'Narco Cultura' (R)

The statistics are staggering, unbelievable, heartbreaking. In 2007, there were 320 murders in Juárez, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2010, after a war between five drug cartels erupted throughout the country, the death toll was 3,622. That same year, El Paso, Texas, which is just across a river from Juárez, was named the safest city in the United States, with a murder total of five.

After the Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo” Guzmán trained his sights on the once-bustling, vibrant city, Juárez became one of the world’s most dangerous murder capitals. Police officers wear ski masks when patrolling the streets to hide their identities, fearful of reprisals. Although the city’s growing opportunities for industrial jobs has led to an increase in population, many people don’t leave their homes after dark, afraid of kidnappings and drive-by shootings. Corpses aren’t just dumped into deserted lots; they are cut up and distributed around the city, the body parts a threat to the locals to keep their mouths shut. On average, only three out of 100 murders ever make it to court, due to lack of witnesses. Even then, convictions are rare.

Director Shaul Schwarz, a former war photographer, uses newspaper photos, Internet clips of executions and live investigations of actual crime scenes to give us a sense of the surreal aura of death and danger that hangs over the city (the movie contains some extremely graphic images, including a brief, grainy video of a decapitation by machete and another beating of a bound man with baseball bats). But Narco Cultura isn’t a documentary about runaway crime: Its actual subject is far stranger.

Focusing on three people — Richi Soto, a forensics investigator; Edgar Quintero, a singer-songwriter living in Los Angeles, and Sandra Rodriguez, a newspaper reporter in Juárez — Narco Cultura shows how these merciless “narcos” who have taken over the city have become Robin Hood-style folk heroes. Teenage girls want to marry one. Filmmakers crank out low-budget movies (one blatantly ripping off Scarface) celebrating their heroics. And a growing musical genre known as “corrido music” is spreading throughout Mexico and the United States, with bands performing songs that blend hip-hop style lyrics with traditional Mexican guitars and glorify the drug traffickers and the grim realities of their lives.

The access Schwarz was granted is extraordinary. We follow Edgar as he meets up with his latest client, a drug trafficker, and performs the song he has written specifically for him (the dealer, pleased, pays him with a fat wad of $100 bills). Edgar is longing to spend six months in Mexico to catch up with the local slang and soak up the gangster atmosphere, even though he is married and has an infant son. He snorts cocaine from the barrel of a gun, basks in the love of his fans and talks about his aspirations of stardom with a guilelessness that is startling. This is just the way the world is, he seems to be saying.

Rodriguez, who covers the crime beat, talks about how the growing popularity of corridos are a sign that Mexico has given up — been worn down by crime and started to incorporate it into its culture. Most fascinating of all is Richi, a quiet, humble man who lives with his parents, has a girlfriend he intends to marry and goes about his horrible job with an air of resignment, knowing all his work will be for naught. Narco Cultura is filled with startling moments: When a U.S. Border Patrol brags that the number of arrests of people transporting drugs has dropped, the director tells him that maybe the traffickers have figured out a new way to smuggle them into the country. The officer is so flummoxed, he calls his boss on camera to ask how he should reply.

There are sequences in Narco Cultura that are simply unbelievable, like a visit to a cemetery for narcos that is as beautiful and ornate as a palace, with mausoleums the size of mansions, ensuring the fallen killers will be remembered. And there are times when the movie breaks your heart, such as a scene in which the mother of a young man whose dismembered body has been found in 16 pieces breaks down in front of the camera, yelling and screaming about the inefficiency and corruption of the city’s authorities and imploring her neighbors to “Shout, Juárez, shout!” In its own eloquent way, this movie does just that.

With: Richi Soto, Edgar Quintero, Sandra Rodriguez.

Director: Shaul Schwarz.

Producers: Jay van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Todd Hagopian.

A Cinedigm release. Running time: 103 minutes. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, graphic crime scene photos and videos, disturbing imagery, drug use. Opens Friday Nov. 22 in Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Wynwood.