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- The cult of Jesus Malverde in Sinaloa - © Tomas Castelazo 2012 via Wikimedia Commons

Narcocorridos : A musical tradition perverted by violence ?

Nar­co­cor­ri­dos (Drug Bal­lads) are per­haps one of the most contro­ver­sial contem­po­ra­ry musi­cal genres. Their appa­rent tra­di­tio­nal sim­pli­ci­ty can easi­ly mis­lead the inge­nuous lis­te­ner unfa­mi­liar with its his­to­ry and the com­plex social rea­li­ties that sur­round it.

Indeed, its detrac­tors label it as mur­der music that roman­ti­cizes nar­co culture, because it cele­brates the deeds of drug lords and pro­motes vio­lence. The fact that musi­cians them­selves have been often clo­se­ly asso­cia­ted with the car­tels and even mur­de­red through car­tel rival­ries, has only contri­bu­ted to increase this stigma.



On the other hand, its lis­te­ners see it as an off­spring of the tra­di­tio­nal Mexi­can cor­ri­do, which has under­gone seve­ral trans­for­ma­tions throu­ghout its his­to­ry until arri­ving at its cur­rent, bru­tal form : Cor­ri­dos alte­ra­dos (Alte­red Cor­ri­dos).



Nar­co­cor­ri­dos tell a harsh unof­fi­cial truth. This music unveils the life of cri­mi­nals and mir­rors the violent rea­li­ty that Mexi­co has suf­fe­red in the past decade, espe­cial­ly after the war on drugs was laun­ched by Pre­sident F. Cal­de­ron in 2006 and the coun­try rea­ched unpre­ce­den­ted levels of violent deaths.

Des­pite mul­tiple attempts to ban this music in various Mexi­can states, nar­co­cor­ri­dos are more popu­lar and radi­cal than ever, with gro­wing audiences both in Mexi­co and in the USA, espe­cial­ly among the Lati­no diaspora.

How is it pos­sible that people enjoy songs that sing of drug lords and vio­lence after the ongoing war on drugs has left, accor­ding to a 2019 USA Congres­sio­nal Research Ser­vice report, more than 150,000 dead in Mexico ?


Between tradition and modernity :


Cor­ri­do music has not been his­to­ri­cal­ly asso­cia­ted exclu­si­ve­ly with drugs and thus also has legi­ti­ma­cy as a tra­di­tio­nal music form. In fact, seve­ral Mexi­can states such as Duran­go and Chi­hua­hua have cor­ri­dos as their un-offi­cial anthems and many Mexi­cans proud­ly endorse them.



The Mexi­can gol­den age of cine­ma (1933–1964) pro­du­ced a large quan­ti­ty of musi­cal films that pro­jec­ted the nation to the world with its tra­di­tio­nal ran­che­ra and cor­ri­do music.  Many of these films attemp­ted to arti­cu­late a true natio­nal iden­ti­ty and not only sha­ped how the world saw Mexi­co but also mar­ked the Mexi­can ima­gi­na­ry and how Mexi­cans saw them­selves and their history.

The nar­co­cor­ri­do added new themes such as the life of poor migrants in the USA, with their hard­ships and adven­tures. The life of legen­da­ry sin­ger Cha­li­no San­chez epi­to­mizes this phe­no­me­non. His tra­gic death reso­na­ted with thou­sands of Mexi­cans who iden­ti­fied with him through their sha­red expe­riences of struggle with pover­ty and migra­tion to the USA. He was also the first of many other cor­ri­do sin­gers to be mur­de­red, inclu­ding Valen­tin Eli­zalde in 2006.



Under the guise of the tra­di­tio­nal cor­ri­do form, the nar­co­cor­ri­do repre­sents a hybrid of tra­di­tio­nal folk­lore and moder­ni­ty, rural and urban culture, Mexi­can-Ame­ri­can fron­tier culture and of offi­cial and sub­ver­sive values.



Multiple factors have transformed the Narcocorridos


The Mexi­can war on drugs, the emer­gence of Mexi­can-Ame­ri­can entre­pre­neurs cate­ring to a gro­wing Ame­ri­can audience, along with new digi­tal tech­no­lo­gies and the visual influence of violent music videos such as Gang­sta rap have com­ple­te­ly trans­for­med the nar­co­cor­ri­dos in recent years.

Attempts to cen­sor this music in Mexi­co by ban­ning concerts have fai­led for seve­ral rea­sons.  The audience has chan­ged, and Mexi­cans are no lon­ger the only ones lis­te­ning to this music. It’s a very orga­ni­zed indus­try that gene­rates mil­lions of dol­lars. For ins­tance, the Movi­mien­to alte­ra­do mer­chan­dizes clothes, films, concerts and clips of the move­ment. Their tours include per­for­mances in seve­ral cities in Mexi­co and the USA with tickets sold by the giant of ticket dis­tri­bu­tion : Ticket master.

Pro­duc­tion, dis­tri­bu­tion, and consump­tion have radi­cal­ly chan­ged in the music indus­try. They are now gene­ra­ted via digi­tal stra­te­gies that the new gene­ra­tions of musi­cians have used effec­ti­ve­ly. A few clicks on You­Tube suf­fice to find a large reper­toire of videos show­ca­sing armed cri­mi­nals with all the ste­reo­types asso­cia­ted with mafio­sos that have “made it”.

A case in point is ”Los san­gui­na­rios del M1”, pos­ted in 2011 and with over 53 mil­lion vie­wers to this date.



The enter­tain­ment indus­try now pro­duces films and series such as Nar­cos : Mexi­co, El Cha­po, and Esco­bar, which have also contri­bu­ted to the popu­la­ri­ty of nar­co culture. They have contri­bu­ted to legi­ti­mize and mains­trea­mize a popu­lar musi­cal niche with more extreme and expli­cit violence.

Nar­co­cor­ri­dos are also part of a broa­der culture and diverse social prac­tices. In Sina­loa for ins­tance, the cult of Jesus Mal­verde, a folk­lore hero from the ear­ly XX cen­tu­ry is wor­shi­ped as a patron saint of drug dea­lers. Malverde’s shrine is regu­lar­ly visi­ted by thou­sands and his images are repro­du­ced on all kinds of objects. Nar­co ceme­te­ries such as Jar­dines del Humaya in Culia­can contain some of the most lavish and gla­mo­rous mau­so­leums in the world. These prac­tices reveal the macabre rela­tion to death that haunts most narcocorridos.


© Idealista news -creative Commons
Jar­dines del Humaya ceme­te­ry in Culia­can © Idea­lis­ta news – Crea­tive Commons


To some, the mix of tra­di­tion and contem­po­ra­ry vio­lence signal attempts by Mexi­can socie­ty to come to terms with the world around them. To others, they are sim­ply a per­ver­sion of a music tra­di­tion. Although inti­ma­te­ly rela­ted, nar­co­cor­ri­dos can’t be enti­re­ly bla­med for drug vio­lence. Drug vio­lence is to blame for nar­co­cor­ri­dos. These songs are very popu­lar in Mexi­co but are also a phe­no­me­non found in other drug-rid­den coun­tries in Latin America.

Per­haps unsur­pri­sin­gly, one of the most sho­cking aspects of the nar­co­cor­ri­do, is that it no lon­ger seems to shock anyone. In any case, it consti­tutes a brilliant socio­lo­gi­cal object that allows us to observe the contra­dic­tions of Mexi­can contem­po­ra­ry life and its attempts to make sense of the social ills that roam in the coun­try. But more impor­tant­ly, they force us to take a hard look at the ines­ca­pable vio­lence of Mexi­can reality.



By the same author : « Modern urban trou­ba­dours : Beg­gars or buskers ? »

« Por­traying the city through music »




Alejandro Abbud Torres Torija

Alejandro is a Franco-Mexican with over 20 years of international experience and has lived in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Vienna, Munich, St. Petersburg, Interlochen, Aspen and Mexico. He currently lectures at several French Universities and organizes international seminars on urban issues in Europe for universities and local government delegations from Mexico and Chile. Previously, he worked in international relations (OECD, UNESCO, Mexican Embassy in Berlin) and since 2014, he has been teaching at Sciences Po Paris (Poitiers, Nancy and Reims campuses) and at ESPOL Lille. His classes include Music and Power, Sounds of the World: Music as a mirror of the intimate and the collectiveBeing an actor of the city and Languages of the world/world of languages.  Alejandro is also a musician (classical guitar) with a master in International Relations from Sciences Po Paris and holds a multilingual (English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Russian) official license as a cultural guide (www.aatt.mx).

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