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Narcocorridos: Mexico's Deadly Drug Wars Have Produced an Amazing and Sometimes Lethal Music Scene

The fascinating story of Mexico's drug cartel balladeers.


It’s 2 a.m. when El Komander, the bestselling balladeer of cartel life and death, takes the stage at Club El Rodeo in Mexicali, Mexico, a maquiladora boomtown just across the border from sleepy Calexico, Calif. Buzz-cut, goateed and dressed in an all-black costume of oversize tinted shades, crisp parachute pants and polished knee and elbow guards, he opens his set with his tuba- and accordion-driven hit, “The Devil’s Advocate”:

Born in Sinaloa
Where killing is learned
I bear the blood of combat 
And orders to execute

The verse draws raucous cheers from the capacity-plus crowd, which I’m told is thick with members of the Sinaloa Cartel, the most powerful drug trafficking syndicate in the world. I’m still scanning the scene for signs of this when Komander points a black-gloved index finger at the VIP mezzanine and sends a shout-out to his hometown of Culiacan, the Pacific coastal city where the cartel is based. A dozen VIPs, a couple wearing sunglasses, solemnly raise their glasses in recognition. On the club floor, Komander’s gesture sends the 20- and 30-somethings into frenzy. These are his die-hard fans, mostly young and middle class, who have made El Komander (real name Alfredo Rios) the very wealthy face and voice of the trans-border narco-culture phenomenon called “el movimiento alterado.”

Komander is a multimedia narco icon, working across the music, film and fashion industries that make up this “movement,” which produces commodified, glammed-up spins on the Mexican narcocorrido — drug ballads that go back a century but produced its first pop stars in the early 1980s. It was Komander’s earliest videos dating to 2009 that first showcased the alterado scene’s emblematic fashion statements: ballistic vests stitched with Gucci and Burberry fabrics, blinged-out rosaries and crosses, sartorial baselines of commando-raid Kevlar black. Several El Rodeo clubbers wear these or their candy-colored variants. One kid sports a T-shirt featuring a hauntingly beautiful depiction of a stitch-lipped  Santa Muerte, the female Saint of Death, around whom a Catholic cult has grown in tandem with Mexico’s body count.

Komander ends his set a little after 4 a.m. with his anthem, “ Mafia Nueva,” where he references the trappings of lo narco (the cartel life): Buchannan’s Scotch, Cheyenne trucks and cuernos, or “horns” — slang for AK-47s. He emerges an hour later from the club’s back door, still in sunglasses and surrounded by guards, and works his way through throngs of screaming female fans gathered in the club’s parking lot toward an idling, burnt-orange Ford pickup truck with his AK-47-themed logo emblazoned on the cab. As dawn cracks, Komander, his manager and a guard  roll out sandwiched by black bulletproof Hummers.

The Hummers are no theatrical touch, but a necessary precaution. The original narcocorrido icon Chalino Sanchez suffered his first gunshot wound during a show not far from here in 1992, following a concert in the Coachella Valley. A few months later, his bullet-ridden corpse turned up roadside in Culiacan. In recent years, the dangers faced by narcocorridistas have grown along with the complexity and brutality of drug war politics, not to mention the size and lethality of the weapons employed by the state, the cartels and the groups in between. Dozens of musicians have been shot, killed or tortured since 2006, caught up in the national tragedy that is their inspiration.

While violence has been part of corrido culture since the ’90s, old rural-style stars like Sanchez wouldn’t recognize much of themselves in the new scene. “Alterado” translates as  “altered,” as in agitated. Connotations include buzzed, sickly and demented. In gringo terms, it’s narco-core. Until the mid-2000s, narcocorridistas dressed in a hick ranchero style — cowboy hats, tassel-vests and ostrich boots. They played small clubs and restaurants with tables pushed into corners. If they carried, they packed a six-shooter into their belts or between the seats of a rusty pickup. Alterado stars shop Versace, fill Mexican soccer stadiums, and trot bazookas onstage. On the U.S. side of the border, they tour a growing circuit including the House of Blues and L.A.’s Nokia Theater. They make gruesome narco films like Komander’s  “The Executor,” full of severed heads and buzz-saw torture sessions. They pull down $50,000 for weekend club gigs. Like the Sinaloa Cartel, their brand is global.

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