Narco traffickers are having a cultural moment. Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán escaped from a maximum-security prison, the Kathryn Bigelow–produced documentary Cartel Land is in theaters, and Netflix’s new series Narcos has been well-received. But the Mexican outlaw oeuvre known as narco cinema has been training a lens on drug dealers for decades. “Videohomes” — cheap, underground B-movies, often bankrolled by narcos and produced in a matter of weeks for VCRs — became popular with working-class audiences on both sides of the border in the ’70s and ’80s. They tell over-the-top tales of drug dealers, corrupt cops and politicos, hookers, and trucks, and are sometimes based on songs known as narcocorridos — drug ballads — written and sung by norteño bands like California's Los Tigres del Norte. Narco cinema is so influential it’s seeped into mainstream Mexican films like the successful comedy Salvando Al Soldado Pérez/Saving Private Pérez (a spoof of you-know-what about a drug lord’s MIA brother in Iraq), arthouse films (Miss Bala stars Narcos’ Stephanie Sigman), “narconovas” — telenovelas about the drug trade. You’ll also see it appropriated by American directors like Robert Rodriguez and Oliver Stone. If Pablo Escobar’s Narcos exploits have left you jonesing for more drug drama, here are ten of the best vintage “videohomes” in chronological order, compiled by narco-film expert Carlos A. Gutiérrez, co-founder and executive director of the NYC-based Latino film association, Cinema Tropical.
Contrabando Y Traición, a.k.a. Camelia La Texana (Arturo Martínez, 1977). Based on the Los Tigres del Norte song “Camelia la Tejana” — this is the song credited with popularizing narcocorridos — the movie follows a drug-smuggling couple, Emilio and Camela (Valentín Trujillo, Ana Luis Peluffo), who carry a load of marijuana to Hollywood. It was also made into a narconova.
La Banda Del Carro Rojo/The Band ot the Red Car (Rubén Galindo, 1978). Another Los Tigres del Norte’s narcocorrido inspired this crime drama, which stars brothers Mario and Fernando Almada, two of narco cinema’s most popular actors, as the Quintana siblings who become drug traffickers and form the “red car gang.”
Muerte A Sangre Fría (Gilberto Gazcón, 1978). Death in Cold Blood stars the late Valentín Trujillo (also in La Banda Del Carro Rojo), one of Mexico’s most celebrated actors, who also directed and produced films. This movie was directed by his uncle.
Lola, La Trailera* (Raúl Fernández, 1983). After her father is killed for not letting a powerful cartel use his truck, beautiful Lola (Rosa Gloria Chagoyán) inherits the vehicle and exacts revenge. The character became an icon of Mexican pop culture. Emilio “El Indio” Fernández, one of the great filmmakers of Mexican cinema’s “golden era,” has a supporting role as the drug lord’s bodyguard.
Masacre En El Río Tula (Ismael Rodríguez Jr., 1985). Inspired by a true story from 1981, when 12 mutilated corpses were found on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Lo Negro Del “Negro” * (Benjamín Escamilla and Ángel Rodríguez 1987). Based on the best-selling book of the same name (which translates to “the dark side of ‘blackie’”), the film details the corrupt administration of infamous Mexico City police chief Arturo “El Negro” Durazo, who reigned from 1976 to 1982.
El Fiscal De Hierro (Damián Acosta, 1989). This action-packed flick starring Mario Almada and Lucha Villa tells the story of “Iron Prosecutor" Eduardo Lobo, a lawman sent to Monterrey to battle evil Ramona Pineda and her family. The movie was inspired by Mexico City cop Salvador del Toro, who was sent to Nuevo Laredo in the early ’70s to clean up the city.
La Camioneta Gris/The Gray Truck (José Luis Urquieta, 1990). Based on a Los Tigres del Norte narcocorrido and starring the Almada brothers, this action-packed story centers on the youngest member of an incorruptible police family who’s seduced by a woman working for a trafficker into moving drugs via his gray van.
* These two aren’t 100 percent narco cinema because they were made with slightly bigger budgets. But they were very popular, and greatly influenced the genre.