In Mexico, drug cartels pay bands to sing their deadly praises

In Mexico, drug cartels pay bands to sing their deadly praises

MusicMarch 15, 2018 By Reilly Capps

Narcocorridos are bands that make music about bad guys with guns — commissioned by the bad guys themselves.

The Mexican groups are paid thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars by the cartels to write songs that shower love on the bagmen, coyotes and drug smugglers, from low-level mules to El Chapo himself. These are "commissioned paens to some very nasty characters, vicious thugs who buy corridos as status symbols alongside big cars and beauty queens," writes Elijah Wald in the book "Narcocorridos: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas."

"Gangsters — like everyone else who craves power — likes their power to be celebrated, and they will hire people to do that," Wald told Rooster Magazine. "Dukes used to do that, emperors used to do that."

[On November 25, 2006, Mexican singer Valentin Elizalde sang a song "To My Enemies," with lyrics supposedly ragging on the Zetas cartel. After the concert, a Zeta hitman killed him and his chauffeur.]

The narcocorridos don't just do it because they like getting paid. There's something in all of us that secret likes the underworld. Gangsta rappers spit about selling drugs off their iPhones. Hollywood cranks out flicks about warlords and vigilantes. Wu-Tang rapped about Bruce Lee. They do this out of genuine admiration for cool motherfuckers. The bands even try to look like narcos: they love expensive cowboy boots, silk shirts, shiny gold jewelry, big cribs, fancy trucks and AK-47s.

"Celebrating bad guys with guns is pretty fucking universal," says Wald.

It's just that, in America, our bad guys tend to keep a lower profile, and don't usually want mixtapes out about how ruthless they are. Mexican cartels do.

Corridos are an old tradition. In Spain, and later Mexico, they've always sung about tough guys and heros, out of genuine admiration. "They'd sing about a mother who saved her children from a flood and then she died herself — an actual person," says Mark Cameron Edberg, author of El Narcotrafficante: Narcocorridos and the Construction of a Cultural Persona." "They'd sing about Pancho Villa," the Mexican war hero.

The narcocorridos began mainly as reflections of harsh realities. "That's how it is, this is a reflection of how it is in Mexico," says Edberg.

It's sort of the way Chuck D. said "rap is the CNN of the ghetto."

Being paid by the cartels to sing about the cartels started to ramp up because of pirated cassettes. The bands lost their revenue. And they started to turn to benefactors who would pay them to praise them, and no one has more disposable income in Mexico than guys who sell cocaine by the ton.

Wald traveled throughout Mexico and met dozens of the singers and songwriters for his book. And he had to be more careful than he does in America. "The more I got into dangerous places, the more I was asking about the songs, not the drugs," Wald tells me.

This does seem wise: every so often, narcocorrido band members end up in ditches with bullets in the backs of their heads.

Most of the time, the killings go unsolved. The usual assumption is that members of rival cartels put the lead in them, that it's deadly to sing certain songs in Mexico, that the drug lords are ruthless enough to kill the guitar players.

Wald says that narrative is overblown. Wars kill people, and so life in Mexico can be deadly, regardless of your line of work. It's true. Avocado farmers get kidnapped. Churches get bombed. More than 120,000 people have died because Americans won't legalize drugs. So it's no surprise that musicians eat it. And only about 100 musicians have been killed; a relatively small number.

"The music doesn't make it more dangerous, but god knows it's dangerous" in Mexico, Wald says. A lot of the musicians have been killed because of something they themselves did: they're involved in drugs themselves; or they hit on someone's girlfriend; or who knows that.

Mexico is just a messed up place right now. And lots of macho hombres — good and bad — end up dead. As they did, other dudes with guitars will go on celebrating them. Yes: there are narcocorrido songs about the slain narcocorrido singers.

[Chalino Sanchez, one of the original gangsters of narcocorridos, was attacked on stage, but Sanchez shot back and killed the attacker. On stage! Although, temporary victory: he was murdered a few months later, in 1992.]