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Narcocorridos: Ballads Of The Mexican Cartels

The news of Mexico's bloody cartel war is reflected in a controversial folk-music genre called narcocorridos, or drug ballads. They're like journalism put to song — telling stories of drug lords, arrests, shootouts, daring operations and betrayals.

It's a slow night on Calle del Taco in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico. Lovers sit in their vehicles eating tacos and sipping bottles of cold beer while the trios warm up: musicians with scarred instruments, wearing cowboy shirts buttoned tight across paunches and open at the top, machismo-style.

"In San Jose, Costa Rica, they took him prisoner, now the whole world knows how the ballad begins of Rafael Caro Quintero," the musicians croon in harmony. They're singing an older narcocorrido about the 1985 arrest of a Mexican druglord who is also under indictment in the U.S. for the torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in Mexico.

The composer of "The Ballad of Caro Quintero" is one of Mexico's most prolific corridistas: Reynaldo "El Gallero" Martinez — a 71-year-old fighting-cock breeder with a pencil mustache and a gambler's grin. He's with us tonight, listening approvingly to this rendition of one of his most famous corridos.

"The kids of Reynosa and Matamoros and many parts of Mexico learn the words to a corrido before they learn the National Anthem," Martinez says.

He may be overstating it, but it's undeniable that the popularity of narcocorridos has tracked the spiraling cartel violence in Mexico. More than 13,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006.

Standing nearby, guitarist Agustin Llamas says that if they don't sing narcocorridos out here on the Calle del Taco, they won't make any money.

"The people say, 'Sing me a corrido about narcos with bullets and marijuana,' " Llamas says. "They don't want a bolero. They want a narcocorrido. That's how it is here on the border."

Corridos have chronicled life and death in Mexico since the time of the Mexican Revolution. Narcocorridos first came into vogue in the 1970s, then exploded in the 1990s. The more the cartels make news, it seems, the more songs there are about them.

To make his point, Reynaldo Martinez took us to a music store on a busy downtown street in Reynosa. The manager pointed out her best-selling CDs.

Lucrative Business

On the covers are musicians in cowboy attire gripping AK-47s — mimicking the traffickers they sing about. Afterwards, Martinez tries to explain Mexicans' enduring fascination with stories about smugglers. He compares the popularity of the narcocorridos with that of bullfights.

"They always want to see the bull gore the matador," Martinez says. "We always want the weak one to win. And that's how we see the narco-traffickers."

But now that drug mafias like the Sinaloans, La Familia and the Zetas have grown more powerful than the police or even the army, they're not the underdogs anymore.

The romanticizing of traffickers and the glorification of the drug trade has irritated the Mexican government to the point that narcocorridos are banned from the Mexican airwaves. They're considered a bad influence on young people.

And so a curious flip-flop has occurred.

Border Blasters

The program Killer Corridos airs each afternoon on Radio Papalote in Edinburg, Texas, about 20 miles north of the Rio Grande. It's one of the stations along the U.S. side of the border that broadcasts prohibited corridos deep into Mexico. It's the flip side of the famous border blasters that thrived in Mexican border towns from the 1930s through the '80s. High-powered transmitters broadcast preachers, hucksters and rock 'n' roll into the American heartland.

Disc jockey Jose Jaime Zavala says it's dicey playing certain types of corridos — for example, those that mention the name of a cartel or a particular trafficker. A rival cartel might take offense.

"There's one called Suicide Bodyguards that tells of the Zetas," Zavala says. "This is very dangerous to play on the radio, because you don't know if someone is going to hear it, and there will be reprisals. The station owner told me to try to avoid strong corridos, and so as a disc jockey I try to avoid them."

Occupational Hazards

Though narcocorridos have created hits for dozens of bands throughout Mexico, they create something of an occupational hazard.

More than a dozen Mexican musicians were murdered between 2006 and 2008; motives are shadowy, but it's suspected that some were killed for what they sang. One was a 25-year-old banda star from Sinaloa named Valentin Elizalde. He was machine-gunned in his car as he left a concert in Reynosa three years ago; people suspect that one of his songs somehow offended the Gulf Cartel, which controls this territory.

The murder of Elizalde sent a chill through the narcocorrido music business. Martin Gamboa, an up-and-coming singer who lives in Matamoros, says musicians have to be careful these days.

"Many times, you can't put certain words in a corrido," he says. "What you have to do is use nuance, so that you don't offend anybody." Gamboa pauses. "And if any of my corridos has offended anyone, I ask their pardon."

If you do put the name of a powerful drug lord in your song, you'd better be somebody like Chuy Quintanilla. He's a blustery, 58-year-old songster from Reynosa whose brother is the late narcocorrido superstar Beto Quintanilla. Perhaps Chuy's musical bravado has something to do with the fact that he used to be a federal judicial police commander, a position in Mexico that is ascribed godlike powers. In the current climate of caution, Chuy belts out corridos other artists wouldn't whisper.

For instance, his "Corrido of Tony Tormenta" tells the story of Antonio "Tony Tormenta" Cardenas — the current chief of the murderous Gulf Cartel. Yet Chuy doesn't like calling them narcocorridos.

"Let's do away with the term, narcocorrido; it's vulgar," he says. "A narco is a person who's guilty of a crime that you or I can't ascertain. Only a judge can say. No, Chuy Quintanilla writes corridos about current events."

Time will tell. Tony Tormenta is currently on Mexico's most wanted list and under indictment by the DEA.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.