For decades, Latin American narcos have captured the imagination of filmmakers the world over. From sensationalist documentaries to fictionalized festival faves like Heli or Miss Bala, and more recently to Netflix series like Narcos, the violence, excess, and romanticism of narco lifestyle never cease to captivate audiences. But for thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, narco entertainment often comes in the form of no-budget, direct-to-video schlock-fests known in Spanish as “videohomes” (yes, we know that’s technically English.)
The digital video offspring of Mexico’s post-Golden Age lowbrow ficheras cinema, these narco b-movies employ simple plot lines free of nuance or subtext, orgies of gun violence, deep sexual undertones, and lavish criminal lifestyles to satisfy working-class audiences who often don’t have the economic means to enjoy a night out at the cinema. This cheap exploitation fare is usually produced on a budget of less than $10,000 and churned out like industrial sausage for a modest but guaranteed profit, while the stories tend to paint murderous traficantes as Robin Hood-like figures living a life of glory, danger, and material wealth.
Of course you’re thinking that these films are obviously funded by the narcos, but naturally no one has established a clear link between the two. In fact, impresarios like Juan Manuel Romero of the Orange-county based production house JC Films insist that the money comes out of their own pocket, and that the sensationalist narratives of narco-heroes are innocently based off of narcocorridos by conjuntos like Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Los Tigres del Norte. On the other hand, canonical videohome actors like Mario Almada and Jorge Reynoso have spoken in no uncertain terms about the inevitable connections between organized crime and this multimillion dollar industry.
These modest films are actually so popular that they can be purchased at borderland Walmart stores and even seen on Spanish-language television stations like Los Angeles’ channel 62. In fact, back in 2010 the Mexican newspaper El Universal actually declared that narco videohomes were more profitable than Mexico’s national film industry.
But just in case you’ve never had the pleasure of catching one of these Tarantino-worthy monuments to rampant delinquency, we’ve put together a little starter guide for you whet your palette. Check ’em out.
La Banda del Carro Rojo
Director: Rubén Galindo
Based on a well-known corrido by Los Tigres del Norte — which was in turn presumably based on a true story — this early example of narco cinema featured emblematic Mexican action star and videohome impresario Mario Almada in his only role on the wrong side of the law in over 300 films. Almada and brother Fernando play the Quintana brothers, who go on to form the Carro Rojo gang.
La Camioneta Gris
Director: José Luis Urquieta
Yet another plot based off a Tigres del Norte song that’s based off a true story, and also starring the Almada brothers, La Camioneta Gris is noteworthy for having started an entire subgenre of colored truck-themed narco videohomes like El Hummer Negro and La Ram Blanca. Tells the story of a newlywed couple who brought cien kilos back to Sonora after a honeymoon in Acapulco only to be surrounded by the federales. But will does their flashy grey truck have what it takes to get them out of the bind?
La Clave 7
Director: Jorge Reynoso
If the Almada brothers are the face of the upright justiciero in Mexican narco cinema, actor Jorge Reynoso is the cartel capo par excellence. With hundreds of films to his name over several decades, La Clave 7 is one of his more recent successes, which he also happened to direct. Pedro Avilés is the beloved capo of a powerful Sinaloa cartel who declares open warfare on the government when a police operation named “Clave 7” puts a price on his capture.
El Chrysler 300: Chuy y Mauricio
Director: Enrique Murillo
This one has the distinction of being the highest grossing narco videohome of all time at the time of its release and inspiring a handful of sequels. Chuy and Mauricio are two best cuates who live the good life of drugs and adventures; that is, until a murderous woman comes into the picture.