A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas
by Elijah Wald
HaperCollins, 2001

by Bill Weinberg

Narcocorridos, Mexico's controversial music rage, are traditional ballads—corridos—glorifying the contemporary outlaws of the drug-smuggling underworld. Despite the addition of the occasional electric guitar or synthesizer along with the accordion, bajo-sexto (low-tuned 12-string guitar) and sometimes farting horn sections, the form is basically unchanged since the days when corridos praised revolutionaries like Pancho Villa. These are gangsta polkas, bad-assing songs about drugs and violence in the down-home style of Mexico's northern cowboy country. And they are demonized by clergy and politicians as vigorously as the urban rap of end-user narco culture north of the border. The masters of the genre, Los Tigres del Norte, had a 1988 album entitled Corridos Prohibidos—a reference to the fact that many of their numbers had been banned from radio airplay.

Author Elijah Wald charges the US media with ignoring a major trend in Latin music. Based on "the most cursory survey of radio programming," the corridos and rancheras of Mexico's gritty, real-world, politically-hip country music constitute the most popular Latin music in Los Angeles today—while the gringo press acts "as if 'Latin' music were all salsa and merengue, or possibly rock en español."

Wald paid his dues as a traveling guitarist, spending years on the busking beat in the US, Europe, Morocco and Mexico, before serving as a peace observer in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas after the 1994 Zapatista revolt there. In seeking out the roots of the narcocorrido, he had to visit some of the most dangerous turf of Mexico's drug wars. He admits that he had to resist a temptation to romanticize the songwriters he interviewed, who are underground legends in Mexico: "While they like to feel that their songs provide 'a voice for the voiceless,' they also write commissioned paeans to some very nasty characters, vicious thugs who buy corridos as status symbols alongside big cars and beauty queens."

But these songs are often tales of low-level couriers. Wald travels to Basuchil, a remote rancho in the rugged heart of Chihuahua state's dope-growing country, to interview Angel Gonzalez, whose song "Contrabando y Traicion" (Smuggling and Treason), a 1972 hit for Los Tigres del Norte, defined the genre. Revolutionary for its time, the song extols a fighting woman—Carmelia la Tejana—who kills her marijuana-smuggling partner when he betrays her, and takes off with the loot.

In Culiacan, violence-torn stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel, Wald visits the chapel of Jesus Malverde, patron saint of Mexico's narco-traffickers and the subject of countless corridos. A Robin Hood figure who was hanged in 1909 by an evil Sinaloa governor, Malverde was left hanging from a tree as a warning to his admirers. According to legend, his remains were buried by a poor mule driver as he prayed for aid in finding some lost mules. The mules turned up, and Malverde rose to unofficial sainthood. In the 1980s when the government tried to bulldoze the gravesite to build a new state capitol, local peasants put their bodies in front of the 'dozers until authorities broke down and donated the land for the chapel, near Culiacan's railway yards.

A lot of the narcocorrido artists really walk the walk. Wald calls Chalino Sanchez "Mexico's Tupac Shakur." One of his shows in California in 1992 erupted into gunfire when an enemy shot at him onstage. He whipped out his own sidearm and gunned down the would-be-assassin. A few weeks later, Chalino's body was found in a Sinaloa irrigation ditch, with two bullets in the back of his head. This proved a brilliant if Pyrrhic career move, and only fueled his popularity. Other artists relate of being kidnapped to drunken bashes and forced to perform—or even compose corridos!—at gunpoint.

Wald stretches the definition of the genre when he journeys into Mexico's deep south, where corridos glorify leaders of the resurgent guerilla movements rather than narco gangs. Andres Contreras, the "Zapatista minstrel" who Wald meets at a Mexico City rally for the masked Maya guerillas of Chiapas, comes from a tradition "inspired by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, and by the nueva cancion poet-singers of Chile and Cuba." This is music for lefty college students, even if it appropriates a working-class form. But Wald is back on more authentic turf in the South's dope-growing Guerrero state, where the 1960s peasant revolutionary Lucio Cabañas and his contemporary heirs of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) are praised in new "guerilla corridos." Local campesino crooners like Los Pajaritos del Sur, who hawk their cassettes in rural marketplaces, are as genuine as folk music gets, singing of government massacres and atrocities in Guerrero's mountains like troubadours of old. And Wald is on seriously dangerous ground when he tracks down the peasant-produced samizdat sheet music of the EPR's official hymn at a small town in Guerrero's mountains.

Wald's book is most useful in providing a forgotten perspective on the War on Drugs—that of ordinary Mexicans who have to grow or smuggle drugs to get ahead or even survive, and see Washington's bellicose rhetoric as bunch of hypocrisy. As Wald quotes narcocorridista Teodoro Bello:

The gringos certify various countries,
They don't want drugs to exist, they say it is a danger.
Tell me, who certified the United States?

A shorter version of this piece appeared in High Times magazine