1623, 2754, and 3622. These are how many murders took place in Juárez, Mexico, in 2008, 2009, and 2010.
18, 13, and 5. These are how many murders took place in neighboring El Paso, an American city within walking distance of Juárez, during the same years.
This is what viewers learn during the first ten minutes of Narco Cultura, a documentary by Shaul Schwarz about the effects of drug trafficking on Mexico’s northern border. And then the scene cuts to a band playing what sounds like polka music. Singers decked out in Polo shirts and aviators carry AK-47s, belting out lines like:
Sending reinforcements to decapitate
El Macho leads wearing a bullet-proof vest
Bazooka in hand with experience
Death is within
If you don’t understand the Spanish lyrics, the music sounds like it could be playing at a bar mitzvah or your grandma’s 80th birthday party.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]
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.
Mexico’s new soft drink tax could push the nation’s Coca-Cola makers away from the cane sugar that’s made “Mexicoke” a cult hit in the U.S.
Executives from the second-largest bottler of Coca-Cola in Latin America suggested that a shift away from cane sugar might be in the cards as a result of the steep sales tax on soda Mexico’s congress approved on Thursday (Oct. 31). American Coke enthusiasts claim the Mexican version tastes better than what they get in the US, which some say is because Mexican Coca-Cola is made with cane sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup.
Read more. [Image: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco]
The Seven Year Itch fashioned a classic American romantic comedy around the notion that after seven years of marriage, a spouse’s interest in a monogamous relationship starts to wane. The premise of the Marilyn Monroe film made for some great laughs and iconic images, but it was not pure fancy. A lot of studies over time have shown that the average length of a first marriage is about seven or eight years.
There is an interesting parallel in politics; specifically, the life span of one-party regimes, though in this case we might call it the “70-year itch.” The U.S.S.R. is a prime example. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev took command of the Soviet Union in 1985, the rot in the Soviet system, and the corresponding decline of its legitimacy, were well advanced. “Interest in the marriage” had long since begun to wane. Gorbachev’s efforts to revive it with political opening and economic reform (glasnost and perestroika) only enabled the marriage to break up peacefully. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Communist Party had been in power for a little more than 70 years. Similarly, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled in Mexico from its founding in 1929 until its defeat in the 2000 elections—71 years.
Read more. [Image: Jason Lee/Reuters]
In a bright pink tank top, a black skirt, and three-inch heels, Sandra Villarreal Martinez walked confidently to the front of a small group of women, ages 38 to 55, sitting in plastic chairs on a cement patio. They are all HIV positive.
She offered them a big smile as beads of sweat accumulated on her forehead. “I’m here to talk to you about condoms,” she said, holding a small package into the air. “How many of you have used one of these before?” she asked. Some women fanned themselves with their notebooks, gazing into the distance. Some looked to the others for consolation, visibly uncomfortable. Finally, María stuck a lonely hand into the air. “Great,” said Sandra. “And do any of you know how to open a condom?”
The group was silent. From the back corner, the sole male attendee stood up. “I can show you how.” The women giggled. “First off, no teeth and no scissors,” he said, taking the condom out of Sandra’s hand. “And remember to check the expiration date.” He tore the package open and pulled the condom into the Chiapas sunshine.
It was 10 a.m. on a Tuesday in La Reforma, a small refinery town in the northeastern corner of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico.
The workshop marked the first time that women living with HIV in La Reforma had ever met or spoke openly about their condition. Over the next hour, each of the five women in attendance told her story. Tears came easy as they described the moment they received their diagnosis, the children and grandchildren who brought meaning to their lives, and the fears that continued to haunt their thoughts. All the stories had one common thread: each of the women at the workshop got HIV from their long-term partners, most of them from their husbands.
Read more. [Image: Eva Hershaw]
Getty Images photographer John Moore has spent years covering stories about immigration between Mexico and the United States — border enforcement, drug smuggling, undocumented workers, and more. Earlier this year, he traveled south to the Mexico-Guatemala border, where Central American immigrants cross the Suchiate River, beginning their long and perilous journey north through Mexico. He traveled with some of the thousands of immigrants who ride atop freight trains, known as “la bestia,” or the Beast, toward the U.S. border. Riders on the Beast risk a great deal — robbery and assault by gangs who control the train tops, or the loss of life or limb in a fall. Only a fraction of the immigrants who start the journey in Central America will traverse Mexico completely unscathed — and all this before illegally entering the United States and facing the considerable U.S. border security apparatus designed to track, detain, and deport them. Moore has captured images not only of their difficult journey, but of the faces of these travelers, telling their stories through compelling portraits taken in shelters and jails along the way.
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]
In central Mexico, walls are invitations to party. Since 1960, bardas de baile (loosely translated as “music walls”) have illuminated exurban and rural areas with colorful, hand-painted advertisements for music, dances, and carnivals. Although these work of homemade graphic design share some of the characteristics of graffiti, they are not tags - and they are tolerated by the authorities. The new book Mexican Wall Painting: Bardas De Baile (Ghost & Co., New York) by Patricia Cué, a designer and design teacher at San Diego State University, examines these expressive painted letterings and the subcultures that have developed around them.
Read more. [Image: Ghost & Co.]
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]
Trekking through the Tlapocayan jungle in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, seven men from Forge Motion Pictures brave bugs and inclement weather to capture water in its most natural, most treacherous state: the waterfall.