For much of "Narco Cultura", photojournalist Shaul Schwartz's distressing new documentary about narcocorrido music and cartel violence in Mexico's northern states, Edgar Quintero looks like he's having a blast. The Los Angeles-based singer gulps down Modelos and marijuana smoke; poses with pistols and bazookas; leads leopard-print-clad blondes to his group's hotel room; and when it comes time to perform his songs -- rollicking, brassy, cheerfully depraved odes to the drug-trafficking life and sometimes to specific, real-life cartel members - he swoops onto stages wearing a coat embroidered with the name of his band, the BuKnas ("boo-kah-nahs"), and belts them out. Fans in places as far away as North Carolina, mostly young people either from Mexico or of Mexican descent, belt them right back at him.

Back in Los Angeles, Quintana's life is quieter: time with his wife and baby interspersed with trips to the studio to record. Both he and his wife agree they wouldn't ever want to leave their home for Mexico ("are you crazy?" his wife says). In the past, he's gotten into trouble, and served a short stint in jail, but nothing like the men whose lives he glorifies in song. But he's got to keep up appearances: eventually, Quintana and his band take their act down to Culiacán, the heart of Sinaloa Cartel country, where cartel members receive them on a meth ranch. There, standing beside his manager before a new pickup truck, Quintana cocks a pistol and says, in a fan video, "This is for everyone who says BuKnas aren't in Culiacán. Here we are right in the middle of Culiacán!", punctuating it by letting a couple shots go in the air.

But for Schwartz, an Israeli-born New Yorker who between 2008 and 2010 covered the drug violence in several cities in the north of Mexico, Quintana and the narcocorrido singers aren't the only ones guilty of merely keeping up appearances. The film keeps returning to members of the Juárez CSI unit -- itself a force of indisputably brave and perpetually imperiled souls, but one whose leads keep getting filed away and forgotten. In 2010, that city's bloodiest year on record, 3,622 people were murdered, the majority of them not cartel members. 97 percent of murders went uninvestigated; even fewer led to prosecutions.

"We have seen many cases of authorities collaborating with criminal organizations," says Sandra Rodríguez, investigative reporter for El Diario de Juárez, in the film. "My opinion, based on what I've seen, is that the administration [of former Mexican president Felipe Calderón] is very careful to make sure there is no investigation."

The US comes out looking just as guilty of the farce. When he asks a Border Patrol representative how his agency knows that a decrease in apprehended drug traffickers means less drug trafficking activity, the officer forgets his lines and has to call a superior before delivering a dodge. "I think there's no just military solution for this," he told the Latin Times in the offices of Cinedigm, the film's distributor. "This idea that you just throw more money at the Border Patrol, at customs -- for the most part, that's not where the solution is at." Law-enforcement, he says, looks out for the funding interests of its individual agencies. Yet "we've already thrown billions toward the fence and yet, on the drug level, nothing has changed. Look at the price of cocaine in the last six years. We all know that if a commodity is harder to get, its price rises. But it's been falling every year...there's a lot of proof that Mexican cartels have never been more powerful."

"The big elephant in the room is to talk about legalization" -- if not of hard drugs, at least marijuana, he says. "Treat it as a commodity, as a $50 billion a year industry, which is pretty much what the Mexican cartels make. The DEA estimates that 100,000 - 250,000 people are on the payroll of the Sinaloa Cartel alone. This is not Tony Soprano. This is not the Italian mob...if drugs are legal, then the cartels have very little game left." At the very least, he says, legalization would "steer the boat in the right direction".

In "Narco Cultura", children get the first word about Juárez. One of them burrows his hands deep in his pockets, a few feet from the border fence, and wishes there weren't any more murders on his side of it; others perch on the hood of a car and chatter about the slayings they'd seen. "Take the 12-year-old in Juárez," says Schwartz. "His mom slaves for $5 per day, and probably gets treated like shit. Meanwhile, he sees the 17-year-olds jamming narcocorridos in their pickups, doing anything they want and getting away with it, getting all the girls. What do you think he's going to choose?"

"I think the cartels are the cancer of Mexico. I don't like this culture. I made a movie to show the glamorization of it, but I also want people to think why it gets glamorized. The question is how to change the choices that the 12-year-old makes. It's not even blaming the Edgar Quintanas of the world."

"Narco Cultura" opens November 22nd in New York and Miami and December 6th in cities across the Southwest.  Watch the trailer below.