Americans listen to gangster rap and love to watch mob flicks. We relish crime depicted well and expect a level of authenticity in the portrayal. It’s nothing out of the ordinary to hire mafia members as movie consultants. We might even prefer musicians with street cred. It seems that as consumers we demand the real thing, not some impostor.
Why, then, might we have a problem with Mexicans enjoying narcocorridos, or drug ballads?
I honestly don’t know. But if you want an explanation of the objections to this music, you might start by reading the books and academic articles that have tried to pick apart this strange genre. You might learn that the songs sound like a cross between mariachi and polka and come from the norteño folk tradition. The first of these ballads go as far back as the 1930s, and the lyrics, while they’ve always dealt with drug traffickers and murderers, have, since the Mexican drug wars began in 2006, become exponentially swaggering in their brazen glorification of violence.
You might learn the facts, but wait until you’ve had a chance to watch a short clip that’s been uploaded online. It contains no music, and shows no violence. In it, a mother is crying. More than 10 pieces of her son’s body have just been found, and she’s been pushed to the edge. “They are killing our children and nobody is doing anything! Nobody shouts!” She’s holding a rolled up magazine or newspaper, and it comes down hard onto a tabletop every time she wails out a sentence. A couple of women are also weeping beside her. “They decapitated him alive! Those animals cut him up into 16 pieces!”
Go and watch it—it is included in the new documentary Narco Cultura, by photographer and filmmaker Shaul Schwartz. Then you will understand what I could not possibly tell you.
Schwartz’s film follows Edgar Quintero, who lives in Los Angeles. He is the lead singer of a narcocorrido band named Los Buknas de Culiacan. “With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder—cross my path and I’ll chop your head off!” he sings, belting out the chorus to his most popular song. It seems like entire crowds of fun-loving Latino-Americans, in cities like El Paso, El Monte, Cal., Atlanta, and Seattle, know the lyrics by heart and merrily chant along. “We’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill!” With literal fidelity, the band members perform with an AK-47 and a bazooka strapped onto their shoulders. Semi-automatic gunshots feature prominently on the soundtrack.
At which point you might be baffled by the laughable insensitivity, or unsettled and disgusted by this appropriation. But America has, for just as long, been impressed by murder ballads, some of the best by the likes of Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. “Stagger Lee” is a classic. Hell brews like “Mack the Knife,” “To Keep My Love Alive,” and Sweeney Todd are hilariously macabre.
Take comfort, if you can, that these American standards are ironic flirtations with innovative wordplay, honoring and skewering forms and crimes from long-ago eras. Gangster rap harnessed the same linguistic virtuosities but is more of a problem, and there’s always been outrage at MCs channeling drive-bys and shootouts even as inner-city neighborhoods were devastated by the effects of crack cocaine and the war on drugs in the ’90s. But gangster rappers have since become more concerned with selling vitamin water and owning basketball teams, and for every one of them there have been dozens of other rappers mastering their art in other genres of hip hop and countering the violent stereotypes in the process.
There is, however, certainly a racial double standard at play, that murder ballads, though some were written and performed by Lead Belly, Ma Rainey, and Mississippi John Hurt, is mostly regarded as a white form, and deemed harmless—1996's Murder Ballads by the Australian Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is fantastic! Whereas gangster rap, by black performers, is considered dangerous. Narcocorrido, from across the border, is judged outlandish and perplexing.
But it is hard to ignore that the current incarnation of narcocorrido has been characterized by an opportunistic relationship with armies that have terrorized entire cities. Though not always the case, narcocorridos generally lack stories from the standpoint of the victims—wives who've lost husbands, mothers who've lost sons, people who've lost their way of life.
It is none of my business where singers draw their material from. Quintero looks at narco blogs that get updated at least once every 30 minutes, he says, all day, every day. “You can see people with their guts coming out from their stomachs, their heads blown off. All real things, you know?” he says, and gets excited when there’s a new post. "Oh! There’s a video to watch!" There’s even something innocuous about Quintero calling up members of the Sinaloa clan, Mexico’s biggest drug cartel, and asking them what caliber gun they carry, so he can include the detail in a custom-made song. He gets a wad of cash in exchange, and there’s no denying that his clientele includes the cartel itself.
Narcocorrido musicians have been in symbiotic proximity with the drug lords, which might explain why in 1992 the singer Chalino Sánchez was shot dead, and since 2006 dozens of musicians like Valentín Elizalde, Sergio Gómez, and Sergio Vega have been murdered, some of them tortured and executed. Perhaps narcocorrido can be viewed as a vast conspiracy for cartels to brainwash the public, or at least to establish control and consolidate power—the thugs feed narcocorridos with gory details and the songs make the gangsters look like Robin Hood, as someone in Narco Cultura points out. The Zetas might murder a Sinaloa-employed singer to send a message.
But that explanation ignores the fact that narcocorridos are popular, and understandably so. Like action thrillers, they provide almost intolerable excitement, brushing you up against danger. The genre itself isn’t what’s wrong, not even in its cozy relationship with cartels. Not all balladeers are employed by cartels, and some of these singers, like Valentín Elizalde, might have been killed for their criticism of drug lords. There are times when narcocorrido can be viewed as protest music. Narco Cultura shows Quintero taking a trip to Mexico, where he snorts copious amounts of crystal meth and performs at the mansion of a gangster nicknamed The Rooster of Sinaloa, but he seems relieved when he returns unscathed to his wife and children in L.A.
One of the lessons that might be drawn is that the problem isn’t the art—it rarely is, and let us not debase the concept of a real problem. What’s wrong are the cartels, the Calderón administration’s botched war against them, the American market for illegal drugs, and all the questions that thrash about this monstrosity. Any discussion of narcocorrido ought to be pushed toward the realm of the local lived experience—toward folks like the dismembered victim's mother, who reminds us of the human toll and the need for voices other than gunshots to be heard.
That is why for half of Narco Cultura, the camera follows Richi Soto, a crime-scene investigator who has to wear a mask so that gang members can’t recognize and target him and his family, and he and his colleagues, many of them having been murdered, mostly just leave the drug cases alone, fearing consequences if they dig too deep. He lives in Ciudad Juárez, the stronghold of the Sinaloa cartel, which has turned the town into the murder capital of the world—in 2006 there were 320 murders there, and in 2012 there were 3,622. But even ordinary families like Soto’s, and police investigators just like him, listen to narcocorridos. Both Quintero and Soto illustrate the reach of the drug war and how everyone has to comply with the rotten system that’s been set.
Like some of the best documentaries, Narco Cultura won’t make you feel good, but it leaves you with a sense of humility. It concludes with Soto pensively surveying the city he grew up in. “I drive through the streets and see people without hope,” he says in the elegiac narration that ends the film. The art of fictional violence could be summarized as the acting out of our worst fears in an effort to lay them to rest. That might work for people making and listening to narcocorridos across the border in America. But for the folks caught in the middle of the Mexican drug wars, what will give them peace?