If you ask most Americans what immediately springs to mind when Mexican music is mentioned, you’ll probably receive blank stares. Smiley brown faces under canary yellow sombreros playing in a mariachi band at a dingy restaurant serving week old nachos may spring to mind or, if you’re part of a particular post WWII baby-boom generation, Carlos Santana’s epochal performance with his band at Woodstock could be what you immediately think of. But for most Americans without any Mexican heritage, the mention of narcocorridos will go completely over their heads. You can imagine the response now. ‘Narco-what-now? Is that a new dish at Taco Bell?’
Yes, I generalise a tad, but America has yet to wake up to the frightening reality of the narcocorrido, or ‘drug ballad’, which has forged a loyal following in Latino communities in and around Los Angeles. These songs, which can trace their roots back to the 1930s but only concretely forged their own recognisable identity in the 1980s, glorify drug-trafficking, smuggling, corruption and gangland murder. Over the last few years, several musicians (some American based) who produced narcocorridos have been brutally gunned down due to their connections with Mexican drug cartels. Considering the genre’s huge popularity with the Latino youth in the States, ordinary Americans should now be asking themselves: how long before the murders start to occur north of the border, infiltrating contemporary American society itself?
The narcocorridos, musically, often include tubas and accordions amongst other instruments traditionally associated with Mexican music, but the most popular artists within the genre today tend to employ gangster rap influences to connect with their predominantly youthful audience, as evidenced by the following lyrics by El Movimiento Alterado in their hit song ‘Sanguinarios del M1’:
‘With an AK / and a bazooka taking aim / blowing off the heads / of whoever gets in the way.’
Hard to imagine other Latin American musicians singing that. Ricky Martin would spontaneously combust in a cloud of mascara and glitter and Shakira’s thong would be in an unholy fucking twist. Oh, and that particular song has gone to sell well over a hundred thousand copies and has amassed millions of views on YouTube. This isn’t some nut-job band playing in front of a few wannabe pre-teens at a village fete – this is big business. There are plenty of musicians who glorify gang violence, of course, from NWA in the late 80s and innumerate copycats today. However, what is most unsettling about the narcocorridos movement is its legitimisation; these are songs which herald some of the major players in the Mexican drug cartels as heroes, modern day Robin Hood figures who profess in some warped way to be morally superior to a corrupt police force and judiciary.
Musicians can be offered upwards of $10,000 for favourable mentions to certain ‘patrons’ in their songs; these patrons are invariably members of the cartels, who wish performers to venerate their exploits through the medium of music. In California, where there are over six million Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles alone and over fourteen million in the entire state, the illegal download market is vast; these songs are reaching a young, often financially disadvantaged demographic which continues to grow. Worryingly, a ThinkProgress study discovered that the median household income for Latinos in California was $44,300 in 2011, whilst it was $67,000 for whites. If narcocorridos continue to grow in popularity within the States, their penchant for encouraging violent crime as a method of escaping poverty could inspire a huge upsurge in gangland incidents in the following years, right on America’s doorstep.
Consider what has already happened in Mexico, especially since the 2006 governmental drive by Felipe Calderon’s administration to combat the insidious reach of drug cartels deep into Mexican society. By 2012, the official death toll was 60,000, although some believe the actual total may be up to 50,000 more. Narcocorridos continue to lionise some of the individuals involved, to the extent that one prominent band, Buknas de Culiacan, began to regularly perform on stage with ski masks, fake AK47s and a bazooka. Yep, a real life, deadly bazooka. What would the British equivalent be? One Direction walking on stage at Wembley with Harry lobbing Molotov cocktails into the crowd and Zayn tear-gassing the front row?
As already mentioned, the ghoulish death toll doesn’t extend solely to Joe Public; indeed, several prominent narcocorridos musicians with personal connections to the cartels have been caught up in the violence, often resulting in deaths. Two of the most prominent murders were those of ‘The Golden Rooster’ Valentín Elizalde and lead singer of popular band K-Paz de la Sierra Sergio Gómez in 2006; Elizalde was brutally gunned down after performing at a concert in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, where he sang a song, ‘A Mis Enemigos’, which involved contentious references to Los Zetas, a trafficking gang which didn’t take too well to what they perceived as an intentional slight. Gomez, who had been warned not to play in the drug cartel hotspot of Morelia, was discovered dead on its outskirts, beaten, strangled and with facial burns from a mysterious unknown substance. These are only two of the most high profile cases; other musicians or those with close ties to the narcocorridos industry who’ve perished include: Sergio Vega (ironically shot and killed hours after denyng his own murder), Javier Morales Gomez of Los Implacables del Norte, Zayda Peña of Zayda Y Los Culpables, trumpeter José Luis Aquino, Fabian Ortega Pinon of El Halcon de la Sierra and record producer Marco Abdalá, amongst various other managers and musicians. Few arrests have been made, despite some of these murders having occurred several years ago; evidently, the shadowy influence of the cartels continues to prosper, despite the best efforts of Felipe Calderon to pin his administration’s success on clawing back the success of Mexico’s lucrative drug trade.
These events have led to a strict tightening on Mexico’s domestic laws regarding the playing and distribution of narcocorridos; in the notorious cartel-controlled states of Sinaloa and Chihuahua, the most popular anthems are banned from radio stations and Calderon even wanted to introduce a bill into Mexico’s parliament which allowed anyone performing or promoting songs glorifying gang violence to be jailed for three years. The bill was never enshrined, however, and what with widespread musical piracy and the fact that many Californian based Spanish language stations manage to broadcast south into Mexico, it seems the policy was always doomed to fail.
And this, most worryingly for Americans, is the point: the epicentre of the narcocorridos industry isn’t in some dusty outpost of Mexico, run by old Jose with his cowboy hat on and broadcasting his pirate radio station from a garden shed. Oh no. It’s in Calfornia; Burbank, to be precise. The industry has moved north to escape the governmental interference which is so prevalent in Mexico, as it combats the brutal drug cartels which control over 90% of the cocaine entering the United States. With a vast target market in the millions of young, ambitious but often frustrated Latinos in California, the narcocorridos provide not only a reminder of their ancestral heritage, but also the promise of wealth and prosperity through the vast profits generated by the illegal drug trade.
The American government has a lot to worry about right now, especially in regards to its foreign policy. Barack Obama is attempting to thaw relations with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in New York, which could lead to an epochal change in the relationship between the two traditionally antagonistic countries. Furthermore, the Syria question still provides many questions and little in the way of answers. However, America must first ensure that it doesn’t neglect its most pressing domestic issues. Bearing in mind the ongoing exponential increase in the Latino population of the United States, allowing a vastly growing musical industry primarily funded by the world’s most powerful drug cartels to flourish within its borders would be viewed as a disastrous oversight by the Obama administration in the years to come.
It’s time to tackle the narcocorridos head on. Otherwise, the average American can look forward to finding some poor trumpeter named Ramon’s head in their mail box on a weekly basis.
Here's the music video below to 'Sanguinarios del M1' by Movimiento Alterado.