I spent most of the years I lived in San Francisco in the traditionally Latino but grotesquely gentrified Mission District. Every Sunday morning at 8 a.m., a neighbor of mine would blare that festive, circus-y Mariachi music and hang out his window singing along loudly and off-key. The boyfriend I lived with at the time, who grew up in Southern California and understood Spanish better than I did (i.e., a tiny bit), informed me, “All of those songs are about drug cartels and murders,” to which I responded “Rilly?” Similarly naïve Breaking Bad fans were perhaps first introduced to “narcocorridos,” or drug ballads that glorify violence and dealers as “modern-day Robin Hoods,” when the show featured the band Cuates de Sinaloa performing a song they wrote about Walter White’s drug lord alter ego, Heisenberg, in the second season episode Negro y Azul (“Black and Blue”).
Narco Cultura, a documentary opening tonight in New York City and Miami, explores the music genre and exploding subculture of ‘narcocorridos’. Award-winning photojournalist Shaul Schwarz, who started covering the drug war in Juarez, Mexico, in 2008, tells the story from the viewpoints of police investigator Riccardo “Richi” Soto, a Juarez native, and Edgar Quintero, a Los Angeles narcocorrido songwriter and performer. Gripping and without voice over, the film ping-pongs from concert scenes of sold-out performances in which Quintero performs with his band, wearing a plastic gun, singing about decapitations and congratulating audiences on striking him as a violent crowd, and the weary Soto, who admits that kids have lost their values and “idolize the devil,” and fears for his life; in fact, one of his colleagues is murdered and another vanishes during filming.
Many interviewed in Narco Cultura say that the music genre could rival the popularity of ’90s gangsta rap and hip-hop. Quintero appears to be quite busy indeed, consulting numerous cartel clients via phone to get the weapon details down for songs about their real-life crimes. Even more disturbing is hearing desensitized little kids and Catholic school-uniformed girls gleefully recount seeing people gunned down in front of them.
In addition to tonight’s limited-release screenings, the movie will hit theaters nationwide Dec. 6.