The most common criticism of the “War on Drugs” is that it is unwinnable. You can’t fight a trade. Many documentaries about this subject have hammered that home time and time again. Narco Cultura offers a slightly different, and altogether more chilling, assessment: it may not be possible to win the War on Drugs, but it is possible to lose it.
The Drug War is an expansive topic, but the doc keeps its focus on two cities on different sides of the U.S./Mexico border: Ciudad Juárez and Los Angeles. In Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, crime scene investigator Richi Soto escorts the filmmakers (and viewers) on the particulars of his job, a daily cavalcade of horror that’s become unnervingly mundane to him. Thousands of murders have been committed each year in Juárez since the start of the Mexican War on Drugs in 2006, and 97% of them have gone unsolved due to insufficient resources and bureaucratic sloth. Cartel members operate with terrifying, almost casual impunity. It seems that all Richi and his fellow police can do is “collect bullets.”
In L.A., Edgar Quintero makes a living by composing and singing narcocorridos. Narcocorrido is a kind of ballad whose lyrics often pay tribute to some aspect of gang culture. There’s a close relationship between style and subject, as individual corridos often speak of real-life drug operations, kidnappings and murders. Edgar gets commissioned by cartel members to write corridos specifically to pay tribute to their exploits. Certain Mexican states have gone so far as to ban the genre, but in America you can find their CDs in Walmart. For his part, Edgar lives a comfortably middle-class lifestyle, a drastic contrast to the Scarface-esque vision that he espouses in song.
Narco Cultura consists of two movies. One of them is a harrowing look at the battleground of a pointless conflict. The other is a half-formed exploration of a musical genre. Separate, one is great and one is middling. Together, they are a mess, full of troubling implications. There is barely any connection between the stories of Richi and Edgar. One fights this war, and one profits from it, but narcocorrido and its sphere of pop culture in L.A. feels drastically removed from the happenings in Juárez. While the film makes no overt statements, creating a pretense of allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions, the juxtaposition of real and imagined violence casts Edgar in a deeply unfavorable light.
To a certain extent, he seems to deserve it. When he visits Mexico for the first time, he gets a cushy, glamorous tour of Juárez, seeing nothing of the real city. Edgar does indeed come across as grossly heedless of the true situation at hand. But here’s my question: so what? The movie wants the audience to be troubled by U.S. audiences joyfully singing along to songs about brutality while real brutality is happening across the border. But what is the palpable harm? Is this not the same, ignorant conversation that’s been had about gangsta rap over the years? Besides, doing even a smidge of outside research shows that there are many variations on narcocorrido, and plenty of songs that take a more nuanced, contemplative view of the Drug War. The movie paints the whole genre in one broad stroke.
It’s a shame because, on its own, the Juárez segments are more than powerful enough to inspire revulsion and leave the viewer thinking. Director Shaul Schwartz shoots everything with a grimly cold remove. Shockingly gruesome crime scenes are presented in unsparing detail. At times, such as when the camera lingers on the body of a young boy, it feels too much, like the line of decency has been crossed in the name of evoking an emotion. Whether it’s a necessary move to convey the full picture of this world is debatable. This is the kind of horror that recent flop The Counselor tried and failed to capture, its philosophy buried under lurid preoccupations.
But paired with some muddled ideas about pop culture desensitizing people to violence, this vivid film loses so much of its potency. Half of Narco Cultura’s content could fall away, and the other half would not only stand intact but be much improved. I came away from the documentary loving it, but applying more strenuous thought to it caused much of the initial effect on me to collapse. The movie’s depiction of narcocorrido appeals to one’s knee-jerk sense of moral outrage, but we need more clear-headed thinking than that to address the real problems of the War on Drugs.