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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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Pancho Villa comes up a lot in discussions of the new corrido culture. Like today’s cartel leaders, the bandolier-wearing revolutionary war hero came from peasant stock in a land of massive inherited wealth controlled by a corrupt oligarchic elite. Insofar as the cartels are against Mexico’s contemporary corrupt establishment elite, they are accepted into this tradition. Robin Hoods with buzz saws, machine guns and power drills. “In Mexico, many view the cartels as underdog characters — like American narratives about self-made men,” says Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta, professor of border studies at San Diego State University. “For the Mexican-American audience, alterado is also cathartic. The community feels under siege, especially undocumented workers who live in constant fear of getting deported. So songs about powerful Mexicans can be intoxicating.”

And not just for the poor and dispossessed.

“I keep meeting third-generation middle-class Chicano kids who grew up speaking English and listening to rap but who are now learning Spanish through the new narcocorridos,” says Brian Plascencia, the veteran manager of L.A. corrido group Los Nueves Rebeldes. “It’s not the negative influence some say it is. The narcocorridistas are the same as the gangsta rappers — ‘Fake it til you make it’. Do some artists occasionally hang out with mafia? So did Frank Sinatra.”

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Listening to the Twiins place massive bets on the future — their email signature is “Taking Over The Music Industry!!!!” — it’s almost possible to forget that they’re talking about torture-filled polka party jams about Mexican cartel politics and the underdog heroics of hired killers. The music is banned from Mexican radio, and there is a movement in Mexican parliament to ban live performances. “I understand the critics’ viewpoint,” says Omar, “but right now young people want this, and what they want is my business. The demand will be there until the violence stops. Then we’ll sell something else.”

There are serious cultural obstacles to mainstreaming alterado in the U.S. These were manifest in the reality series  about the Twiins, “Los Twins,” that ran in 2011 on the Spanish-language cable channel Mun2. (Tag line: “Producing the American Dream, one track at a time.”) In one episode,  worlds collidewith unintentional comedy when DJ Paul and Juicy J of hip-hop act Three 6 Mafia join the Twiins in the studio to explore the scope of a possible collaboration. (That scope turns out to be extremely narrow.) But, in a later episode, a meeting with Snoop Dogg (“ Alterado?” he says. “I like the way that sounds.”) winds up leading to a studio collaboration with Cypress Hill, and the Twiins continue to take inspiration from drug-tinged genres that began on the margins and grew to conquer the world.

“Reggaeton and hip-hop also went in a mafia direction,” says Adolfo. “Even rock was criticized in the beginning. It’s what we have to take. Our idea is to start mixing in English songs and American artists. The evolution will take a few years, but if it works, we’ll change history again.”

Omar Valenzuela admits to sometimes seeking the blessing of cartel dons before releasing songs. And there’s no denying that Twiins-produced songs like “United Carteles” function as statements of allegiance to specific cartels, as well as implicit threats against others, such as the Juarez and Beltran Leyva cartels. But the twins and their musicians deny direct financial and social  ties to the cartels. The result is a wire act: They sing about certain cartel figures with warm familiarity, yet maintain a safe distance in reality. It’s a line that some alterado groups tread more gingerly than others. “We’re extremely careful about what we write,” says David Guzman, the 21-year-old leader of Ondeado, a Twiins alterado act. “We never mention names or play cartel parties. We try to keep our heads down while making music about what’s happening in Mexico.”

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