Meet the Court Jesters of the Mexican-American Drug War

The filmmaker behind 'Narco Cultura' explains why narco corridos aren't just the gangster rap of Mexico.

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To those who do not understand Spanish, Los Buknas de Culiacan's performance "Los Sanguinarios del M1" might sound like a pleasant, upbeat Mariachi song, maybe about love or family or a day of hard, honest work. But its lyrics tell a different story:

"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."

 

When Los Buknas bandleader Edgar Quintero sings "Los Sanguinarios" – which translates to "The Bloodthirsty" – he is not singing from his own experience. Edgar lives in Los Angeles, in a modest suburban home with his wife and their two small children. Rather, Edgar, who has written a number of songs similar to "Los Sanguinarios," taps into the experiences of drug traffickers in Mexico – some of whom will commission him directly for songs. For inspiration, Edgar will skim Blog Del Narco, which reports the ghastly details of the cartels' crimes, or even interview the criminals themselves, currying details about the guns they carry or the nicknames they go by, all important details for the lyrics of his music. Narco corridos, as the songs are called, by him and other artists are the subject of a new documentary "Narco Cultura," which explores the excessive violence being wrought in the drug wars in Mexico.

"I do agree with Edgar [who says in the film] that if there wasn't so much violence, there would not be such bad-ass corridos," says "Narco Cultura" filmmaker Shaul Schwarz, an acclaimed Israeli photojournalist who has long covered the Mexican-American drug wars, as well as conflicts in Afghanistan, Israel and elsewhere.

Not only are narco corridos often directly inspired by the deadly activity of Mexico's drug gangs, they often become the soundtrack to their crimes. Narco corridos ring out on radio frequencies that can be heard where traffickers will leave dismembered bodies as warnings to those who dare cross their paths. Nacro corridos play in the background of videos posted online of cartel thugs beating or murdering their victims.

"After we hear a nacro corrido, it means there's been an execution," an investigator explains in the film.

Narco corridos are also being embraced by Mexican-Americans who live in cities like El Paso, Texas which recorded only five murders in 2010 compared to the 3,622 murders the same year in Juarez, a Mexican town a walk across a border bridge away. There and in Los Angeles, and other cities boasting large Mexican-American populations, Los Buknas is greeted at clubs like The House of Blues with red carpet treatment and hordes of screaming fans. Partying young people sing along to the tunes that brag about murders and kidnappings, as the performers brandish oversized fake bazookas while wearing Burberry-patterned bullet proof vests.

Schwarz was inspired to make the documentary when he attended one such performance in Riverside, Calif., only hours after photographing a ghastly double murder not far away in Tijuana, Mexico.

"There was actually people from Tijuana there and to me, they were like dancing over the blood. I just didn't believe it," Schwarz says. "Most of the people were Mexican-American and it took me a good second to take the turn and just say, well how did we get to his? Why is this happening?"

It would be easy to compare the rise of popularity of narco corridos to the ascension of gangster rap in the United States – and in the documentary Edgar indeed makes the comparison. However, while both genres of music glorify violent, outlaw lifestyles, Schwarz says narco corridos and rap are "vastly" different, and not just in the way they sound musically:

"Biggie, Tupac – when hip hop and gangster rap started, they really spit and rhymed about their struggle and their struggle was very simple. It was a corner game. It was selling dime bags. Yeah, maybe you're rising to fame and glory through music, but at the end they really talked about a corner struggle of themselves," Schwarz says. "Edgar doesn't sing about his struggle. He tries to interview the biggest trafficker he can and lets him edit the word of every song and in sense becomes a PR machine or the court jester of these cartels."