Buying and Selling Death: The Music of Mexico’s Drug Trade

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A boozy El Paso, Texas, crowd sings along with vocalist Edgar Quintero of the band Los BukNas de Culiacan: “Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off/ We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill.” Instead of mugging to look threatening, most of the people in the audience are laughing while singing the lyric—they came to let off steam and drink beer. The scene is from Shaul Schwarz’ 2013 documentary, Narco Cultura. Despite the reference of Culiacan, Mexico, in the band’s name, Los BukNas is from L.A. The ranchera songs they and many other Mexican-American bands like them perform are known as “narcocorridos,” venerations in Spanish to the exploits of drug cartel members. Across the river from the film’s El Paso concert hall, the violence of the narcocorridos is real.

Juarez, Mexico, remains one of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world, dropping from its No. 1 ranking in 2008-2010 to 37th this year, according to a recent report by the El Paso Times. In Juarez, the narcocorrido serves a secondary purpose besides entertainment: Drug cartels pipe the songs into police scanners as announcements that they’ve just made a hit. It’s their version of the breaking-news email. The cartels have expanded over the last few years from Mexico to Central American countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador for the shipping routes to the U.S. those countries afford. Perhaps not coincidentally, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, was named the world’s new murder capital in January by the Mexico City-based organization Security, Justice and Peace. With much of the cartels’ violence targeting youths, maybe we shouldn’t be too overly surprised by the recent arrival of 50,000 Central American children at our border. Pundits argue whether this has created an immigration or humanitarian crisis. What feels less arguable is that, as primary purchasers of the drugs and narco culture traveling north from these countries, we’ve funded a national tragedy that’s grown contagious.

Mexico is not a failed state, but few could argue its government hasn’t failed. Conversely, the cartels bring in billions of dollars annually from the drugs they sell in the U.S. and the weapons they smuggle back from the U.S. (as Mexican gun laws are extremely regulated). Between the cartels and the local, state and federal authorities under the influence of the cartels, the population is ratcheted in a vice of violence. Schwarz cited over 60,000 homicides in the span of 60 months. In Juarez, 3,622 people were killed in 2010 while only five were killed across the river in El Paso.

Many of the killings now bear the marks of ritualistic sacrifices to Santa Muerte, roughly, “Holy Death,” the skeletal, virgin-like figure of Mexican folklore. Last year, the FBI reported evidence of the cult of Santa Muerte in a growing number of the cartels’ homicides. Kill methods sound almost like a competition for hit men to outdo one another: burnings, acid baths, skinnings, decapitations, castrations, dismemberment, disembowelment and cannibalism that includes the eating of hearts. Santa Muerte informational training can “prove so stressful for some law enforcement and public safety officers that they can become physically ill and pass out,” said Dr. Robert Bunker of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. “This has happened more than once.”

When Quintero turned away from his own relatively minor criminal past in L.A. to sing in Los BukNas, he had only a vague idea of the money he’d make. Narcocorrido music now sells out large venues from Cincinnati to San Diego. Following Mexican originators of the modern narcocorrido such as Chalino Sanchez and Los Tigres del Norte, Quintero often writes for cartel members who approve his lyrics and pay him for his songs. This approval bestows a more dire heft to the term “music critic”—13 singers were murdered in Mexico just from 2006 to 2008, a testament to how the violence dramatized by narcocorridos sometimes blurs into reality. Quintero may have been thrilled in Schwarz’ film by the chance to visit Sinaloa, Mexico, and snort drugs in the back of a pickup with gang members. But he returned to his family back in L.A. with a look of relief on his face.

Production companies like L.A.’s Twiins Enterprises make narco videos and films with characters who continue firing their weapons long after they’ve been shot multiple times, just like in mainstream U.S action films. But it’s the narcocorridos that attract the most attention. Adherents of the so-called media-effects argument would say the narcocorridos help cause the violence.

“When any major murder occurs in Mexico, you see kids posting their own narcocorridos on YouTube—not to make money, just to be considered cool,” said Elijah Wald, author of “Narcocorrido”. “Narcocorrido artists own Scarface posters. I don’t think anybody asks Al Pacino these questions. I don’t think songs are driving the violence.”

Before dying in an unsolved 2012 plane crash in Mexico, Jenni Rivera had a career as one of the original female singers of narcocorridos, a member of the “first family of the L.A. corrido world,” as Wald writes.

“We grew up in the ghetto,” she told Wald. “And we never became drug dealers. If you sing nice ballads like Mariah Carey, you’re just another artist out there, but you sing about how you are a drug dealer and how you can kill somebody if he messes with you, people are like, ‘Oh, she’s very different.’ They like the bad stuff. It makes them feel tough, and it makes them feel, like, really, really Mexican.”

As with violent video games, gangster movies and, to an extent, even drugs themselves, narcocorridos give us what we crave, a vicarious sense of danger, the chance to dip our toes in darkness without sliding in to its void.

“Narcocorridos glorify a sad reality in Mexico,” said Alfredo Corchado, a Mexico City-based journalist for the Dallas Morning News and author of Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness. “When I began reporting on [cartel violence] 10 years ago, the saying, ‘I’d rather live five years as a king than 50 as a slave” was limited to states like Sinaloa. Now, you hear it just about on every corner in Mexico.”

Several years ago, a cartel placed a hit on Corchado for his reporting. He was forced to take refuge in the U.S. but eventually returned to Mexico City to continue his work. Toward the end of Midnight in Mexico, he writes of gunmen mistakenly bursting in on a birthday party in Juarez and killing 16 youths in 2010.

With a group of other reporters in an SUV—all fearful about being mistaken for the trademark cartel SUVs—Corchado visited the wakes for the murdered children on the outskirts of the city.

On the street where shooting happened, a young woman approached Corchado. “Please help us,” she said. “We can’t live here anymore.”

Her younger brother had witnessed the massacre through a crack in a closet door where he was hiding. Corchado recalls feeling like a fraud when responding to the woman that he was “just a journalist.”

In one of the homes holding a wake, a father who lost his son pulled Corchado aside and gave him a photo, asking him not to forget his boy. It was a picture of the father and his son hoisting a trophy together after a baseball game.

Corchado exchanged phone numbers with the man and asked him what he wanted readers in the U.S. to understand about his son’s death.

“I want them to feel my pain,” the man said. “That’s all.”

Sam DeLeo writes about music for The Denver Post. He recently completed, “As We Used to Sing”, his first novel.

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