Sunday, April 28, 2013

The soundtrack to Mexico's drug wars

I had a great time travelling throughout southern Mexico for two weeks late last year, but you wouldn't catch me dead in the United States border city of Juarez. And that's because too many people are already turning up dead there.

Police in this city of 1.5 million people across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas processed an already high 320 murders in 2007. Then the Mexican government launched a drug war against the cartels and those numbers increased to 1,623 homicides in 2008, 2,754 in 2009 and 3,622 in 2010, compared to just five in El Paso.

The violence involved in these killings -- including torture, disfigurement and beheadings -- makes the law-abiding people of Juarez fearful and the economic health of the already poor city has declined significantly. Narco Cultura looks at the harsh realities of Juarez through the eyes of a crime scene investigator named Richi.

While that in itself would make a compelling documentary, director Shaul Schwarz also profiles Los Angeles singer Edgar Quintero and his band, BuKnas de Culiacan. Quintero sings narco corridos -- songs that glorify the gangsters and their drug-dealing, mass-killing ways -- which have become very popular in the U.S. and several Spanish-speaking countries as well as Mexico.

Much of the music, based on Mexico's accordion-driven norteno mixed with other popular genres, is often catchy and danceable. But the lyrics, often about real people and events, are repulsive. Here's a typical example from BuKnas de Culiacan, which performs with a group member carrying a bazooka, while audience members happily sing along:

"With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder/Cross my path and I'll chop your head off/We're bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill/We are the best at kidnapping/Our gang always travels in a caravan/With bulletproof vests, ready to execute/I'm number one, code name 'M1'/I'm backed up by El Chapo/My name is Manuel Torres Felix sending greetings from Culiacan."

The top-selling narco singer, El Komander, makes $45,000 per show playing in large venues and is sought for steady bookings across Mexico and the U.S. Mexican action movies based on narco corridos, with singers as their stars, are available in major American chain stores. These guys are, to borrow a cliche, "living like rock stars."

This film deserves kudos for effectively juxtaposing the adulation received by narco singers against the lack of recognition given to investigators who risk their lives daily while trying to solve and stop drug murders. 

But where the movie suffers somewhat is in ignoring how narco singers and musicians have also become victims as well as chroniclers in the wars between the vicious cartels. Dozens have been executed. If you're singing the praises of one gang, that makes you the enemy of another. And these grudges are deadly.

That topic could make an interesting documentary on its own. But Narco Cultura opens eyes in depicting ways of life that, thankfully, are virtually unknown in Canada.

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