Should we Boycott Narcocorridos?

Sarah Quarmby delves into the gory culture that surrounds increasingly popular Mexican drug ballads.
Sarah Quarmby

‘You can’t blame narcocorridos for drug violence. Drug violence is to blame for narcocorridos,’ argues Jorge Castañeda, former Mexican foreign secretary. But with lyrics like, ‘With an AK-47 and a bazooka behind my head, cross my path and I'll chop your head off,’ is it possible to see these songs as anything other than contributing to the horrific Mexican drugs wars? Could we ever be justified buying into this market?

 Narcocorridos are big business. The genre of Mexican song has been about since the early 1900s when the first norteño (northern Mexican) ballads started mentioning drugs smuggling in their lyrics. It’s in past few decades, however, and more specifically since 2006, when then-president, Felipe Calderón, declared a ‘War on Drugs’ that these songs have become a multi-million dollar industry. As violence escalated, so did the popularity of narcocorridos.

Lyrics aside, narcocorridos sound like upbeat, danceable tunes that use traditional instrument like guitars, accordions and tubas. Add to this the allure of the danger that surrounds this genre and we begin to see it is so popular. It’s not just the citizens of rural Mexico who listen to these songs either. Narcocorridos have a broad audience and are popular amongst younger Mexican and North American middle classes who are as disassociated from the violence of the drugs wars as, for example, the customers of a hip London coffee shop are from the gangster rap playing in the background. Narcocorridos dominate air-play in Latin hubs of the USA such as Los Angeles, despite having been sporadically banned from the radio over the years. They’ve become so normalised that they are even often seen as an accurate representation of Mexican identity. The Fiestas Patrias, which described itself as a ‘family music festival’ to celebrate Mexican Independence Day and took place in California this September was headlined by narcocorrido artist ‘El Komander,’ whose on-stage accessory of choice is an assault weapon or bazooka. Not exactly family friendly.


If that’s not enough to make you feel uncomfortable, take the example of the crime scene investigator Richi Soto, who is followed in 2013 documentary Narco Cultura. The film shows Richi at a fiesta, in a rare moment of respite from his work, where he dances to the narcocorridos that form the soundtrack for the party. The viewer is left wondering how this man can relax to, and seem unperturbed by, songs that glorify the very violence that he is forced to deal with every day, and which claimed the lives of many of his colleagues. Instances like this just go to show how engrained narcocorridos have become in Mexican culture.      

But what are the realities that lie behind the narcocorrido lyrics? Although estimates vary, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 60,000 people were killed between the official start of the Drugs Wars in 2006 and 2012. What’s most worrying about these figures is that the death toll is hugely increasing from year to year: 2837 people in 2007, 9635 in 2009 and so on. However, these official figures may fall far short of the actual number of deaths and also don’t take into account the thousands of people who have gone missing as a result of cartel activities.


There seem to be no limits to the violence that cartels are willing to employ. The more horrific and public a killing, the more power is asserted over rivals, the police and the public. It’s been known for traffickers to film themselves decapitating victims and then put the video on the internet. But there are also reports of events such as victims being tied to an overpass during rush hour and being shot in front of horrified drivers. There’s no need to go into detail here about the most gruesome killings, but plenty of examples are available on ‘narcoblogs’ on which information and videos of the latest torturing and executions is posted almost daily.


Such a sickening reality makes the glamour that surrounds the narcocorridos’ portrayal of the violence all the more uncomfortably misplaced. Corridos originally came about as a sort of alternative news source since official news was often unreliable and biased in favour of the corrupt government. Even now, there is a lingering sense of the ‘truth’ surrounding corridos. This is dangerous since narcocorridos present a very dubious version of reality and are even occasionally commissioned by drugs lords themselves. In such cases the narcocorrido singer is given a list of characteristics, events, favourite cars and weapons to include in the song for which they are later rewarded royally with wads of cash, or gifts such as diamond inset pistols and expensive watches.

The result of these commissioned songs (or narcocorridos por encargo) is the portrait of a larger-than-life figure who is at once the perfect macho, powerful, loyal, fair and always surrounded by friends and women. An out-law hero, Robin Hood type is created, which is dangerous for young Mexican men from poorer backgrounds who may see these men as role models and their way of life as a glamorous route out of their poverty. Young women are also seduced by the idea of these figures of power. A group of young narcocorrido fans interviewed in Narco Cultura likened being a drug lord’s woman to being a footballer’s wife.  


Glorification of violence in popular culture is not a new thing. For example, we could look to gangster movies like ‘Scarface’ that were popular during the prohibition era but whose popularity trailed off when alcohol was legalised. Narcocorridos are in the same vein and are perhaps the inevitable artistic expression of peoples’ daily lives. A glorification of violence stemming from the human desire to make sense of, and elevate, the seedy and gruesome to a higher artistic level.

It creates a vicious cycle, though, with the drug culture causing the artistic response and the latter feeding into the former. Macho posturing in music derives from violent posturing from the cartels, which encourages the creation of macho personas in the music industry. A whole culture of violence ensues, and so long as something is a culture, i.e. the fundamental part of a group of people’s way of life, it is very difficult to shift. Narcocorridos don’t cause the drugs violence, but they certainly don’t help. To quote Elijah Wald, narcocorrido expert and author of Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas, ‘if people stopped singing narcocorridos, the drug business would still continue and still be equally violent. But if the drug violence ended, the market for narcocorridos would dry up and the singers would find other subjects.’


Should we boycott narcocorridos then? Not necessarily. The real solution is to not take drugs. The US, and the UK to a lesser extent, play a huge role in ensuring the drugs trade continues, due to their cocaine habits. It’s stopping buying the drugs, not the narcocorridos, that will stop the war and innocent people from being decapitated. While people keep fuelling their recreational habits, narcocorridos are an inevitable by-product of the violence that ensues. Having said that, I would still be cautious of putting any money into an industry so closely linked to the horrors of the Mexican drugs wars.