Juxtaposition is a powerful tool that propels many stories into their core conflicts. Comedies rely on it to highlight the hilarious differences between two characters (slobs v. snobs). Dramas utilize it to underscore the gulf separating two events, while suggesting a connection between them (The Godfather’s baptism scene). By laying two seemingly opposite elements side by side, artists can reveal the similarities and contrasts between these entities and use that disparity to provoke a reaction in their audiences. But what if that juxtaposition isn’t the work of fiction, but instead two cities divided by an international border? What if the juxtaposed isn’t leading to the conflict but created in its aftermath? Shaul Schwarz’s amazing documentary, Narco Cultura, looks at a city ripped apart by horrific violence, and two men who are following in its wake (but for very different reasons).
Richi Soto is a crime scene investigator in Juarez, Mexico, where there have been 60,000 murders from 2006-2012 related to drug wars between and with the cartels. He arrives on the scene of the crime in a mask to prevent onlookers from identifying him to the hitmen. He’s survived many of his friends and colleagues who have been killed by gunmen, but remains resolute in continuing his job. But his job amounts to — as many say of the police — nothing more than “bullet collectors,” as 97% of murders in Juarez aren’t investigated. Soto shows up to where the body has been found, helps block off the area, collects the pieces of the corpse if its been dismembered, and makes sure to catalogue and report everything. And that’s where it ends, until the next call a few hours later. It’s a bleak situation that finds the people of Juarez regularly watching a new corpse get loaded into the coroner van or even, in one stirring scene, literally watch their streets awash with blood.
Meanwhile, 800 miles away across the border in Los Angeles, Edgar Quintero is a rapidly rising star within the world of ‘narcocorridos” — ballads glorifying the life and activity of those same cartel gunmen. With his band Buknas De Culiacán (named after a part of Mexico famed for its cartels, and which no one in the band has visited), Quintero performs jaunty tunes about decapitation and assassination with the backing of accordions and tubas. He is commissioned by actual cartel members to write personalized songs chronicling their anti-heroic deeds gunning down federales and anyone else who gets in the way.
For both Soto and Quintero, business is booming. Soto drives out to murder after murder, beset by a constant threat of retaliation and the wails of the mothers desperate to see their children’s corpses. Quintero tours with his band to packed audiences who all know his lyrics and sing along to his songs of mutilation and annihilation while doing a quick two-step in the stands. Narcocorridos are so popular and pervasive in Mexican culture that cartels use them to signal when an execution is about to take place — and they’re also what the band plays at a party for Soto’s grandmother. These two seemingly opposite figures’ existences are byproducts of the cartels’ terror; the images that haunt Soto at night are the same that populate Quintero’s lyrics. Director Schwarz never passes judgment on either figure, presenting Quintero as merely someone profiting off an expanding fanbase clamoring for his lurid tales and Soto as an honorable if impotent figure of justice who works with corrupt superiors. But the juxtaposition is striking nonetheless: powerful shots of desolate streets in Juarez wracked by recent gunfire jutting against a theater full of people screaming for Quintero as he prances on stage with a bazooka.
Narco Cultura is an unflinching look at the horrific aftermath of violence, showing not just the victims’ tattered remains but also those who live and work in its shadow. Schwarz is able to get astoundingly frank interviews from his subjects as well incredible access to show them as realistically as possible. Both men are ostensibly playing roles. Quintero plays at being an outlaw for his adoring fans, while Soto plays at being a cop without being able to truly bring anyone to justice. Soto is out in the streets every day risking his life and living on the razor’s edge, but it’s Quintero’s face on the t-shirt of a farm worker in Culiacán. Schwarz’s powerful film chronicles two men who operate in the same thematic space but don’t even live in the same world.