Narcocorridos, the Soundtrack of a Drug War

The documentary Narco Cultura looks at a musical subculture that glorifies traffickers.

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Photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has worked in war zones across the world, but those experiences did not prepare him for the unsettling task of documenting the Mexican drug war. “In a conflict zone you usually end up being embedded within one of the sides and you feel fairly trusting of something at least,” he says. “In Mexico it's really hard to cover anything. You never know who or where the narcos are, but at the same time, you assume they are everywhere.”

For the last several years, Schwarz has photographed and filmed in Juarez, although cautiously, visiting over 20 times but never staying for more than a week at a time. The result is the documentary Narco Cultura, which looks at the city's pervasive violence and one of its cultural outgrowths: a new musical subculture called narcocorrido. Hugely popular among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the genre celebrates traffickers as outlaw heros. Bands like Buknas de Culiacan, featured in the excerpt above, dress as kingpins, use bazookas as stage props, and sing about torture and bloodshed.

The music’s popularity signals how deeply the drug war is rooted in the cultural psyche on both sides of the border. As El Diario journalist Sandra Rodriguez explains in the clip, “For me it’s like a symptom of how defeated we are as a society. The kids want to look like narcos … because they represent an idea of success and power and impunity. And limitless power. If you can kill a person, that is limitless power.”

Narco Cultura premieres in theaters November 22, and The Atlantic will host a screening and conversation with the director on November 19. Schwarz answered a few questions in advance of the premiere.

The Atlantic: When was the first time you heard a narcocorrido, and what was your reaction?

Schwarz: I heard about narcocorridos early in 2008, but I didn't really experience the scene until I met Buknas de Culiacan for the first time in early 2010 at a concert in Riverside, CA. Initially I was so angered by seeing people singing along to the songs at the club and dancing around with toy guns and bulletproof vests. It was just shocking and I couldn't believe the strange party scene created by the club hosting the band.

Plenty of musical styles celebrate violence (take gangsta rap, punk, hardcore). What makes narcocorridos different?

There are similarities between the two, but there are also differences. In rap, for example, people spit out lines about their own struggle, about how they came from nothing, usually talking about their own story, and how music took them out of the hood and into fame and fortune. In narcocorridos, however, that’s a different story. A singer does not sing about himself but rather sings about a trafficker. The songs are more often than not assigned and paid for by the narcotrafficker. The singer would do an interview with the trafficker and then share the first draft with him. At that point, the trafficker would make any corrections he wanted to, and only then, the song would get recorded.

It makes sense that fans in the U.S.—where the drug war can feel removed—would be more comfortable with music that glorifies a culture of violence. But how do you explain narco cultura's popularity in Mexico?

It's what's popular, it's simply "la moda," as they say. Teenagers in Mexico often see the trafficker as a hero and a role model. They represent the best way for them to get out of the hood. They have also seen this drug war that was backed by the U.S. come and go, and the cartel leaders are still in place. To many kids, the bad guys are winning.

For more, visit http://narcoculture.com/.

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Katherine Wells is an associate video producer at The Atlantic. More

Wells was formerly a producer of WNYC's Freakonomics Radio and NPR's Science Friday.
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