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.
Hollywood’s new fascination with the Mexican drug trade might turn out to be a blessing for Carlos Quijas, who recently got a call from a movie producer who was interested in meeting with him. A contractor and former golf instructor from El Paso, Quijas has never directed a movie or written a script. But it’s not his movie-making credentials the studio seems to be after — it’s his criminal record.
Almost four years ago, Quijas, a U.S. citizen, was arrested, convicted, and sentenced for drug-smuggling in Mexico. He has spent that time trying to prove his innocence and clear his record of what he considers to be the result of a corrupt judicial system and bad timing.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
U.S. photographer Katie Orlinsky moved to Mexico in 2006, just after graduating from college. The drug war surrounded her, and she quickly realized that women — not just men — were serving as its weary warriors, ferrying contraband and kidnapping kingpins. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of women incarcerated for federal crimes rose 400 percent. Orlinsky began to wonder: Who are these women? Innocent victims of a broken system? Cold-hearted criminals? Both?
In 2010, she entered the female prison in Ciudad Juárez and began photographing the convicted women inside.
See more. [Images: Katie Orlinsky]