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Songs from the Drug War: 'Narco Cultura' Infiltrates both Sides of the Struggle

By Sara Vizcarrondo

Photojournalist-turned-filmmaker Shaun Schwartz treaded dangerous ground to make Narco Cultura, the upcoming doc about a Mexican criminal culture he's specific about calling "The Mexican-American Drug War." Determined to depict the tug of war that has existed for 30 years but began a grisly golden age in 2006, Schwartz says he and the crew "kept their lives clear" of cartel business even while they had access to cartel members and members of the Juarez police force.

By widening his scope to the culture of the narcotics industry, Schwartz shows two sides of the struggle, with two protagonists guiding viewers through. Richie is a dedicated police officer who lets his parents' worries roll off his back; he chose his career because of a love for Juarez he isn't keen on forgetting, even if he's trapped into silence by internal politics and corruption. The drug trade is secretly supported by "bought" police officers—the cops who know this avoid entanglements and live not to tell.

Edgar is a Mexican-American narcocorridor-a singer/songwriter who specializes in ballads about narco culture. Corridos represent a Latin-American musical tradition that crosses epic poetry and current events and sets them to music-the simple kind you might hum on the way to work. Corridos are catchy and so mobilize the history (or propaganda) contained in the lyrics to reach into less technologically connected communities.

Narco corridos are anthems about violence-and in this case the violence is particularly anthemic. Edgar's success as a songwriter is due partly to the fact he neither lives in Mexico nor has much life experience in the criminal culture. His capacity to glorify makes him useful to the narcos commissioning him to write their corridos.

Like its own Latin-American parable, Narco Cultura pushes aside the specific criminal episodes to represent the broader cycle: how people get entangled, how punishments come from every direction, how justice is muted and how the crooks are getting away with the bag.


Photo: Shaul Schwartz. Courtesy of Cinedigm


Documentary: Why are we saying the Mexican Drug War began in 2006?

Shaun Schwartz: Firstly, I want to make sure we [America] take credit: it's the Mexican-American Drug War. But as for 2006, Felipe Calderon was elected president and within a week he announced and mobilized an army in the drug war—which he mentioned during his campaign, but it wasn't as strong as the reality would require. To be completely frank, at the beginning it didn't sound like such a bad idea, and I personally think he meant well. But the reality becomes gruesome quickly. Some say the drug war is 30 years old but grows and diminishes in waves, and I agree to that as well.

D: Frequently in the film people describe drug dealers as Robin Hood figures—but Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, who were oppressed by a king. In this case, there is no king. 

SS: I think in order to understand how their brains work, you have to look at the drug war from different perspectives, and that's what Narco Cultura goes after. It's different in Juarez than in LA, different from Richie's point of view than from Edgar's. Though it's different, you do see glorification on both sides of the border. The music was controversial in Mexico because some people think of narcos as Robin Hood and are drawn to the lifestyle, and others treat it as the cancer I think it is. There was a Mexican push back-TV and radio in Mexico refused to air violent corridos—but Edgar, at the end of the day, dances in parades to the music without knowing that. He's American and feels he has to go on YouTube to understand. In a way he's a product of the war; it's his heritage.

The perspectives are extremely different, and that's what fascinating because everyone's pushing the same ball up the hill. It's not the Mexican Drug War; it's the Mexican-American Drug War. It's a clear cycle: money and guns come from the US; drugs go to it. For a corridor singer, the dream is to play across the border. A drug dealer can commission a corridor, and there's nothing better for a drug dealer than to have a song about them on American radio. This is a vanity game, after all. One perspective really drives the other; though they're all different, they're all pushing the same thing.


Photo: Shaul Schwartz. Courtesy of Cinedigm


D: Were you at all afraid that in making a film about the culture you were contributing to its publicity?

SS: It's something we straddled the line with in the editing room a lot. Anytime you show something that's bad you can say you're giving it a voice, and in doing so, are you then helping it?

 It was interesting seeing Edgar watch the film. I wondered if I found in his character something shameful or regretful, and the answer is no. A month ago he sat with friends and family and a band and watched the film. Towards the end of the movie he ran out of the theater, and I ran after him. He said, "It's not an easy mirror you put in front of me."

I think that's what all the people in the film would think. Right now they all feel like they have a film made about their scene, but that's not the end. People ask me, "Why did you make such a violent film?" Because the war is violent and we wanted to show that. I'm a journalist and I believe this is our job. It's a whistleblowing issue and a lot of people would love to put their heads in the sand and call this Mexico's problem.

I can't tell you how everyone will react [to the film], but I'm proud we went after this issue in this unique way. There are so many docs made about the drug war, but it's all suspects behind desks throwing information at us. I'm doing it from a photojournalistic perspective, trying to make you feel how this affects millions by showing the culture it's creating. I feel strongly we hit the nail on the head and put it into question.

D: You give me the impression you're prepared for backlash.

SS: I'm not scared of it. It's part of touching controversial issues. This film has obviously played a lot of film festivals and I've done a lot of Q&As and for the most part I don't hear backlash. Mostly I hear, "I'm from this culture and thank you for showing it." I've had a great experience. I'm not about telling stories that have to be all balance and make everybody happy. Those are usually not the interesting ones. I feel proud of how honest we kept it and the access we had. I will say because of the access we had we had to leave stuff out.

D: You left things out to protect the people involved?

SS: We had to act responsibly and not endanger more people. While you're allowed to report everything, there's been enough blood. I'm not allowed as a filmmaker or journalist to cross that line. It's clear on paper, but in life those lines merge. It's a balancing act. I can't exactly tell you, but let's say it involved Edgar doing illegal things that could be pinned down. Our camera gets into the heart of the cartel; that kind of thing happens with a deal you have to keep.


Photo: Shaul Schwartz. Courtesy of Cinedigm


D: Are you saying you compromised yourself?

SS: No, I didn't compromise the storytelling. Now, if I don't show you the outside of a house that's a meth lab, and the owner gives you this crazy access on the condition you "don't photograph my car or my house"... you walk carefully. As long as you're not changing the reality, you're not compromising. Edgar became a sensitive issue. We got so deep into this cartel [because of him]. If your protagonist creates access for you with his sources, you have to make sure you don't anger those sources. They could be lethal.

D: Access was dangerous because it could be used as evidence, but you were also actively interviewing with the police. You're cornered just like your subjects.

SS: We are getting into dicey things, so I have to measure [what I say]. But let's say, we believe that the current edit does not trace anything to endanger anyone, and on that level, that was more of a careful dance on the police side of the story. I wasn't interested in investigative journalism on the level of "Let's open a file and understand who killed who." That's how you get yourself killed. We went out to learn how this affects a culture and what that feels like. I'm much more interested in who Richie is as a person—a man who starts in law enforcement naively thinking he could fix the city he loves but realizes, as he says, he's "become part of the system." I'm also not interested in the cartel.

We survived by keeping our lives clear. We didn't make it about a particular murder or case or crime. It's about a much bigger picture.

D: Which suggests that general disclosure is safer—not to turn your case into a rule.

SS: Yeah. Straight up. There's a reason people talk to experts behind desks, but we pushed the envelope. We saw a lot more than we were able to film, and at a certain point I didn't want to hear things. Knowledge alone can get you killed in Mexico. This is not your average street corner. We're talking about the most vicious and powerful crime organization in the world. You have to play smart and be careful.

D: What makes the Narco life so appealing that it inspires anthems?

SS: I can totally understand why teenagers valorize narcos, and it's actually simple. At the end of the day, our policy has let the bad guys win for such a long time and it's never been worse. These kids see their parents work at a machiador for $5-$6 a day and then they see a kid driving around in a nice car, admired by teenage girls in high school, doing whatever they want, and at the end of the day these kids see our failed policies as evidence of what success looks like. They're on blogs, see who killed who, they see the amount of money and power involved. This is the anti-system rebellion and that's where they come up with "Robin Hood"—they see the most powerful government in the world support this and see the cartels and the drugs keep going north and the drugs keep coming south with the weapons. The bigger the drum beat, the bigger the hero you've made.

It's a ridiculous policy: the idea we could just give border patrol more money and guns and think it's going to work out. Look at cocaine as a commodity. If we think this drug war is at all successful, than how come coke isn't more expensive? If it were more dangerous to procure, scarcer—but the cost has consistently gone down? Isn't this evidence? And what are our side effects? Sixty to 70,000 dead, thousands in jail, we've closed the border and immigration has been greatly stopped. But I think that's not the goal—that's harmful, in a weird way—so now the Mexican kid who washes dishes in New York can't attend his mother's funeral because he can't hop the fence. That same fence doesn't stop the cartel. There's no sign of this getting better. We have a cartel leader who's both the most wanted man alive after bin Laden's death and also on Forbes' list of richest men alive. It gives you an idea of the vanity involved.

D: Tell me about your project with Time Magazine.

SS: I believe in photojournalists turning into filmmakers, and I've started a production company to work with Time Magazine's new film department, Red Border Films. We're creating a line of shorts for them, and we're committed for a year and hopefully forever.

People say it's a hard time for print journalism, but it's also an exciting time. We let loose and take risks and so this may not be for all photojournalists, but I think there's a clan out there making that turn and it's an interesting one. It understands the story and does it in a gutsy, raw way. We'll have to branch out and put them with the right people and teach them the right crafts, but I do believe in the raw quality that could elevate a lot and become a unique branch. I'm proud to be part of it.

Narco Cultura, which was recently honored with an IDA Creative Recognition Award for Best Music, opens in theaters November 22 through Cinedigm.

Sara Vizcarrando is editrix of the release calendar at Rotten Tomatoes; a  film studies instructor; and a blogger for