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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.

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“Writers are barometers, and suddenly they were talking about the drug war, the cartels, the sicarios [assassins],” says Omar Venezuela, who runs the Mexican side of the Twiins’ operation from his home in Culiacan. The fashion around the music also shifted. In corrido clubs like El Rodeo in East L.A. (where Michael Mann’s “Collateral” was partly shot), the ranchero look gave way to Dolce and Gabbana flash. The new styles mirrored the threads on the backs of arrested cartel bigs, whose choreographed perp-walks had effectively become trend-setting red carpet events. “The corrido clubs in Mexico and L.A. started looking more like Hollywood clubs, with drug war touches, like images of guns and grenades,” says Omar.

The Twiins saw the opening and began angling to get ahead of the shift. What they needed was a star. Then one spring afternoon in 2008 Omar’s cousin told him about a shy 20-year-old from Culiacan who worked in his downtown L.A. clothing shop, a good-looking kid who wrote corridos and wanted to break into the industry. Omar agreed to meet with him, and that night pulled into his driveway to find Alfredo Rios waiting in front of his house holding a battered acoustic guitar. He introduced himself and began to sing one of his originals. Midway through the song, Omar stopped him and told him to quit his day job.

“I only needed a minute to know he was the future,” says Omar. “He sang about the narco lifestyle in a fresh way. The brands, the cars, the weapons, the parties. I’d never heard Armani name-dropped in a corrido before.”

Komander’s reboot of the corrido was all the twins needed. He had modernized the Mexican outlaw ballad with gangsta rap and Mexicanized “Scarface” aesthetics to reflect 21st-century cartel life. The Twiins christened Rios “El Komander,” designed a logo formed of golden AK-47s and a 9mm pistol, and produced his first single, “El Katch” (Mexican-accented “Cash”), together with a video, in which Komander sings about cars and kush against a background of  AK’s and ass. They flooded club parking lots with free CDs and posted links to the video on popular blogs. Then they waited for the echo. It came back louder than they had any right to hope. Within weeks, “El Katch” was scorching YouTube and broke into  Billboard’s Mexican Regional chart.

With Komander established, the Valenzuelas began producing other acts in the Komander mold, chief among them Los BuKanas de Culiacan, Los Buchones, Los 2 Priimos, and Los Edicion de Culiacan. Among the twins’ early and influential acts was Los BuKanas, whose “Los Sanguinarios del M1” (“The Bloodthirsty Killers of M1”) is an alterado classic. The song, released in early 2010, is an ode to Manuel Torres Felix, a notorious sadist nicknamed “Ondeado” (“The Crazy One”) who handles security for the Sinaloa Cartel. The song boasts nearly 20 million views on YouTube and its story forms the basis of the Twiins-produced narco-film of the same name.

“People right now want to hear about grenades, AK-47s, bazookas,” says Los BuKanas bandleader Jaime Carrillo, a veteran musician who decades ago played with Salino Sanchez. “We sing about high-tech weapons because it’s in demand. It’s the reality of right now. If we were playing old-school corridos, we’d barely gig.”

This understanding of corridos as contemporary news reports — a Mexican version of Chuck D’s description of rap as black America’s CNN — goes back to the days of Porfirio Diaz. Proto-corridos even functioned as musical war reportage during the Mexican War for Independence. They later developed during Prohibition into a form of border blues narrating the trials and tribulations of migrants, hustlers, bootleggers and traffickers. “Corrido is like rap, you need street flavor,” Adolfo explains. “But it’s nothing new. Ballads about outlaws have been in the Mexican culture since Pancho Villa.”

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