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№ 26 SPRING 2012


























Bijan Berahimi

Bernardo Loyola

Chris Burnett

Pedro Lavin

David Davis



THE JOHN WAYNE OF MEXICO Photography & Words Chris Burnett

Have you made any movies lately? I just came back from Dallas. I was shooting a video there. How many movies have you made? I’ve starred as the lead in well over 300 films shot on 35 mm. That’s just counting films shot on film. I’m not counting videohomes. I’ve probably acted in more than 1,000 of those. What’s the difference between working in 35 mm and in videohomes? It’s very different. The big movies are shot over months and videos are made in six days. That’s why I’ve managed to act in so many movies. And do you usually play the good guy or the bad guy? Usually I’m the hero: an avenger, a cop, a sergeant, a sheriff. I’ve played priests and pretty much everything else. Except for a gay guy. Not that. If I played that, it wouldn’t even be believable. My characters always fight against violence and against the drug traffickers. Always. The only time I played the role of a drug trafficker was in The Band of the Red Car. Who watches your movies? Mostly the working-class people, but very often I run into women from the super-rich neighborhood of Lomas de Chapultepec and they tell me, “Mr. Almada, I watched one of your movies on TV last night. They are great. Please keep making them.” But the main audience is the working class in Mexico, the US, and South and Central America. Is it true that a lot of these movies are shot in the US? We’ve shot a lot of great movies in Brownsville, Texas. The Band of the Red Car was shot between Brownsville and Matamoros, Mexico.


And is that because the millions of Mexicans living in the US are really the market for your movies? People there really like Mexican songs, but they also like the stories about the border, about illegal immigrants, and about drug trafficking. Movies like The Death of the Jackal and The Revenge of the Jackal were huge hits. We also shot those in Brownsville.

If there’s one person who represents this industry, it’s Mario Almada. He’s kind of like the John Wayne of Mexico—a total legend. He’s 86 years old and he’s still making movies. He actually holds the Guinness World Record for the living actor who’s appeared in the most movies. We visited him at his house in Cuernavaca.

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JESÚS MALVERDE, sometimes known as the “generous bandit,” “angel of the poor,” or

You just mentioned Mexican songs. There’s a very close relationship between narcocorridos and the videohome industry, right? There are so many of these songs. There are lots of characters who have been very famous, like bandits and such, and eventually someone writes a corrido about them. And based on that corrido, a movie gets made. And they are always very successful, because they are based on a song that’s already well known. For example, The Band of the Red Car. That started as a corrido that was made famous by Los Tigres del Norte, one of the biggest bands in Mexico. It tells the story of four friends who get killed. They were carrying 100 kilos of coke in the tires of the car. The movie came out of that song. You can see it all in the movie. We take the tires apart and all that.

the “narco-saint,” is a folklore hero in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. He is celebrated as a folk saint by some in Mexico and the United States, particularly among those involved in drug trafficking. The existence of Malverde a.k.a ‘El Rey de Sinaloa’ is not historically verified,but according to local legends he was a bandit killed by the auth0orities on May 3, 1909. Accounts of his life vary—sometimes he was a railway worker, while others claim he was a construction worker. There is also no agreement on the way he died, being hanged or shot. Since Malverde’s supposed death, he has earned a Robin Hood-type image, making him popular among Sinaloa’s poor highland residents. The outlaw image has caused him to be adopted as the “patron saint” of the region’s illegal drug trade, and the press have

Now, I’ve heard that some of these movies are financed by… By drug traffickers? Well, yes. It might be true. I’ve never looked into it. I have a lot of producer friends who wear gold chains and diamonds, but I don’t try to find out if they are drug traffickers or not, because they’re nice. They’re good people. Have you ever met any big drug dealers? Any capos? I met Rafael Caro Quintero in the 80s in Guadalajara. He invited us to his table at a restaurant and I had drinks with him. He was a very charming man, a very generous man who did a lot for his people. He built schools. We made Operation: Marijuana about the beginnings of Caro Quintero, when he had those plantations everywhere. He got into something illegal and he ended up in jail, but he was a good man.

thus dubbed him “the narco-saint.” However, his intercession is also sought by those with troubles of various kinds, and a number of supposed miracles have been locally attributed to him, including personal healings and blessings. The story of Jesus Malverde takes place during the reign of dictator Porfirio Diaz 1877-1911. The Porfiriato, as the era is known, was a time when big business, especially foreign-owned big business, was encouraged above all else. Diaz saw himself as the Words Pedro Lavin Photography Armando Martinez

rest of the world saw him: as Mexico’s modernizer. Yet progress passed by millions of Mexicans, who remained as impoverished as ever. As the century turned, the country fermented with the social anarchy that would explode in the Mexican Revolution. The hills and back roads of Mexico were alive with banditry, some of whom would become folk heroes to the country’s poor.



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How so? This style of action movie that we make today, based on news stories, about the mafia, was started by me, and I made them popular by working with the record labels and by including popular corridos in them. People actually know me as “The Lord of the Guns,” because I’ve killed lots of people… in my movies. Most of the movies I’ve made are about the mafia. These movies are very well received by the Mexicans living in the US, because they can relate to the characters in them, who are very respected, and loved by people that live in small towns, and also by the musical groups that sing corridos.



So you are saying that Mexicans celebrate their drug dealers? What happens is that drug traffickers in Mexico come from the countryside. They are people who make their way out of poverty. Once they succeed, they do good things for their hometowns. They build schools and hospitals, they create jobs, and, obviously, people love them. There’s even a patron saint of the drug traffickers. His name is Jesús Malverde and his shrine is in Culiacán, Sinaloa. People go there and they leave candles and they sing songs for him. It’s a fascinating culture, and it’s the reality of Mexico.

Words Bijan Berahimi Photography Crystal Yi

As opposed to Mario Almada, Jorge usually plays the most badass of bad guys. However, nowadays Jorge is more then just an actor. He is a Narcocinema film entrepreneur, director, and producer. When we met him in Mexico City he told us that he was busy starting the production of his very own hot sauce: Rico, Picante y Sabroso, el Sabor de Jorge Reynoso.

IF YOU MAKE CHANGES TO THE STORY THAT THEY DON’T LIKE, THEN YOU WILL HAVE SOME PROBLEMS. Have you ever met any big drug dealers while making your movies? I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of them. In fact, we’ve made some important movies with these people where they’ve worked with us. They’ve been with us, but obviously I was never a snitch and that’s why I’m still alive. I’ve never betrayed the trust of any of them, who always gave us and continue to give us their friendship. The first movie that I made about the mafia was called The Mafia Trembles, a movie made about Rafael Caro Quintero, who was a very important drug trafficker in Mexico. We made La Mafia 1, La Mafia 2, and La Mafia 3. They were highly successful.

So how much time and money does it actually take to make these movies? The costs are between $40,000 and $50,000 for a well-made movie. We ask someone to write the script, which is done in three or four days. There are some great Mexican writers. So in a week and a half, I have the preproduction of the movie ready. After that, we have two weeks to shoot it. So in five weeks, the movie is already on the market. I’ve made as many as 26 movies in a year. What do you think of the Mexican film industry? What’s the difference between the mainstream artsy Mexican films and the kind of movies that you make? I think there are some great movies being made today, but I also think that they are made for people who can afford to watch them. They are not really films for the majority of the people, because the working class doesn’t have access to them. First, there are no movie theaters in the small towns and rural areas, and second, I think that the themes they talk about are a bit off from where they should be, in terms of culture and values. I think those movies are too risqué. I think they’ve gone too far, but they win awards and compete at the major film festivals. The kinds of movies we make are very different. 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21


Do the police ever come and ask you where you get the information to write your movies? It has happened in the past. The State Department would call me to ask me if I knew where such and such person was hiding. I would answer them, “You should know where he is. You are the police, I’m just an actor.” Did you start out making mafia movies, or were there other genres for you first? In the beginning we started making movies about the illegal immigrants. More than making movies, we were making an homage to those people who make it to the “other side” despite all the difficulties. We feel very proud of them. Then we started making movies about the mafia. Although it was somewhat risky because the Mexican mafia is the second- or third-most powerful in the world, I continued making them, often based on narcocorridos. The record labels would approach us and give us songs, and we would make movies about the songs that were playing on the radio. We still do that today. People used to tell me that I looked like a mafioso and that I should play that kind of character, so

that’s what I do, and I play those characters with a lot of pride and dignity. It’s interesting that a lot of these movies are Mexican productions but are shot in the US. Why shoot there instead of Mexico? We get a lot of support from the Mexicans who live there. People know us and they get very excited when they see us there. When you shoot in the places where they live, like Houston, Dallas, California, or Chicago, the people get very involved. Also, the mayors of many American towns are of Mexican origin, and they help us a lot. Where do you sell the majority of your movies? Our main market is the Mexicans living in the United States. Piracy was hitting us really hard, but we realized that if we sold lots of DVDs of our movies at supermarkets at very accessible prices we could make a profit. Walmart has more than 2,000 stores in the US. If we sell five copies at each store, we are talking about 10,000 copies, and they can be sold in just a few days. At Walmart they place our DVDs next to Mexican food products. For example, you can find a movie starring Jorge Reynoso next to some delicious enchiladas. We put four or five movies on a single DVD. We also sell our movies to TV stations in California, Texas, and Illinois. You give the people movies they want, with songs, with a beautiful actress, a handsome guy, and a killer, and they will buy them. You’ve mentioned narcocorridos. It’s very interesting how this music has changed over the years. Corridos were songs originally from the Mexican Revolution, originally from the beginning of the last century. They would make songs for the fighters and heroes like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata or the women fighting with them on the front lines. In recent times, this kind of song is made for and about important characters of the Mexican cartels—dignifying them, and making them into larger-than-life heroes. People in the Mexican mafia love this kind of music. A lot of these kind of movies are based on popular narcocorridos, but I know that in the past three years, there have been over 25 violent killings of musicians, like Valentín Elizalde and Sergio Gómez, attributed to the drug cartels, supposedly for singing in the wrong territory or about the wrong people. Do you ever get in trouble for making a movie based on the “wrong” song? The song gives you the synopsis for the movie and, based on that, we make the adaptation. But of course, you have to ask for permission. You need to have good relations with these people so you don’t get in trouble. Because if you make changes to the story that they don’t like, then you will have some problems. God bless, we’ve always done things the way they should be done. There are a lot of recurring stars in your movies, but it seems that non-actors play a lot of the characters too. The scripts are written in such a way that everybody can participate. Like the strippers, who are always great with us. They are awesome girls. The security guards, the cops, the drunk guys, the hit men, and all the people who are in that kind of environment always work with us. What you see is what you get. The prostitute is a prostitute, the cop is a cop, and the drug dealer is a drug dealer.

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Mexico is famous for many things: tequila, a glorious cuisine, gracious people, beautiful beaches, and perhaps puking spring breakers. However, in the last year, the beleaguered nation is getting more attention than usual for its vicious drug cartels. Mexico is considered the superhighway of drugs entering North America. It supplies most of the coke, meth, marijuana, and poppy derivatives consumed in the United States, and today the Mexican drug trade is a $100-billion-a-year industry. In the last decade the drug culture in mexico has spread drastically and it seems as though drugs as a culture has permeated every part of mexican society. Mexico now has thier own patron saint of drug trafficing, narco corridos which are songs about being a drug trafficker and then thier is narco cinema.

NARCO CINEMA WHEN B-MOVIES MEET THE MEXICAN DRUG WAR Words Bernardo Loyola For over 40 years, a hugely active B-movie industry has been producing super-low-budget films about drug dealers, bad cops, corrupt politicians, trucks, and prostitutes, catering mostly to the blue collar back home and the millions of Mexicans living in the US. In Mexico, this industry is called “videohome” because the movies go straight to video. If you go to a video-rental place in East LA, you’ll find one copy of Amores perros, but it will be surrounded by hundreds of other movies like Sinaloa, Land of Men; A Violent Man; The Dead Squad; Her Photography Fabio Cuttica November 210

Price Was Just a Few Dollars; Coca Inc.; I Got Screwed by the Gringos; Weapons, Robbery, and Death; and Robbery in Tijuana. This industry is frowned upon by embarrassed and ashamed middle- and upper-class Mexicans, and many people we tried to interview about it felt offended by the fact that we were even interested in narco cinema. A movie like Chrysler 300 sold thousands and thousands of DVDs last year, but 14 15 16 17

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“THIS IS NOT A SURPRISE WHEN YOU REALIZE THAT ONLY 18 PERCENT OF THE POPULATION IN MEXICO CAN AFFORD TO GO TO SEE MOVIES IN THE THEATERS.” people in the trendy neighborhoods of Mexico City have never heard of it even though it was playing on every TV in

like The Black Hummer, The White Ram, The Red Durango, and

the working-class areas. As Hugo Villa, a former official at the

two of the most famous classics of the genre, The Gray Truck

Mexican Institute of Cinematography, told us, “This is not a

and The Band of the Red Car.

surprise when you realize that only 18 percent of the popula-

a movie that eventually gets a sequel. There’s no Y tu mamá

The reality is that videohomes are a far truer reflection of the

también Part 2. But in the videohome industry, any successful

tastes of Mexico than the kind of stuff that makes Frenchmen

movie will become a franchise, so you have Dos plebes 5, An

pee champagne into their tux pants at Cannes.

Expensive Gift 4, Chrysler 300 Part 3, and so on. Most sequels

stories from local newspapers. They can be written, produced,

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In the mainstream Mexican film industry, it is rare to find

tion in Mexico can afford to go to see movies in the theaters.”

These low-budget action flicks are often based on violent


any store that carries videohomes, you can easily find movies

are revenge stories based on the original movies. A few decades ago, these movies used to be westerns

and released mere weeks after the stories are published. They

or straight action movies, but over the last two decades, the

are also often based on myths and legends about the all-

focus has shifted to drug trafficking. Mexico is the number two

mighty drug cartels from the northwest region of Mexico and

producer of both marijuana and poppies in the Americas, the

stories about Mexicans crossing the border. Also, hilariously,

majority of meth that seeps into the States is being made in

tons of narcocinema movies revolve around cars or trucks. In

Mexico, and the whole country is basically a superhighway

for US-bound cocaine. Drug trafficking is a $100-billion-a-year business, and about 30 percent of that is estimated to go into paying off the government and the police. Today, the narco wars going on in Mexico are out of control. Every day on the news you hear about shootings, executions, beheadings, and corruption. But it’s not only the cartels that are at war with each other. The current government has tried to stop the cartels, effectively militarizing entire areas of the country. This has sparked even more violence. So we have the cartels fighting the government, the government fighting the cartels, the cartels fighting each other, brutal killings every single day, and a group of dedicated workhorse filmmakers turning the whole thing into video faster than you can say arriba.


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Everybody knows about Mexico’s bloody drug cartel wars, the narcotics mafia, executions and the state’s often inadequate attempts to curb the menace. But did you know about the controversial genre of music that all this has spawned? Taking cues from old Mexican folk corrido songs and mixing them with the drug culture in Mexico Narcocorridos was born. The music’s appeal is tied to its association with danger. In that sense, the narcocorrido has something in common with 1990s gangsta rap, complete with the fast and ferocious

gunslinger. No wonder cartel bosses want balladeers of their own. Few minstrels will admit it publicly, but it is common for a drug lord to

drug lords to write paeans about their exploits; some are paid to

hire a musician to compose a song praising his bravery and cunning.

perform at gangs’ private parties in secret hideouts. But being

As one popular singer confided to us, “I can make about $20,000

one gangster’s favorite singer can make you a target for his ri-

a song, and if they like it, they’ll also tip me with a pickup truck

vals: nearly a dozen musicians have been killed since 2006. That

or something like that.” Says another young corrido singer, Erik

only adds to the narcocorrido’s mystique among its fans.

Estrada, from the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán: “I’ve been asked to write songs about these things, and I can’t say no. I’m a singer, and

about drug runners since the 1930s. But the new wave of nar-

that’s what I do.” He adds, “And besides, I have family down there. I

cocorrido is more gruesome than ever, and it portrays the drug

have to be careful.”

lord as a hard-partying, daredevil Robin Hood fighting a corrupt system.

February 1, 1979 – November 25, 2006

music welling up in a TV western at the approaching shadow of a

lifestyles of its performers. Many balladeers receive money from

The ballads have deep roots; Mexicans have been singing


El SHAKA September 12, 1969 – June 26, 2010

Despite the risks, these are high times for narco balladeers. There’s no dearth of material: between the Mexican government’s

Nobody so far has been daft enough to ask the drug lords

four-year war awgainst the drug lords and the many intercartel

publicly what they make of the growing popularity of narcocor-

battles, it’s easy to find a bloody tale to set to music. But competi-

ridos in the U.S. But they probably love it. Howard Campbell,

tion is fierce; songs have to get out as quickly as a tabloid headline.

an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso,

On July 29, Edgar Quintero, the Los Angeles — born singer of the

EL LOCO ELIZALDE August 16, 2009 – July 19, 1977

says the cartels regard the ballads as useful propaganda. “The

band Los BuKnas de Culiacán, was only half listening to a Tijuana

cartels are interested in two things, power and intimidation, and

radio station when he heard a live broadcast from a wealthy

they’re trying to influence public opinion to their side,” he says.

suburb in Guadalajara where more than 100 troops had cornered

The songs can also serve as martial music: when the Sinaloa

a fearsome drug lord of the Sinaloa cartel, Ignacio “The King of

cartel tried to muscle into Mexico’s Nuevo León state in 2006,

Crystal” Coronel. Famed for his jewel-encrusted pistols, Coronel

gang members jammed police radio scanners to play odes to

died gangster-style, firing from both barrels. “I poured myself a few

their boss “El Chapo” Guzmán. The effect was like ominous

tequila shots,” says Quintero, “and I started on the lyrics.”

SERGIO GÓMEZ June 2, 1973 – December 2, 2007



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Magazine about the Narco culture in Mexico.

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