NARCO CULTURA - 2009 Shaul Schwarz
A junkie stands near one of the many heroin shooting galleries where addicts live and shoot near the US border, Tijuana, Mexico.
Photograph by Shaul Schwarz/Reportage by Getty Images

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Conflict presents itself in many guises. The drug wars in the Mexican border town of Juarez, the world’s homicide capital, take an obvious toll through the deaths of thousands each year. However, this deadly battle has more subtle consequences on the US side of the border, including the development of Narco Corrido; music that glamorises the violence and luxurious lifestyles of the gangsters.

In his second major feature, Narco Cultura, film-maker and photographer, Shaul Schwarz, lays bare the stark contrast between the two sides of the story through the lives of two characters – crime scene investigator, Rich Soto, and Narco Corrido singer/songwriter, Edgar Quintero.

“I’ve been covering Mexico since the end of the nineties, and have spent the last couple of years focussing on their deadliest city, Juarez. I’ve worked as a photojournalist for many years now, so it seemed natural to get out there and report on what was happening when the drug wars escalated in 2008.

But, when I was in Juarez, I soon realised there was a greater story to tell. I just wasn’t sure how to tell it. This war was affecting way more than the people who were killed and those living on the borders. I understood that there was a bigger cultural thing going on. Ironically, it wasn’t until I was back in the US, on the Narco Corrido club scene back on the edges of LA that I hit upon the answer.

I’d seen guys wearing stuff that totally glamorised their new heroes, the drug gangs in Mexico. At first I was appalled by them. I didn’t understand how this sub-culture had emerged on the back of so much violence.

They saw it as a way of keeping in touch with their own roots, now they’d moved across the border and taken up life in the United States. Most of them didn’t personally identify with the murders and the devastation from the relative safety of the new homes, and so I wanted to expose this subculture and make the viewer ask how we have gotten to this grim reality.

I followed the life of CSI worker Rich Soto as he examines gruesome crime scenes, collecting evidence on killings that are rarely pursued by the authorities. Several of his colleagues have been assassinated and he has to be extremely cautious about his movements and protecting his family.

And I spent time following the musicians and the bands playing Narco Corrido, focussing on Edgar Quintero and his band Buknas de Culiacan.

I never expected the connections between the bands and the traffickers that I found. But as the popularity of the Narco Corrido grew, the criminals were attracted by the glamorisation, the iconic status they were given. And it got to the point some were hiring the bands to put out this incredible image of themselves.

That relationship put the bands in this strange position where they were a link between these two worlds. On the one hand, the violence of the narcotics gangs and, on the other, the glamorous Narco Corrido scene. Because of that, getting access at the same time as staying safe was a huge challenge.

We faced some terrifying moments. But, even more so, we had to figure out what we didn’t want to cover. It was clear that to stay safe, and not endanger others, we had to draw lines in the sand, and that would later become a reality in the editing room as well. There are many scenes that did not make the cut because we believed they might endanger someone.”

Narco Cultura was recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.