Narco Cultura
By Kate Perkins With on February 06, 2013

While many contemporary US-Mexico immigration films focus on the migrant’s treacherous journey, the will to survive and sometimes point fingers at problematic United States economic policies (like 2013 Sundance film Who is Dayani Cristal?), Narco Cultura looks at a relatively unexplored issue—Mexican drug cartels. The film portrays the influence of major Mexican drug cartels on popular culture on both sides of the border, focusing on a Mexican-American band in Los Angeles and a crime investigator in Juarez dealing with drug-related murders. Reflecting the depth and reach of the drug trafficking problem, the film is somewhat complicated and difficult to understand. Director Shaul Schwarz provides little narrative thread or explanation of basic “facts” surrounding drug trafficking, leaving the viewer a little confused about what’s really going on—where are the drugs coming from? Where are they going? Why is this connected to a dramatic rise in murders in Juarez? Why does popular Mexican-American culture glorify violence, drugs, and guns? While I found this somewhat frustrating, I also recognize an artistic device at work in the midst of this chaos. The “war on drugs” and the subsequent violence coupled with fallout from US-American drug policy is incredibly complex. There are no clear good and bad guys—the “corrido” Mexican-American singers who sing holding fake guns are simultaneously devoted to their family and actively representing the “poor man” from Mexico while the heroic crime scene investigator avoids full disclosure about some internal government affairs. Everyone appears to be both at fault—but also victim. The situation on the border is desperate for many Mexican-Americans, caught in abject poverty and now violence with the drug cartels vying for control of border towns like Juarez. The film does clearly fault the Mexican and United States government for the failed “war on drugs” that has mostly increased violence towards Mexican citizens and done very little to curb the movement of drugs across the border. Probably most shocking to me however was the story contrasting the crime investigator in Juarez—the story of a small “Narco” ranchero/corrido band called Buknas in Los Angeles. It was difficult to not think of Tupac or Biggie from the 1990s seeing them. The band not only promotes violence through their lyrics and dress (they carry fake bazookas and have AK-47 looking patches sewn on their mariachi band uniforms) but also engages in crazy gangster-like lifestyles, carrying guns, dealing and using drugs and sleeping with many women. In the midst of economic depression in Mexican and Mexican-American poverty, these music stars have become the new cultural rise-out-of-the-ghetto heroes. Everyday Mexican-Americans find solace and enjoyment in this violent music that gives voice to their often invisible existence within the United States. We sit back though and wonder—is the filmmaker suggesting that these musicians are the cause of the increased violence in Juarez? The film flips between scenes of these musicians (usually happy, full of music and celebration) and the murders in Juarez (these scenes are usually stark, cold and fearful). However, I do not think that is the point he is trying to make. Instead, he seems to be suggesting that while the Narco Cultura may fuel some violence the real problem is more economic and political. The Narco Cultura has developed out of desperation, a suppressed and poor people looking for new icons to follow in the midst of a US-Mexico border system that increasingly leaves most Mexican-American disenfranchised and forgotten. The Narco Cultura in this way seems similar to gangster rap artists of the 1990s, highlighting social problems among black Americans while also engaging in very risky behavior. The culture is controversial but like the drug war problem, also difficult to see where there are clear good or bad guys. US immigration, economic and drug policy have all, according to the filmmaker, put Mexican-Americans in a difficult position in society. Seeing this larger landscape, the viewer is led to a somewhat sympathetic view of these violent musicians despite their clearly negative influence on Mexican-Americans. The complexity of this system, all the factors, actors and situations can be overwhelming. However, unlike many films or stories that seem to resolve all problems by the end of the movie, Narco Cultura is different. The film ends with us left wondering not only what will happen but also what can be done to help. From a theological standpoint this is somewhat relieving—social problems, stemming from sin and brokenness at all levels of our society and lives, are incredibly complex. When personal sin combines with generational and systemic sin, the resulting problems are daunting. This is the real situation of a broken world, seen in this case through one issue—drug cartel’s increasing influence. In the midst of this extreme hurt and brokenness there is good news. While the problems of the world are vast and only seem to be growing and deepening, scripture calls Christians into action. First, like the film says, we must take responsibility for knowing about these problems, the violence and the problems with United States policies. Acknowledging where we might be at fault, sins of commission or omission, we move beyond a paralyzed hopelessness and recognize that a multifaceted problem like poverty requires action at many levels, personal, economic, spiritual, and political just to name a few. Films like Narco Cultura show us the depth of the need for redemption in Christ in our world. Scripture and Christian tradition give us the tools to step into this broken world alongside Jesus and take action to dismantle these complex systems of sin.

About the Author: Kate Perkins
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