No Concessions: Narco Cultura and the Business of Songwriting for Drug Cartels

Israeli director Shaul Schwarz discusses his new film and Mexico’s blood ballads.

November 22, 2013

Israeli Director Shaul Schwarz Discusses His New Film and Mexico's Bloody Ballads

Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura is a stomach-churning but beautiful chronicle of two men deep in the trenches of the War on Drugs. Though they’ve never met, their lives are morbidly intertwined.

Edgar Quintero lives in Los Angeles in a modest home with his wife and children. Quintero and his band, BuKnas de Culiacan, sing narcocorridos, boastful ballads that glorify the violent and criminal feats of Mexican drug traffickers and cartels. A product of the intensely violent War on Drugs (60,000 dead in Mexico since 2006), narcocorridos’ polka beat gives the songs a traditional and harmless vibe, but their lyrics are vicious. Take these lines from the hit “Sanguinarios del M1” by Movimiento Alterado which champion cartel member Manuel Torres Felix of the Sinaloa Cartel, known for dismembering his victims: With an AK47 and a bazooka behind my head / cross my path and I'll chop your head off / I'm crazy and I like to kill my enemies…We're the best at kidnapping / We are always in a posse with bullet-proof vests, ready to execute. Narcocorridos are often described as Mexico’s take on gangster rap.

Meanwhile, Richi Soto, an earnest crime scene investigator in Juarez, lives and works on the drug war's bloodiest front line. In 2010 alone, Juarez saw over 3,000 drug related murders—that’s almost ten people a day. Or to put it in more stark contrast: less American soldiers have died in the 13 years of the war in Afghanistan than in one year of the War on Drugs in Juarez. As the officials in charge of handling the evidence of countless murders, Soto and his crew are in constant danger—a fact highlighted by the recent murder of a number of Soto’s colleagues. But corruption within the department means that the work they do is largely for appearance’s sake anyway.

The juxtaposition of Narco Cultura is seemingly clear—Soto, the valiant civil servant; Quintero, the mercenary troubadour—but Schwarz dodges pat conclusions and avoids moralizing. In one of the film’s more confounding scenes, we see Soto dancing along to a narcocorrido at a house party. Figure that one out.

In advance of the film’s premiere, I talked to Schwarz about the dangers of shooting a film in the bloodiest city in the world and the nuts and bolts of the narcocorrido business.

Your background is as a war photographer and you’ve reported in active war zones around the world. Were you nervous about working in Juarez? Yeah. Shit, I was scared. It’s a little bit in my DNA because I grew up wanting to be a conflict photographer; I like that adrenaline rush. But this conflict is so different. Like, in Afghanistan, sure you’re scared: IEDs, blah blah blah. But whether I believe in the policies or not, whether I think the soldier is stupid or not, once I sit with them in the armed personal carrier, we’re kind of brothers. I’m not scared of him whatsoever—we’re all on the same team.

But here, people were getting gunned down. In a year, four people were killed in the CIS unit, and there are only 26 people in the unit. They weren’t just getting killed, they were getting assassinated hardcore. And you couldn’t trust anybody because it was clear that there were cartel informants in the unit—there were cartel informants everywhere: in the hotel, in the bathrooms.

Do you feel safer as a foreigner? You feel safer, but it’s something you want to play very carefully. The price tag of killing you is higher—but that has its limitations. So I never pretended to be an investigative journalist. I’m not ashamed to say it. It wasn’t about who killed whom or what cartel was moving to what place. I didn’t care.

Why’d you choose Richi as the subject of the Juarez half of your film? Richi was this cute, nice guy who really deeply loves Juarez. He’s third generation and you feel for him. Richi was a great way to put you in the heart of the drug war. What’s stronger than the guy who picks up the riddled bodies and has to deal with that shit?

But it’s also about how deep corruption and fear are in that culture. Richi wants to do a good job—he’s not on the payroll of the cartels; that I can vouch for. But how do you work when you think your boss is? To put it in his words, you become part of the system. And the system is that you do nothing. Richi knows that trying to solve anything is a life risk. And that was a promise I made to him and ourselves, that we’d never get into the details. We never said, ‘Show us these files.’ We’d get killed, immediately.

The other half of the movie revolves around Edgar, and his band. Was it difficult getting access to that world? Our big access dream was to see how you commission a song. In the first year, Edgar didn’t let me do that, he was too scared. He was like, If they know you’re recording I’ll get popped. Then he eased up and he did that Ghost scene. Ghost is a small time guy, so it was more relaxed.

Many corridos are commissioned by narcos or cartels. How much does it cost to get a corrido written about yourself? It varies, a lot. The one Edgar wrote for Ghost—that cost $4,000. Edgar doesn’t like when I say it because he feels it’s extremely cheap. Today he says he would’ve gotten $10,000. But it varies. It can from $2,000 to $100,000.

A scene from the film in which Edgar sells a corrido to Ghost, a local dealer.

As a corrido singer are you tied to one cartel? They’re generally free agents, but you have a go-to cartel. My guys sing to Sinaloa—they’re Chapo people. They have to be very careful. They don’t book shows in other peoples’ territories. When they go on the mic, they say, “Hello to Culiacan!” but they’ll never say hello to Reynosa, because that’s controlled by a different cartel. You have to stay with your team for the most part.

Were there any moments during the filming that you felt unsafe? Yeah, the private party we got to in Culiacan at the end of the movie was the only place we bailed. I just felt that it was too dangerous for a camera. It just got too creepy. Edgar was fine with us being there, and the owner of the house was fine with us being there, but really quickly a lot of shady people showed up. There were a lot of weapons, there was a lot of cocaine and crack there and I just felt that we might catch something that someone might regret. And I’ve heard stories of how narcos makes people dance by shooting at them…so I was like, all right, this might be too deep. We shot the sound check, and we got out.

Narcocorridos are often compared to gangster rap. Is that an apt comparison? What’s similar is that it glorifies criminals and criminal activity. But with the good ol’ rap—the Biggies, the Tupacs—it was really about guys spitting rhymes about their hustle. Yes, it was about them getting bitches and babes and weed, but it was also about how they came from the ghetto and how they were selling dime-bags to survive, how it is to come from nothing. Edgar doesn’t rhyme about his struggle, he doesn’t talk about nothing. He talks about Chapo Guzman, the most wanted man in the world and one of the richest men in the world. I don’t want to call the Bloods and Crips nothing…but they’re nothing compared to a cartel. The Sinaloa cartel makes more money in a week than the Gotti family made in 30 years of existence. The DEA estimates that anywhere between 100,000 to a quarter million people are on the payroll of the Sinaloa cartel. It’s huge. They drive a $50 billion a year business.

"A lot of people indulge in entertainment wrapped around violence, and so do I."

“Sanguinarios del M1” by Movimiento Alterado

Do you listen to Narcocorridos? Not so much. I hated it in the beginning. I saw a lot of people die; I saw journalists die; I saw it fuck up a country I like. I don’t blame the music; I blame the reality that created the music. They’re just the messengers. I blame the drug war. It’s not the Mexican drug war, it’s the Mexican-American drug war. Fifty billion dollars a year—where’s it coming from? Where are the guns coming from? What has this war ever succeeded in? Is cocaine any more expensive? No. If this war were even somewhat successful you’d see the commodity become more expensive. But it’s gotten cheaper and cheaper since 2006. I blame people who put their heads in the sand. The kids who listen to this music? They’re more knowledgeable than an NPR listener. They at least know what’s going on.

In a sense, the controversy over narcocorridos rehashes the debate we had about gangster rap twenty years ago: Does it fuel violence, does it reflect a reality, or is it just entertainment? When I met the BuKnas I hated their guts. You have to understand I really was sad about this and I didn’t get how you could drive across the border and dance on blood. But then I got it. I got the kids in the club. I got that it was just a way to listen to bad boy music and just hang out. It’s entertainment. A lot of people indulge in entertainment wrapped around violence, and so do I.

We’re so fake about this. If something’s worth $1 here and $100 there, of course poor people are going to go to great lengths to bring it there. How can we blame them? Of course the narcos are becoming Robin Hoods. What, [the kids] are going to go work in the maquiladoras [factories] for $5 a day? Screw that. I get it. I don’t blame them, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. And I grew to like Edgar and the band. This music is Edgar’s savior. If Edgar didn’t have the music he’d be a trafficker, he’d be a gangster, he’d be in jail. He’s from the hood. This is what makes him rise above it in a very ironic way. He takes care of his kids and he’s a good family man, with all of his flaws. He’s a nice guy.

Narco Cultura opens in New York today and rolls out nationwide December 6th.

No Concessions: Narco Cultura and the Business of Songwriting for Drug Cartels