Photojournalist Shaul Schwarz has worked in war zones across the world, but those experiences did not prepare him for the unsettling task of documenting the Mexican drug war. “In a conflict zone you usually end up being embedded within one of the sides and you feel fairly trusting of something at least,” he says. “In Mexico it’s really hard to cover anything. You never know who or where the narcos are, but at the same time, you assume they are everywhere.”
For the last several years, Schwarz has photographed and filmed in Juarez, although cautiously, visiting over 20 times but never staying for more than a week at a time. The result is the documentary Narco Cultura, which looks at the city’s pervasive violence and one of its cultural outgrowths: a new musical subculture called narcocorrido. Hugely popular among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the genre celebrates traffickers as outlaw heros. Bands like Buknas de Culiacan, featured in the excerpt above, dress as kingpins, use bazookas as stage props, and sing about torture and bloodshed.
The music’s popularity signals how deeply the drug war is rooted in the cultural psyche on both sides of the border. As El Diario journalist Sandra Rodriguez explains in the clip, “For me it’s like a symptom of how defeated we are as a society. The kids want to look like narcos … because they represent an idea of success and power and impunity. And limitless power. If you can kill a person, that is limitless power.”
Narco Cultura premieres in theaters November 22, and The Atlantic will host a screening and conversation with the director on November 19. Schwarz answered a few questions in advance of the premiere.