Cheerful Songs About Drug-War Murders, Now at a Walmart Near You

Narco Cultura shows how communities on both sides of the border have become cauterized to the terrifying violence in Mexico.
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Statues of La Sante Muerte, or the Saint of Death, on display in Juárez. In one scene of Narco Cultura, one of the film's main subjects seeks out a blessing from La Sante Muerte before taking a trip to Sinaloa, the stronghold of the Sinaloa drug cartel in Mexico. (Reuters)

1623, 2754, and 3622. These are how many murders took place in Juárez, Mexico, in 2008, 2009, and 2010.

18, 13, and 5. These are how many murders took place in neighboring El Paso, an American city within walking distance of Juárez, during the same years.

This is what viewers learn during the first ten minutes of Narco Cultura, a documentary by Shaul Schwarz about the effects of drug trafficking on Mexico’s northern border. And then the scene cuts to a band playing what sounds like polka music. Singers decked out in Polo shirts and aviators carry AK-47s, belting out lines like:

Sending reinforcements to decapitate
El Macho leads wearing a bullet-proof vest

Bazooka in hand with experience
Death is within

If you don’t understand the Spanish lyrics, the music sounds like it could be playing at a bar mitzvah or your grandma’s 80th birthday party.

This is the power of the film: juxtaposing banality with tragedy, clubs and parties and music videos with decapitations and gunshots and body bags. We follow crime scene investigators, who are powerless to stop the murders. We hear from mothers of the victims, who are powerless to protect their sons. We see drug traffickers, who are totally unapologetic about the $100,000 worth of crystal meth laid out in bags on a kitchen table.

And intermittently, we watch 20-somethings dance and sing to narcocorridos, the songs of a growing music subculture that glorifies the wealth and power and supposedly rebellious spirit of narcotics traffickers. The documentary follows Edgar Quintero, the lead singer for narcocorridos band Los Bukanas de Caliacan.

“I kept hoping that Edgar would be more conflicted,” said Schwarz at recent film screening and discussion hosted by The Atlantic. An Israeli photojournalist, Schwarz has spent his career documenting war zones, and to him, that’s what Juárez is: a war zone. When Felipe Calderón became Mexico’s president in 2006, he began sending troops to take out drug cartels. But the number of murders in territories claimed by rival cartels only increased: From 2007 to 2008, the body count in Juárez increased by 1300, and some blame the Mexican government for driving this violence.

The United States is equally to blame, Schwarz said. “We’ve stuck our heads in the sand for too long to accept this as the status quo. We tend to try and solve it by throwing money at the fence, at border patrol, at Mexican federal police, and it’s really not working, to say the least.”

This view comes through clearly in the documentary. During one scene, Schwarz talks with an American border patrol spokesman, who proudly announces that his agency has seen “a decreased number of narcotics seized” in recent years.

“So, the fact that you catch less, does that actually indicate that there’s less movement of drug trafficking?” Schwarz asks him. “I mean, that could be a bad number, too, right? You’re catching less?”

The patrol officer has no answer.

It is also shocking to learn how narcocorridos have become popular in the United States, particularly in Los Angeles. “The business here is the U.S.,” explains one narcocorridos producer during another scene, which shows the members of Los Bukanas making a short crime film to promote their music. “These movies are in Walmart, Target, in all the major chain stores.

How did we make kids believe that drug cartel leaders are Robin Hoods?

“I was behind Walmart for almost three years, and they didn’t want to sell our product,” he continues. “So the first order they made, they only ordered like 100 CDs. I think it took them one week to sell that. The next order, they ordered 50,000 copies.”

It's tough to sit in a cozy theater and watch body after body being brought into morgues, mothers screaming, shop owners sweeping blood into gutters after a double homicide. But it's possibly worse to watch the narcocorridos scenes, which glorify that violence. In one scene, even the police officer featured most prominently in the film, Richie Soto, dances to narcocorridos with his girlfriend and mother.

“Everyone is really leaning into this culture,” Schwarz said. “Ninety-nine percent of the kids in these clubs—and we’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands of clubs throughout the country every weekend—they’re out there playing narco for a night. They go back and work hard and are regular people. So the question is, how did we make kids believe that these guys are Robin Hoods?”

That’s what’s most twisted: Juárez is a normal place. It’s a city where people live, work, and raise children. Yet it’s also a place where murder and drugs and violence are part of everyday life, so much so that people sing about it, dance to it, and glorify it. Drug cartels are the leaders, heroes, extortionists, and executioners of Juárez. The people who call it home can’t do anything but exist in that reality of normalized violence.

Narco Cultura opens in select theaters on Friday, November 22.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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