Que Me Toquen un Corrido Pesado!!!: An Analysis of the Narcocorrido and Its Rise to Popularity in the United States
by Jesus Acosta
After a long day’s work and being more than ready to head home, I found myself prowling endlessly through the different radio stations in my car. Nevertheless, the stations only played the latest Vicente Fernandez hit or the usual Conjunto Primavera love jam. But I was in search for a tune that would make the grito shoot out from my huevos, like the coyote when he is inspired and captivated by the night. Upon tuning onto La Que Buena 97.9 FM, I was intrigued by a high pitched voice, accompanied by outstanding instrumentation. The song was a narcocorrido or drug ballad, and although the song contained heavy and astonishing lyrics, the grito shot out as I raced through the boulevard. The song, called “El Baleado” by Larry Hernandez, illustrates a trafficker’s rage in regards to a stolen shipment of drugs, as well as the soon to come repercussions for those actions. I was really affected and moved by what this song contained and after heavy contemplation, I began to ask myself many questions that shed light upon a greater spectrum, one that affected my community. I asked myself how it was that a song describing drugs could make me move to the rhythm, despite how intense the lyrical content was. Could a song like this even be given any sort of credibility? Why was it that so many of these songs talked about drugs and in what manner is this music portraying drugs? Most importantly, could it be that these songs are revealing the reality that Mexico and my community in East Riverside are victims to the US demand of illegal drugs? Questions like these are the ones that sparked my initiative in researching more about this genre of Mexican music. I have only come to conclude that many narcocorridos shed light upon corruption in the US government dealing with bribery and weapon smuggling, a corruption that only worsens and complicates the smuggling of drugs into the United States.
Ballads are songs of narrative, a story through music, but most importantly these songs are the image and heart of different cultures worldwide and range in themes when looked at through a borderlands perspective. Tejano folklorist Americo Paredes argues that the Mexican ballad tradition, better known as the corrido, originated in the then border-free Mexico-Texas region, and disengagement between Spanish ballads and corridos occurred due to colonial race and economic class factors. These factors resulted into an oppositional cultural hero and poetry against the Anglo society. A hero that finds himself in opposition along the US Mexico border, therefore differentiating from the Spanish heroes who were members of upper class standing. This same opposition continues and we find it similar with the lyrical content of narcocorridos today, in the sense that the characters are opposed against the dividing barrier known as la frontera, either because they seek a better life and employment opportunities or because they are forced to resort to the dangerous and lucrative business of smuggling drugs across the border. Corridos have long been used as a means to describe natural disasters, protests, the Mexican revolution, and epics. The longevity and prominence of the corrido can be attributed to the simple yet ingenious qualities found in the songs poetic and lyrical structure because with the availability of a setting and date, name, and farewell, corridos, are a powerful and adaptive form of communication through music.
I mentioned that the narcocorrido was a drug ballad. Similarly, there is a great deal of multiplicity within these songs, nevertheless the central focus is drugs. Why and how did this music become so popular? Better yet, how did drugs become so abundant in Mexico and integral to the Southwest political economy? Crucial to these questions is the work of Ethnomusicologist Helena Simonett and her book Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders. This historical analysis of the Mexican brass band is a firsthand outlook that takes us into the world of narcocorridos through interviews and fieldwork with musicians, local officials, and the common people of Sinaloa, a Mexican state notorious for the growing and shipping of drugs. Simonett states that several factors cause Mexico to become a big producer of illegal drugs and dependent on this business. As early as the nineteenth century, marijuana and opium poppies were used for pharmaceutical purposes. The interruption of the heroin trade during World War II between France, Asia, the Middle East, and the US meant that Mexico would have to rise as the main producer of morphine for the allied forces. All of which was encouraged and financed by the United States and to be grown along the Sierra Madre, an impenetrable and ideal growing zone. Finally, the collapse of the heroin business in Europe and the Middle East in 1976, in conjunction with the fall of Pablo Escobar and the Columbian Cartel, allowed Mexico to become the main supplier of drugs for the US. So what is the result of more than 150 years of drug cultivation and how does this affect the Southwest political economy? Let’s just say Mexico is aware of the money being raked in by the dangerous cartels.
Simonett found that as a result of political instability due to the devaluation of the peso, decline in oil prices, two big earthquakes, structural adjustment loans and foreign debt, narcos became a venue through which they could try and balance the scales for a flow of income and labor within the two nations. Producer Gary Fleming and his work in Mexico showed the world just how powerful and perilous these cartels are, by way of interviewing captured cartel Mafiosos who claimed to make deals worth up to $109 million a day (Drug Wars: Silver or Lead). As far as the national political economy is concerned, it is to their benefit that narcos generate employment, bring in foreign currency and product, invest in infrastructure, companies, and the stock market. It is here that the narcocorrido comes into spotlight, amid the prevalence of drugs and the people involved in this lucrative business. The drug ballad becomes easier to understand after one looks into the crisis experienced by the people in rural regions, the most suitable regions for drug cultivation. These regions test the will of its inhabitants, as they suffer from severe unemployment and poverty in addition to inflation and drought, leading to intercropping. This means resorting to the cultivation of drugs in low key areas of people’s property. As a result, the narcocorrido is used as the voice to express the necessity of becoming dependent on drug cultivation. The narcocorrido is the voice against confiscation and the voice against police conflict.
“Robin Hoods,” or drug dealers who honorably provide their home villages with paved roads, schools, potable water, electricity, and hospitals, are a huge force behind the production of narcocorridos, being that many of these songs describe their deeds, show downs with law enforcement, or brag of their accomplishments. One can easily understand how people of this caliber can be admired. Popularity, according to ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes’s article in Music and the Global Order, depends on music recording companies better known as the “Big Six.” These companies attempt to control the distribution of music through lobbying for copyright measures aiming to control the tendency of piracy in certain nations, a common practice in Mexico where narcocorridos are falling victim to censorship. As Helena Simonett states in Narcocorridos of Nuevo LA, “The protagonists presented in these narcocorridos are characters or prototypes of the narco, mystified and made into a marketable commodity.” These are the commercial narcocorridos so abundant today across radio stations in the United States, some still containing a similar structure and formula of the corrido. Most importantly, many of these songs shed light upon corrupt US authorities, policies, and the duplicity of blaming Mexico for drug conflicts here at home. Looking back on “El Baleado,” I began to postulate that just maybe the shipment of cocaine illustrated in the song could have been intended for US grounds.
It seems as though more and more of the content within narcocorridos involves the US government. At times, the songs describe a strong US government that regulates on Mafiosos and their attempts on smuggling contraband. In other instances, the very system that enforces the law is the same system that assists cartels in their determined mission to smuggle illegal drugs into the United States by several means. An important component of this research was listening to the current trends and content of this music through media such as radio, television, and even live performance. Although I came across many narcocorridos that involved and opposed the US government, I will give my interpretation of two narcocorridos, which in my opinion say plenty of the United States as a fraudulent government and a government that aids to cartels in the black market. The song “El Carril Numero Tres” by Los Cuates de Sinaloa is a song in regards to a lane on an elusive highway. This secret lane, better known as lane number three, is used at the convenience of a man who is being hunted by law enforcement. He is not sleep deprived one bit, because a deal was made in the millions with both the DEA and CIA giving him unrestricted access across the border through lane number three, allowing him to make enormous deals in the US. Y como dice la cancion (and as the song goes), we can again see of the power of money. We see how one Mexican was able to buy off the American government, and despite him being one of the most prosecuted by the government, he continues to enter US territory. It is well known that “mordida,” or bribe, is a concept abundant in Mexico and a crucial mechanism dictating the success of drug cartels. Very little is ever mentioned in regards to the possibility of corruption in the US. Because of US policies such as NAFTA, cities like Laredo, Texas, and San Diego, California, are key cities that serve as the most commercialized ports along the US/Mexico border.
According to reports by two teams of journalists from the Mexican paper El Universal, their findings indicated that huge warehouses and the railways in these cities functioned as storage and hiding space for contraband, as well as trans-shipments to some of the Unites States biggest cities, including Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, Chicago, Miami, San Antonio, Seattle, and DC. All of which is made possible by means of the corruption of US military personnel, law enforcement, and border agents. These drug cartels are flooding into American neighborhoods and exploiting Chicano communities, by targeting gang members who live close to the Mexican border. In cities such as San Diego, Nogales, and Tucson, these individuals take dirty money, in exchange for overlooking huge cargos as they cross the border or as border customs agents are distracted. Because many of these individuals have US citizenship, they serve as instrumental scouts and the carriers of illegal drugs. It is disturbing to find that some of the people exploited by cartels are teens ranging from 13 to 16 years of age.
“Bazookas could be heard blasting and causing mayhem. Sonora.” So begins the narcocorrido titled “El Bazukaso” by El Tigrillo Palma. This narcocorrido evokes a clash between government police and mafiosos, a theme very popular amongst narcocorridos. The song describes people of the Chapo Guzman cartel in a war with government police in Obregon, Sonora. I was astonished to hear this song because of the description of weapons used to disarm the government police. These weapons include bazookas, 50 caliber hand guns and rifles, grenades, AK 47’s, and armored vehicles. With such an arsenal, it was easy to assume that the victors in this song would no doubt be the mafiosos obviously who were loaded with sophisticated weaponry. Could it be possible that the cartels in Mexico have superior weapons to that of the Mexican police? I came to find that aside from the corruption on the US side, the United States is also a source of a constant flow of fire arms into Mexico.
In 2006, the New York Times covered a story involving 24-year-old John Phillip Hernandez of Houston, Texas. With $2,600 dollars, he was able to walk into a huge sporting goods store and purchase three military-style rifles. The problem was that months later, one of the rifles was recovered in Acapulco, Mexico, where it had been used by gunmen affiliated with cartels, in an effort to shoot the offices of the Guerrero State attorney general. Eventually, John P. Hernandez was found guilty of being part a huge gun smuggling ring, which had supplied Mexico with a minimum of 339 high powered weapons into Mexico over year and a half lengths of time. Twenty two other people involved in the ring are thought to still be operating at large. The story went on to explain some of the complications the US confronts when keeping these weapon rings on the radar. “The federal system for tracking gun sales, crafted over the years to avoid infringements on Second Amendment rights, makes it difficult to spot suspicious trends quickly and to identify people buying for smugglers, law enforcement officials say” (New York Times).
Part of the problem lies with the convenient distance these gun shops and gun stores have to the border. With as many as 1,500 licensed dealers in one city, you could spend days, months, even a year visiting all the different gun stores. Problems further escalate when private sellers have the ability not to record a purchaser’s name, nor report the sale to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, increasing the possibility of more smuggling rings. The Los Angeles Times has been documenting the turmoil and instability in Mexico for a substantial amount of time, and the findings only show the US is more than a partaker for its own drug crisis. Take this statistic for example. 90% of weaponry seized in shootings in Mexico or at seizures in the border, can be traced back to the United States (Los Angeles Times). A total of 2,455 weapon traces requested by the Mexican government resulted in weapons that had been bought in the United States. Most distressing is the fact that 6,700 licensed dealers have set up shop at a short distance along the entire US/Mexico border, according to the Los Angeles Times. Las drogas suben y los rifles bajan (the drugs move up and the weapons go down). The end result is a government who has to defend itself by means of a police force that is intimidated, overpowered, and trapped against a brutal enemy that in a sense is powered by the US demand for drugs.
I decided to take it upon myself to observe how popular this music is, as well as the crowed that fallows this Mexican music by attending a nightclub in the Inland empire, which houses some of the biggest names in narcocorridos. It is particularly at places like these in California and across the United States where juggernauts Chalino Sanchez and Los Tigres del Norte helped the corrido and narcocorrido spread like wildfire through performance. At El Patio nightclub in Rialto, California, I was able to listen to the full set of a narcocorrido heavyweight known as La Nueva Rebelion Norteña. I came to listen to groups like “La Nueva Rebelion Norteña,” who are literally making careers out of singing predominantly narcocorridos. In their set of twenty one songs, thirteen were narcocorridos, four were cumbias, and four were rancheras. The other music mentioned being different types of songs and dance rhythms. The fact of the matter is this music sells and looking back to the diverse crowd of people who attended that night, the loudest cheering and ovation occurred every time a narcocorrido was played. The more I pay attention to songs like “El Gallo de Sinaloa,” “El Carril Numero Tres,” “El Baleado,” “El Bazukaso,” “El Corrido del Chapo,” “Por Debajo del Agua,” and “Carga Blanca,” the more I am became aware that these songs go far beyond glorification of cartels, Chapos, weapons, bribery, and armored vehicles.
In the same manner that the music of Tupac Shakur and Cypress Hill received criticism for blatant and powerful songs pertaining to racism and police brutality, Narcocorridos expose many flaws within the US government in regards to the war on drugs. When Mexico’s public-safety chief was asked in a radio interview about the ever growing violence with cartels, he responded, “[J]ust guarantee me that arms won’t enter Mexico.” “Stop the flow of guns from the United States and the gasoline for the crimes that we have will run out,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. Due to the financial decline affecting the United Sates, the Mexicano is again being blamed for political failures. Such is the case in Arizona where legislature like SB 1070 is attacking the Mexican population with the pretense that Mexicanos are an inconvenience to this system and the “drug mule” that plagues the streets of the United States. This is coming from a state whose indispensable labor force is being exposed to more and more pesticides, chemicals, and toxins resulting in high infertility rates and shorter life spans; a state whose lenient gun regulations allow for a constant flow of high powered weapons into Mexico, tendencies by which conservative political leaders like Senator John McCain and Governor Jan Brewer shoot themselves in the foot. In Sinaloa, the narcocorrido has been censored because of the stigma that it has created, even if this music is showing the fraudulent structure behind globalization and the corporate controlled government of the United States. As a result, more states are planning to follow suit.
Now and then, when I am able to return back to my community in East Riverside, I cannot help but think that some of the drug addicts who loiter up and down University Avenue were at some point in their life exposed to drugs whose source can be traced to Mexico. At the end of the day, the war on drugs is not being fought solely by the Mexican police, nor facets of the US government. Narcocorridos only tell me that the people fighting the war on drugs are also the counselors, psychologists, teachers, and therapists who must help both adults and the youth to rid themselves of a dependency on drugs. No one could have described it better than Third World Feminist Gloria Anzaldúa, who in Borderlands sees the US/Mexico border as an “open wound, a geopolitical line separating a two class culture system, a place where the third world bleeds against the first” and pins victim next to victim. Narcocorridos are at times the narratives of individuals who are many times forced into an illicit living because of that open wound, an area where drugs reach their point of judgment. Should they get through or not, one victim benefits while the other suffers.
Jesus Acosta is a McNair student in Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge.
Graphics by Bad Subjects & Arturo Aldama archive.