The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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NOV 2013 Issue
Express In Conversation

The Narco Cultura War Next Door: Shaul Schwarz with Williams Cole

Narco Cultura is a shocking film, as it should be. The murderous drug war in Northern Mexico—and more specifically in border cities like Ciudad Juárez—is a deeply horrific blood bath. It has gone on so long that it’s chronically underreported yet has seeped into pop culture on both sides of the border. In addition to Hollywood films, consider the narcocorridos, songs that often lionize the exploits of the cartels and are hugely popular in both countries. Shaul Schwarz, a respected conflict-zone photojournalist who was born in Israel, began this film after doing multiple photo assignments in Juárez. I sat down with him at a West Village café. 

Shaul Schwarz, the director of NARCO CULTURA. Courtesy of: Cinedigm.

Williams Cole (Rail): Given the magnitude of the drug war in Northern Mexico and on the U.S. border, do you feel it’s underreported? 

Schwarz: Yes. While it always seems to be called the “Mexican” drug war, I see it as the “American-Mexican” drug war. And it always seems to be covered with talking heads or experts in Washington. I’m a photojournalist at heart, that’s my background, and a lot of my Mexican friends who have been reporting for years in Mexico said, “You’ve got to go down to Juárez. It’s unreal what’s happening.” So I flew to El Paso, walked across the bridge, and I was shocked. I was there alone, literally, except for the local press. And I spent an intense two years of taking photos, mostly in Juárez. It was incredible to watch the violence, the death, the murders, and how that keeps going. The pictures got published and I got attention but everyone kept saying, “Oh, this is just gangs killing gangs.” And when you are on the border, the reality is how much more connected it is to all culture and how surreal, dumb, and ironic it is—it just shocks you. So the more I heard that the more I wanted to do a film. Then I found out about the music, the whole narco cultura, if you will. It’s really this world that has effects on everybody on both sides of the border. 

Rail: How did you start understanding the breadth of what narco cultura was?

Schwarz: You saw it in the field. I was always asking, “Why do people do this? Why are they involved?” In the beginning it’s not obvious, but when you spend years there you see mothers working for $5 a day while all a 12-year-old has to do is hold someone’s gun on the side and suddenly he’s making $100 a week by not doing anything. The next week he’s doing something that is making him $500 a week. There’s a lot of Mexicans, of course, that think, like me, that the cartels are a cancer, but if they do they are usually quiet about it. It becomes clear why many Mexicans see drug lords as Robin Hood types when opportunity is so little and when there is total impunity and injustice. When you can pretty much do anything you want—literally kill someone and get away with it—it starts a culture that says, “These are the new Gods!” They are being buried in these palaces—most people in Mexico can’t even dream of having a house like that. So if the bad guys win like that, what would you expect from a 12- or 16-year-old kid? That’s what people in the U.S. don’t really get in their brain, even the Mexican-Americans who sing the corridos that glorify the cartels don’t get it. This reality is built.

Rail: Have the cartels come to feed into it in the sense that they are consciously saying, “Oh this is actually good for us, these corridos?”

Schwarz: I think they just like it. They definitely have the self-indulgence of enjoying their power. In their mind, it’s like, “Are you kidding? They’re singing songs about us in L.A.?” They have a place in the entertainment capital of the world that’s going to come back to Mexico. It’s like a cycle. The traffickers just love it. This is the kind of thing that glorifies them, that makes them feel good. It’s also the kind of song that anybody slightly involved, or anybody pretending to want to be involved, could play in his car and just kind of trip like he’s a part of it. That part is similar to Gangsta Rap, but only that part. 

Rail: Why? How does it compare?

Schwarz: Well, I don’t think people understand how powerful the cartels are. We’re not talking about—not to disrespect the Bloods and Crips on the corner—but this is a different league. Hip hop and Gangsta Rap are often about “my hustle”—“I was born into this, I blew up and now I got bitches, weed, etc.” I’m not trying to downplay rap but these guys who write the corridos [one Mexican-American who is profiled in the film] are not singing about themselves. They are singing about kingpins.  He’s interviewing people to sing about them. He’s authorizing every word of his lyrics with them. And what would be the backlash for them if they didn’t? Well, it’s the biggest crime organization in the world with revenues of an estimated $50 billion a year. It’s really hard to grasp. And these corridos about the exploits of the cartels are hugely popular. If you go to YouTube you will see hits that you won’t believe—in the millions—and many are also sold on iTunes, at WalMart—a lot of different music stores. It’s a much bigger movement than people think. I was working on the story for a year, and I didn’t get that there are hundreds of clubs every weekend partying to this, that there are millions of followers.

Los BuKnas de Culiacan in Shaul Schwarz's NARCO CULTURA. Photo Credit: Shaul Schwarz Courtesy of: Cinedigm.

Rail: What was it like to film in Juárez?

Schwarz: I went to Juárez more than 20 times during this film. We had a bunch of our little laws. We had a two-man crew and never exceeded that. We never stayed more than a week at a time. We always operated very quietly and yet, we still had issues. There is a lot of tiptoeing because the assumption is that narcos are everywhere, but no one ever says they are one.  So you assume that they are everywhere. There is this constant kind of fear game. From 20 years of experience in journalism I’ve been in a lot of places. I’ve been embedded in Afghanistan, in Israel where there was full out war. This had it’s own set of rules because in a weird way, I never saw conflict there. Well, I saw it once or twice. But it wasn’t a lot. You’re constantly seeing bodies—10 a day—but you never see it happen. And no one ever claims to find a body, no one is held accountable, nobody is ever caught. Yet, at the same time, there are a lot of quite normal people living in Juárez, that are just trapped in it and trying to make a better, honest life for themselves. The difference between Juarez and El Paso—right across the border and one of the safest cities in the world—is very low in a weird way. There are so many families split apart by that border. So, if anything, what I lose faith in is not humanity but policy. It’s how we hide what’s happening. How we want to say it’s Mexico’s drug war, not ours.  
Rail: What would you say to those people who think that it’s more of a foreign conflict?

Schwarz:  I mean, come on. 50 billion dollars a year! If we didn’t have a demand for drugs it wouldn’t be like it is. And where do they get all the guns? It’s no secret and any journalist working on either side of the border will tell you the same thing. And if you think the drug war is working, tell me why cocaine is getting cheaper and cheaper by the year. It’s not a successful war. Any politician who claims that is a joke. And to my surprise, there hasn’t been much change in the U.S. between this administration and the last. In fact, this one is worse because it’s putting more money into building the border while giving more money to the Mexican government. They’re just building a border that makes it harder for immigrants, like the guy who is probably washing dishes in the back of this place, to go back home if his mother dies. For immigrants it’s way harder. For cartels, they just keep chugging along. There’s so much money, so much demand. They are never going to stop. 

Rail: So how do we escape it?

Juarez Narcos in Shaul Schwarz's NARCO CULTURA. Photo Credit: Shaul Schwarz Courtesy of: Cinedigm.

Schwarz: I always tell people I don’t have a one, two, three answer. This is complex. What I am extremely sure of though is that what we are doing now is wrong.  It’s horrible.  We’re sticking our head in the sand and pretending that it’s someone else’s problem while we keep creating it.  There shouldn’t be 80,000 dead people over the last six years on the other side of the border and a million something people in jail here if we’ve done such a great job. The real deal is not to settle for what we have. Not to let the government tell you that there’s a “drug war” over there and so we’re going to lock the border, and stop immigration, and fix the problem. You can’t arm the war on both sides, pay for it, and pretend it’s not yours.  You just can’t. It doesn’t make sense. And if I did this movie for any reason it was to say it’s not going away.



The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2013

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