Narcocorridos: The Balladeers of Mexico's Drug Wars

The Mexican craze for songs glorifying the violent lives (and deaths) of drug lords has crossed the border. Are narcocorridos the Latin gangsta rap?

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Shaul Schwarz for Time

Narcocorrido star Alfredo Rios, a.k.a El Komander, walks by his Burbank, Calif., studio. His revved-up ballads about drug kingpins get heavy play on radio stations across the U.S., and his videos have a massive following on the internet

In Rialto, on old route 66 just outside Los Angeles, young Mexican Americans in sharp cars and glittery, cowboy-goth clothes are pouring into a hangar-size nightclub to hear El Komander sing. Brawny, buzz-cut and with a midnight pallor, El Komander looks as if a Mexican drug cartel might have sent him on a summer internship with the Russian mob. He's wearing a black satin cowboy outfit with flashes of silver lightning embroidered on its sleeves. His narcocorridos — narco ballads — are about the gunfights and beheadings going on south of the border: the word asesino (murderer) figures heavily in his lyrics. "Trashed with drugs," he croons in a deceptively sweet voice. "Blowing heads off those who cross us."

Driven by a tuba, an accordion, drums and a guitar, narcocorridos sound like polka pumped up on meth. By turns frenetic and mournful, the songs celebrate the violent lives — and grisly deaths — of Mexican drug lords. The genre's popularity has spread quickly from Mexico, and dozens of singers now routinely tour the U.S., finding huge audiences that are not limited to the nation's 47 million Hispanics. And El Komander — Alfredo Rios, a 24-year-old Mexican — is the genre's hottest new star. His top single, "El Katch," his producers say, is getting heavy radio play from San Diego to Chicago. "My fans think this music gives them an identity," he says.

Latin Gangsta
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 lifestyles of its performers. Many balladeers receive money from drug lords to write paeans about their exploits; some are paid to perform at gangs' private parties in secret hideouts. But being one gangster's favorite singer can make you a target for his rivals: nearly a dozen musicians have been killed since 2006. That only adds to the narcocorrido's mystique among its fans. Says Luis Gomez, a computer-studies student at an underground narcocorrido event in a Gardena, Calif., garage: "Sure, it was violent. But it's about freedom, seizing what you want — the babes, the cars, the money."

The ballads have deep roots; Mexicans have been singing about drug runners since the 1930s. But the new wave of narcocorrido is more gruesome than ever, and it portrays the drug lord as a hard-partying, daredevil Robin Hood fighting a corrupt system. That attitude, says Los Angeles promoter Joel Vázquez, appeals equally to Mexicans and young second- and third-generation Hispanic Americans who feel the "hopelessness" of making a living in the U.S. during these grim economic times — much the same way that gangster tales were popular during the Great Depression. The narcocorrido has given some young Mexican Americans a new, if violent, sense of identity within the American cauldron of ethnicities. "Even though I was born in L.A.," says Chuy Lopez, a young fan at the Mi Hacienda nightclub in Pico Rivera, Calif., "I feel like I'm from down there, Mexico, and I'm proud of it."

The corrido's migration from rural Mexico to urban Hispanic-American audiences began in the 1970s with stars like Los Tigres del Norte, who wear oversize sombreros and appeal to an older generation. In the early 1990s, a rough-hewn rebel, Chalino Sánchez, appeared on the Hispanic nightclub scene around L.A. Sánchez's most memorable performance came in 1992 at a club in Southern California when a man jumped onstage and shot him. Sánchez was wounded but pulled out his own revolver and fired back. Elijah Wald, a songwriter and expert on the narcocorrido, recounts, "That was the moment when L.A. kids woke up and realized, 'Hey, this isn't our mom and dad's music. It's as tough as gangsta rap, and it's Mexican. It's who we are.'" (A few months after the California incident, Sánchez was executed during a tour of Mexico.)

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