The Mexican drug war has claimed over 100,000 lives since 2006, and much of the violence has taken place in the city of Juarez, just across the US/Mexico border from El Paso, TX. Narco Cultura examines the conflict chiefly through two sets of eyes: those of Richi Soto, a crime scene investigator who works an endless procession of homicides in Juarez, and those of Edgar Quintero, a Mexican-American in LA who is making a burgeoning career of glorifying the drug cartels’ brutality in song. Predictably, the disparity between the two men’s attitudes about the drug war is stark.
Soto is gentle and soft-spoken; his eyes embody a deep sadness but also a childlike innocence that belies the horror he witnesses daily. His work is an acknowledged exercise in futility, as investigations are often stymied by intimidation and corruption, and only an estimated three percent of his city’s thousands of annual homicides result in trials, let alone convictions. Still, Soto’s job is dangerous – four of his colleagues have been assassinated – and he reluctantly dreams of leaving Juarez behind, resentful of his hometown’s rapid decay.
Quintero is a cheerful, baby-faced family man, whose generally sunny disposition is echoed in his narcocorridos, folk songs whose thematic menace (similar to American gangsta rap) is offset by their festive, accordion-driven melodies. Like his audience, he regards the narcos as modern-day Robin Hoods, whose ruthless pursuit of power and wealth is a lifestyle whose only supposed alternative is abject poverty. Quintero rejects hard drug use and is generally content to safely admire his heroes from across the border, apparently oblivious to his own hypocrisy.
It’s hard not to be bewildered by Quintero and his numerous ilk, and this is the film’s primary failure. Murder victims’ families wailing in the streets are juxtaposed with night club revelers celebrating those murders in song, and it’s unclear where and why one attitude ends and the other begins. With so much of the populace under the cartels’ thumb, who in Mexican society is more susceptible to Stockholm syndrome, and why? Narco Cultura doesn’t really answer this question, nor does it go into any detail about how politics, cartel rivalries, and American demand for product have escalated the drug war.
This doesn’t keep it from being fascinating, though, and while it doesn’t explain much about how things got this crazy, it does give a memorable street-level view of just how crazy things are. The film is frequently visually arresting, well served by director Shaul Schwartz’s photojournalist credentials. His camera doesn’t flinch at the stomach-turning butchery Soto must deal with daily, and it dutifully soaks up the bizarre opulence of the criminals turning a profit, including a small city of narco mausoleums in Culiacán visited by an awed Quintero.
Ultimately, Narco Cultura is about the reality/fantasy dynamics of extraordinary circumstances. It could stand to dig a bit deeper, but its limitations don’t impede its potency.