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.
“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?”