Halfway through the second season of “Breaking Bad,” Walter White became the subject of a narcocorrido. A fictional nortena band called Los Cuates de Sinaloa performed “Negro y Azul: The Ballad of Heisenberg,” a song glorifying White's blue methamphetamine and the violence surrounding his ascent. Shaul Schwarz's documentary “Narco Cultura” shows that the music video in that episode was not far off the mark.
Schwarz splits his time between the hollowed-out husk of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where crime scene investigator Richi Soto cannot keep up with the mounting body count in his hometown, and Edgar Quintero, the Los Angeles-based lead singer of narcocorrido band Buknas de Culiacan.
Like Mozart in the Salzburg Court, Quintero writes songs on demand, taking rolls of cash to knock out bouncy nortena ballads extolling the power, violence and success of drug kingpins in the Sinaloa Cartel, the billion-dollar organization that expanded its drug war to Juarez in 2006.
From the happy fans shouting along to songs about guns and blood to the footage of charred bodies and decapitations, “Narco Cultura” is designed for maximum shock and fully succeeds. It is not a remote subject: Buknas de Culiacan and one of the genre's biggest stars, El Komander, both have played shows in Oklahoma City.
But “Narco Cultura” does not provide enough context for either side of its subject. Schwarz, an Israeli combat journalist, shows the violence but barely offers any explanation of the geopolitical reasons why “Warez” was allowed to fall so quickly to drug violence, and while the narcocorrido musicians have expanding fan bases, it's not made clear just how big they are.
But “Narco Cultura” does show how seductive folk “heroes” can be, even the ones spilling blood over drugs. In the final scenes, Quintero visits Culiacan, the home of the Sinaloa Cartel, to gain perspective on his subjects. Somehow, Quintero sees the large neighborhood of mausoleums that have sprung up outside Culiacan mainly as evidence of these outlaws' magnificence, not of their violent ends.
— George Lang