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Going narco
A history of the Mexican drug song


In the early ’80s, Pepe Cabrera — a veteran corrido singer who lives in Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican drug economy — wrote "La mafia muere" ("The Gang Dies"). It was his response to what he witnessed in the fields and plains of Sinaloa between 1977 and 1978, when the DEA and the Mexican government joined forces in Operation Condor, a bi-national military attack on Mexican drug production. It was the beginning of what was to become the standard hypocrisy of US drug policy: stopping American demand by punishing Mexican supply, launching the war on drugs as a war on Mexico. As US users continued to buy and smoke, Mexican fields were burned, crops were destroyed, and ranches were raided.

Thousands of local Mexican farmers watched their livelihood go up in flames and, fearing for their lives, fled to nearby cities or started the journey north to become part of that other Mexican problem: immigration. Opium and marijuana — which to Mexican growers are symbols of subsistence and survival, not illicit vice — were replaced with blood from gun battles and surprise raids. "Culiacán," Cabrera sang, "had become its own hell, it was the witness to such a massacre."

Elijah Wald retells this story in his Narcocorrido (Rayo/HarperCollins), the first English-language book dedicated to the history of narcocorridos — ballads about the US-Mexico drug trade. He uses it as a prime example of one of the things that narcocorridos have done best since they first cropped up in the ’30s, when the end of Prohibition meant the end of smuggling tequila and the beginning of smuggling cocaine and marijuana: apply the corrido’s "oral newspaper" æsthetic to drug-traffic news, sing the praises of disenfranchised Mexicans who count on smuggling money to feed their kids, and chide US politicos who go after Mexicans for giving the US what it wants. "I just sell music; I don’t know anything about drugs," Wald is told when he visits Cabrera at home. "We performers have nothing to do with the people in that business."

Cabrera is tipping his cap to the frequent accusation that the songwriters are part of the game, aiders and abettors who are often paid by drug dealers. Wherever Wald travels, from Durango to Tijuana, from Los Angeles to the Atoyac Mountains, and no matter whose door he hitchhikes to (whether it’s Cabrera’s or that of Zapatista troubadour Andrés Contreras), he is always juggling two clashing arguments.

One side has it that the narcocorrido is simple, documentary reportage of a reality of Mexican life (the drug trade is, after all, the most profitable sector of the Mexican national economy). The other asserts that the narcocorrido is a musical genre financed by narcos to celebrate the careers of narcos. Like Chalino Sánchez’s drug ties, which got him two bullets in the head. Or Los Huaracanes del Norte’s ties to Rafael Caro Quintero, which got their hotel car-bombed. Or Los Tucanes de Tijuana’s alleged ties to the Arellano-Felix cartel and their odes to piñatas full of coke bags.

But throughout Narcocorrido, Wald refuses to blame narcocorridos for the drug trade (his harshest critique is that in the course of his research, he often got "bored by their repetition"), and he maintains that he is most interested not in the reality of Mexican drug culture but in how that reality is transformed by songwriters and musicians into what he calls "musical mythology." As numerous corrido writers tell him, they read the papers, they gather names and dates, they watch TV and listen to the radio, and then they turn truth into musical fiction. Even one of the most influential narcocorrido tales of smuggling and treachery, "Contrabando y traición," turns out to be wholly fictitious — a made-up adventure saga with no ties to any real events.

Although written by Ángel González, "Contrabando" was made famous by Los Tigres del Norte, the group who dominate the stories of Narcocorrido. Which is ironic since, as Wald himself writes, Los Tigres are far from a narco band — they’re best known as minstrels of Mexican immigration. Only three narco ballads show up on El más grande homenaje a Los Tigres del Norte (Fonovisa), a new Latin alternative tribute to Los Tigres. Cafe Tacuba even sing of Los Tigres as cultural heroes, "defending the Mexican people against drug dealers and phony artists."

One of Los Tigres’ more notorious narco hits — "Pacas de a kilo," which Wald calls an exercise in "narco braggadocio, delivered in the first person and featuring involved wordplay, insider codes, and double entendres" — gets the tribute’s most radical treatment by Mexico City electro-pranksters Titan. When they go narco, all that’s left is an instrumental bed of digital bubbling and norteño chill-out, the perfect backing track for a reality that hasn’t been written yet, a mythology that’s still in the making.

Issue Date: November 22 - 29, 2001

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