After the arrest in 2010 of Edgar Valdez Villarreal, who the authorities said was the head of a violent Mexican drug cartel, customers at Video Mexico in Austin told Eduardo Betancourt, the owner, something he should have known: The man’s life was already the subject of a low-budget movie.
Betancourt’s video-store customers are part of a legion of aficionados of Mexican narco cinema, hastily made films that are inspired by the cartels. The films usually skip theaters, going directly to home video.
“Wherever the news is, that’s when they’ll start making movies,” Betancourt said. “They may not put them out two or three weeks after the news broke. But six or seven weeks down the line, somebody will have eventually made a movie. The customers are the ones that let me know.”
The films tell violent tales of regional drug lords, complete with portrayals of gunfights, sex, betrayal and corruption. Austin is a growing market for the genre, partly because of the increasing population of Hispanic immigrants and Texas’ proximity to Mexico, where the movies are made.
The movies’ production costs are less than $10,000 each, Betancourt said. They are made by a number of low-budget production companies, some that are established and others that Betancourt calls fly-by-night, which fold in a matter of months.
Betancourt began his rental business 12 years ago with videocassette tapes. While he does not rely solely on narco movies to attract customers, they make up a significant portion of his business.
Customers regularly check in to look for new movies that help them feel closer to home.
“Even if the title has Michoacán in it, if anybody that rents my movies here is from Michoacán, they’ll pick it up,” Betancourt said. “I have customers telling me a film was just shot in their hometown, and do I have it yet.”
Charles Ramírez Berg, a professor of media studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said the movies were therapeutic for some immigrants. “It’s a way of going home,” he said. “Maybe they are looking at the landscape rather than focusing on the story.”
Betancourt says he considers the potential negative effects of trafficking in the darker side of pop culture. Originally from Mexico, he acknowledges the lure of the ultraviolent life depicted in the films. But he is also a businessman.
“They offer me a product, and if it rents I am going to buy it,” he said. “From a personal view, you have a lot of these movies where people are killing or shooting or mistreating women. I personally don’t like it.”
Ramírez Berg’s view was that the movies could harm or help. Viewers may be influenced by what they see and want to participate, he said. Or they could be turned off and choose to stay away.
Either way, he said, the movies serve a purpose. “You look to popular culture as a way to discuss things that are difficult to discuss anywhere else — or at least raise issues,” he said.
The issues, he added, are not unlike those raised for audiences regularly since the inception of Mexican cinema.
For almost a century, much of Mexican cinema focused on the Mexican Revolution and the blown chances that Mexicans had during the hard-fought and violent episode that began in 1910.
“We had a chance at liberty, democracy, and film after film kept saying ‘We blew it, it turned into this corrupt kind of mess and very little of what we wanted to accomplish,” Ramírez Berg said. “The films became a profound mediation that asked ‘What happened?'” he added. “These new films, narcotraficante films, are asking the same question, but based on a new historical fact.”