scott and the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Gary Webb.

* The United States jails a larger percentage of it's own citizens than any other country in the world, including those run by all the other worst totalitarian regimes, yet it has far higher use & addiction rates than most other countries.

* As with torture, prohibition is a grievous crime against humanity. If you support it, or even simply tolerate it by looking the other way while others commit it, you are an accessory to a very serious moral transgression against humanity.

* The United States re-legalized certain drug use in 1933. The drug was alcohol, and the 21st amendment re-legalized its production, distribution and sale. Both alcohol consumption and violent crime dropped immediately as a result. And very soon after, the American economy climbed out of that same prohibition engendered abyss into which it had foolishly fallen.


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