A New Film Exposes How Mexican Drug Cartels Became Cool

If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, you may remember a scene at the beginning of a second season episode where a Mexican band play a ballad dedicated to Walter White, a.k.a. Heisenberg, talking about White’s famous ‘blue’ meth, the Mexican cartels, and murder.

The average American television watcher, however, may not have realised that not only is the song a tame version of the infamous “narcocorrido” genre, but also the genre is a multi-million industry in both Mexico and America. Put simply, Mexican drug cartel culture is cool.

A new documentary by photojournalist Shaul Schwarz, called “Narco Cultura,” delves into this controversial subject.

The film profiles two very different people — Edgar, the Mexican-American singer of the popular narcocorrido group BuKnas de Culican, and Richie, a CSI investigator over the border in Juarez, Mexico. One lives in relative security in Los Angeles, making good money recording songs that glamorize the lives of violent cartel members, while the other lives across the border, cleaning up bodies while himself under the constant threat of murder.

The film is not meant to blame Edgar, Schwarz told Business Insider, but rather to portray just how deeply narco culture has ingrained itself in Mexico, and how the culture wouldn’t exist without America’s appetite for drugs and the ineffectual U.S. drug war that seeks to stem the flow over the border.

“I’m mad with [narco culture]. I’m mad with them,” Schwarz says. “But I also understand that our messed up policies have really opened the door to this. And these kids are just products of our failed policy to me.”

“Let’s take a 12-year-old in Juarez,” Schwarz explains, “he sees his mother work for 5 dollars a day slaving at some factory. And yet the guys, the 16-year-olds driving with a big pickup truck, if he just does them a little tiny favour — just store this gun or just look out for when that truck is leaving or where the border patrol is — he’ll get a hundred bucks under the table.”

Edgar himself is a product of this culture. Schwarz says that whenever he returned from filming in Juarez, Edgar would excitedly ask to see the footage from over the border. “He sings about it but he’s never seen a body,” Schwarz says.

While Schwarz believes that the popularity of narcocorridos may have peaked, he says this culture has had an immense impact even in America. Popular narcocorrido songs are sold in Walmart, and one popular Mexican singer, El Komander, has more than 3.5 million fans on Facebook. Schwarz believes a sense of injustice helps explains the popularity of the music, and he admits he was surprised to find that even CSI investigators would listen to them on the way to murder scenes — even Richie, his Mexican subject, listens to the songs that glamorize cartel violence.

There is a clear disconnect, however, between the songs and the reality of the narco violence. In perhaps the film’s most memorable segment, Schwarz follows Edgar on his first trip to Mexico, where he travels deep in the territory of the Sinaloa cartel. The trip, full of drugs and guns, takes a scary turn when BuKnas de Culican are invited to perform at the home of a local drug lord. Even Schwartz, a veteran war photographer, was forced to admit the situation may have been too dangerous and left as the band prepared to play.

“People don’t really get it,” he explains. “These cartels are not the John Gotti family, they are not Bloods or Crips, they are armies of extremely structured extremely deadly people. The Sinaloa cartel makes more money in a week than the John Gotti family made in 30 years of Mafia.”

When I asked what the film’s participants thought about the film, he admits that, while both were relatively happy, Edgar was fearful of the reaction. In at least one interview, the BuKnas de Culican has expressed remorse about his lifestyle and said he would stop writing narcocorridos.

Schwartz, however, isn’t so sure. “I think he will write whatever sells,” he explains.

Narco Cultura” was featured at the 2013 Sundance and Berlin film festivals and will open in New York on Friday, November 22 at the AMC Empire 25 and in Miami. A national rollout will follow. You can see a clip of BuKnas de Culican in action below:

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