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

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No wonder cartel bosses want balladeers of their own. Few minstrels will admit it publicly, but it is common for a drug lord to hire a musician to compose a song praising his bravery and cunning. As one popular singer confided to TIME, "I can make about $20,000 a song, and if they like it, they'll also tip me with a pickup truck or something like that." Says another young corrido singer, Erik Estrada, from the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán: "I've been asked to write songs about these things, and I can't say no. I'm a singer, and that's what I do." He adds, "And besides, I have family down there. I have to be careful."

Nor is it a good idea to refuse a command performance at a narco fiesta in Mexico. Often, musicians are summoned to appear at an airport and are flown in a small aircraft to a rough landing strip in the Sierras. One musician opened his laptop and showed TIME a video shot at a drug trafficker's birthday party "somewhere in the hills of Sinaloa." The singer performed with a brand-new M-16 semiautomatic rifle slung across his shoulder. "That's what the head boss got for his birthday, and he had me perform with it on," he recounted.

For all his swagger onstage, El Komander is fearful of the men he praises in song. He is still shaken up over the murder of a fellow musician, Sergio "El Shaka" Vega, whose car was forced to a halt along a highway in Sinaloa last June; Vega was shot 16 times. One industry source says he was too closely linked to one of the cartels for his own good. "Vega's death terrifies me," says El Komander. "I'm nobody's messenger, nor do I belong to one side," he insists.

It's About Speed
Despite the risks, these are high times for narco balladeers. There's no dearth of material: between the Mexican government's four-year war against the drug lords and the many intercartel battles, it's easy to find a bloody tale to set to music. But competition is fierce; songs have to get out as quickly as a tabloid headline. On July 29, Edgar Quintero, the Los Angeles — born singer of the band Los BuKnas de Culiac├ín, was only half listening to a Tijuana radio station when he heard a live broadcast from a wealthy suburb in Guadalajara where more than 100 troops had cornered a fearsome drug lord of the Sinaloa cartel, Ignacio "The King of Crystal" Coronel. Famed for his jewel-encrusted pistols, Coronel died gangster-style, firing from both barrels. "I poured myself a few tequila shots," says Quintero, "and I started on the lyrics."

Quintero sang his lyrics over the telephone to TIME. The song described Coronel as "a humble man from the Sierras who was ratted out by an informer," glossing over the inconvenient truth that according to Mexican and U.S. drug agents, the King of Crystal had been exporting several tons of methamphetamines and cocaine into the U.S. over the past 10 years. That, in all probability, wouldn't have any impact on whether Quintero was going to have a hit on his hands. But he did have one hoop to jump through that most other musicians can safely ignore: clearing the lyrics with the surviving bosses of the Sinaloa cartel. Those critics carry machine guns.

WIth reporting by Shaul Schwarz / Los Angeles

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