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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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No Twiins artists have yet been killed or kidnapped on the road, but there was one close call. Last year, unknown gunmen ambushed the convoy of Gerardo Ortiz, formerly of Los Twiins and now with the rival Del Records. (The labels compete enough to beg comparisons with Death Row and Bad Boy.) The attackers killed two in the convoy, but Ortiz, whose symbol is a golden grenade, survived to take six trophies at the 2011 Billboard Mexican Music Awards.

For his part, El Komander tries his best not to think about death by bullets. “There are places in Mexico that are very dangerous, and sometimes you worry, but the only thing you can do is leave it up to God and just go to work,” he says. “In 80 percent of my songs I avoid referring to specific cartels or individuals because I don’t like it and it’s not necessary to make good music. I have never received a threat, but sadly in this profession violence can happen. In Mexico we are all exposed.”

In the U.S., not so much. Most L.A.-based narcocorridistas lead normal lives in middle-class suburban hamlets that remind one more of El Brady Bunch than El Chapo. The day after the Komander show in Mexicali, I drove back to L.A. to meet with Jaime Carrillo, the veteran corrido musician who leads Los BuKanas. Carrillo lives with his family on a leafy street in Huntington Park. When I arrive, his entrepreneurial wife is at the kitchen table, building binged-out rosaries and jewel-encrusted Ed Hardy shirts, some of which bear the visage of Jesus Malverde, the patron saint of drug dealers and a corrido icon known as the “angel of the poor.”

We walk out to his attached garage, where Carrillo keeps a makeshift office amid stacks of musical equipment. On the walls are years of posters for Los BuKanas concerts and Los Twiins showcase events. One of these, from a 2010 show at L.A.’s Nokia Theater, shows a boombox with six- barreledGatling-style rotary cannons sticking out from the speakers. I’m admiring the poster when Carrillo pulls out a large case that looks like it might hold a trombone. He unclasps it to reveal something else: a decommissioned Army-issued bazooka he bought at a Denver gun show. “We use the bazooka to pump the crowd,” he says, hoisting the massive weapon onto a brawny shoulder. “We bring it out at the end as part of the finale. Audiences go wild for it.”

Carrillo is an enormous, intimidating presence even without a bazooka in his hands. With the weapon, he looks like a stock villain from “Invasion U.S.A.” — a composite of Middle America’s worst post-9/11 nightmares. I tell him this and he laughs. “Yeah, sometimes it’s a pain to bring through airports,” he admits. “We get hassled by security or whatever, but we have all the paperwork for it.”

Carrillo is not blind to the absurdity of play-acting onstage with a bazooka. “Times change,” he says with a shrug. “I sang party songs when people used to want party songs. Now they want to hear about grenades and ‘goat horns,’ and the style is bulletproof vests. People want to feel like El Chapo.” During his years working the corrido circuit, he’s seen murders in clubs and dealt with his share of gangsters. But these days his exposure to the cartels is minimal and mostly secondhand. “A lot of mafia dudes go to El Rodeo in L.A. and kick back in the VIP,” he says. “If you just come and do your thing, they won’t mess with you.”

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