The Deadly World of Mexican Narco-Ballads

Narcocorridos are nothing new—songs about tequila and opium smugglers have been sung since the 1930s. Since the onset of Mexico’s current drug war, the music has mirrored the heightened level of violence as the murder count spirals to more than 60,000 dea

“Sanguinarios del M1,” a terrifying narco-ballad by the Mexican vocal collective Movimiento Alterado.

"With an AK-47 and bazooka at the neck / Heads flying off anyone who dares / We’re bloodthirsty madmen / We like to kill / We’re the best for kidnapping / Always with a group, all my homeboys / With bulletproof vests, armed and ready / To execute."

Those are the translated lyrics to “Sanguinarios del M1,” a song by a Mexican collective of singers who release music as Movimiento Alterado. The track is a prime example of an emerging genre in Mexico known as narcocorridos.

For the uninitiated, narcocorridos (translation: “drug ballads”) are Mexican songs about drug traffickers and their exploits. Think 90s gansta rap set against the backdrop of the ultraviolent Mexican drug war. Torture, gun battles with the cops, extortion, and decapitated heads sewn into soccer balls are some of the topics regularly covered in the songs. It’s one of the most popular styles of Spanish language music, both in the United States and Mexico—"Sanguinario del M1" has more than 19 million views on YouTube.

Narcocorridos are nothing new—songs about tequila and opium smugglers have been sung since the 1930s. But since the onset of Mexico’s current drug war, the music has mirrored the heightened level of violence as the murder count spirals to more than 60,000 deaths.

The frequency of murders in the narco-ballad community makes most gangsta-rap outfits look like boy bands. When a corrido singer is killed, other musicians often write songs outlining the gory details. Chalino Sánchez, the most influential narcocorrido singer of all time, was found in Sinaloa with a double-tap execution wound to the back of his head. Many narcocorridos do more than just react to reality—they truthfully report the bloody episodes of the drug trade. There are true stories behind these songs, stories more often than not communicated through gunfire.

When singer Valentín Elizdale was murdered in 2006, numerous corridos appeared, including “El Corrido De La Muerte De Valentin Elizdale”, which details both the murder weapon as a “goat-horn” AK-47 and the type of car Elizdale was in during the shooting. The song is right on both counts: after a concert during which Elizdale sang lyrics allegedly insulting the Los Zetas cartel, several cars pulled up to Elizdale’s Suburban SUV and unloaded with .223 caliber “goat-horn” AK-47s. This was done in public, in front of hundreds of people leaving the venue.

“The narcocorridos react to reality,” says Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta, a teacher and scholar at San Diego State University. “The cartels are at war, so the narcocorridos adopt a wartime propaganda message. They are meant to create fear in the enemy.”

Take the corrido “El Bazukazo” by El Tigrillo Palma, a regional singer from Sinaloa. The Sinaloa cartel are considered by the IC to be the most powerful and ruthless drug traffickers on the planet. “El Bazukazo” opens with the lines: It all started in Obregón/ A bazooka thundered/ It disarmed the government people that day/ There were several gunmen/ Who didn’t fear anything. This is referring to an actual gun battle that happened in Obregón, the second largest city in Sinaloa. In 2005, smugglers and more than a hundred policemen, army, and PGR forces battled on the streets. According to Mexican newspapers, the marathon shootout crossed over multiple cities, with police officers continually forced to back off in the face of the drug runners’ superior firepower. At one point the smugglers used a bazooka to clear a roadblock. The song is as accurate as the Mexican news reports, right down to the name of the highway that the bandits escaped on. You can hear the sneer in El Tigrillo Palma’s voice as he boasts about how the smugglers outgunned the authorities and lived to tell the tale.

Another narco-ballad called “El Encuentro Burrión" by Los Favoritos de Sinaloa is another remarkably specific account of a real-life drug-war episode. It accurately chronicles the date and types of weaponry used in a deadly 2009 showdown in El Burrión. The events I’m about to recount happened December 8th...They had 50 caliber, bulletproof vests / And grenade launchers / When they came across the cars they opened fire" goes the song, over blaring horns. Mexican newspapers confirm that on this date there was a massive showdown between at least 50 rival gunmen who opened fire on each other with high-powered .50-cal machine guns and tossed grenades. When the smoke cleared, authorities found a dismembered body and a taunting note from drug lord Alfredo Beltrán Leyva. Here's a news report covering the showdown:

It’s inevitable that when musicians operate with this proximity to violence, they are going to fall victim to it. Sing a song glorifying one cartel and you’re bound to catch the wrath of a rival one.

Sometimes narcocorrido singers avoid getting offed by getting songs approved by various cartels. Movimiento Alterado has sent songs to the Sinaloa cartel for clearance before releasing them. Alfredo Rios, a member of the group who goes by the name El Komander, says that while he has never been directly threatened, he feels a healthy level of fear when playing in Mexico, and not just from narcos, but from fake cops and other criminals. His paranoia can be seen in the way I had to interview him—in order to speak to Rios I had to email his manager questions, who then asked them over walkie-talkie to Rios in Mexico.

El Komander is one of the genre’s biggest singers. His songs are downloaded and streamed millions of times, even as narco-ballads are banned from radio play. When asked what makes these tales of drugs and violence so popular, he told me that "people love listening stories from bad people. They eventually convert them to their own heroes. I am not sure why, but it’s so good to see people from the hood to get wealthy and powerful no matter what.”

Alexandra Watson assisted in translation with this piece.