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Made in Mexico

Arts & Culture | April 7, 2014

Joaquín Guzmán Loera is a man of many identities. The Mexican government captured Guzmán on Feb. 22, and considers him to be the most violent, powerful, and wanted drug lord in the world. But Mexican popular culture, specifically the growing musical genre known as narcocorridos, glorifies him as “El Chapo” (Spanish for Shorty), a modern day Robin Hood who has risen from rags to riches to aid the Mexican people.

“El Chapo is not El Chapo, / Only he knows who he is/ So go looking for someone / Who looks just like him. / Because the real Chapo / You’ll never see again.” These are the translated lyrics of Los Tucanes de Tijuana’s popular narcocorrido “The Return of El Chapo,” which chronicles Guzmán’s improbable escape from prison.

This musical style originates from the corrido—a traditional Mexican folk ballad that mythologizes outlaws as heroes. The modern form of this music dates back to the Mexican War of Independence in 1810. Today, Mexicans have transformed the once-outdated genre into a musical culture that celebrates cartel leaders like Guzmán.

The songs have effectively reinforced the legendary status of El Chapo who is one of the most popular subjects of narcocorridos. “He’s become an idealized, almost mythical figure,” explained Dr. Rodolfo Fernandez, a professor of history and anthropology at Tufts University who focuses on Mexico, his home country.

Guzmán’s made-for-Hollywood story has only enhanced his mystique. He rose out of rural poverty to become the leader of the dominant Sinaloa Cartel, a lucrative occupation that eventually resulted in his arrest in 1993. After serving eight years in prison, he escaped in a laundry basket with the help of the facility’s guards and spent the next 13 years evading a massive government manhunt.

Despite maintaining a very low profile over the past decade, Mexico’s most wanted man managed to increase his legendary reputation by commissioning bands to write narcocorridos in his honor. According to Dr. Fernandez, this self-promotion is not unusual. “[Cartel leaders] invest in portraying themselves as being on the side of the people,” he explained. “Much of this Robin Hood aura is manufactured.”

Although the cartels have used narcocorridos as a public relations tool, much of the music remains organic. Cartels fund only a select group of popular narcocorrido musicians, and the rest are aspiring local artists. These grassroots musicians, who constitute the vast majority of narcocorrido bands, do not necessarily focus on cartel leaders; instead, their music tends to highlight the violent nature of the drug trade.

“With an AK47 and a bazooka on my shoulder / Cross my path and I’ll chop your head off / We’re bloodthirsty and we like to kill,” sing Los Buknas de Culiacán.

The band and its lead singer, Edgar Quintero, are the subject of a recently released, critically acclaimed documentary Narco Cultura. “I like violence and I like the bad life,” explains Quintero in the film. “I sing about bloodshed, about killings, about all that, but in my business we look up to that type of person. They stay alive through my corridos and my music.”

Quintero, an American-born musician who lives in Los Angeles and performs for predominantly American audiences, reflects the ironic complexity of the narcocorrido market. Most Mexican states have banned narcocorridos from radio and television stations. Even in states that have not prohibited the music, Mexican commercial media outlets do not give airtime to narcocorridos.

So what drives this booming music market? Not unlike the Mexican drug trade itself, the narcocorrido industry is fueled by American demand. “A big source of revenue for these bands is the US market,” explained Dr. Fernandez. “A lot of it is disseminated through US media because it’s legal there.”

Recently, live narcocorrido performances as well as commercial album sales have rapidly increased across the United States. “We were the only company doing narcocorridos two or three years ago,” explained Adolfo Venezuela in the documentary. Venezuela is a co-founder of the Los Angeles-based record label Movimiento Alterado, the first of its kind to produce narcocorridos. “Today, there are hundreds of clubs in the US playing this kind of music,” he adds.

Venezuela believes that American retailers like Walmart and Target, which both carry narcocorrido albums in their stores, are willing to associate with violence as long as it yields profit.

Critics are quick to point out that this American-made music glorifies drug violence that people rarely have to experience on this side of the border. Even those within the genre, like Quintero, recognize this inherent flaw of the narcocorrido industry. “In the United States, we’re just so blinded,” he explained in a recent interview with NPR. “Kids from here, they’re just in these nightclubs; they don’t even know what’s going on out there.”

But across the border where real violence impacts communities, narcocorrido music remains very popular—albeit for different reasons. Many Mexican listeners embrace narcocorrido music for its anti-authoritarian themes rather than its violent lyrics. “Most [Mexicans] are not in favor of the drug gangs and violence, but they are dissatisfied with the government,” explained Dr. Fernandez. “Narcocorridos are a populist reaction to the circumstances.”

As the music has grown in Mexico, so has the public’s distrust of the government. According to Forbes, a poll conducted just days after Guzman’s arrest revealed that 53 percent of Mexicans believe that El Chapo is more powerful than the Mexican government.

Certain communities’ immediate responses to Guzmán’s arrest reflect this growing discontent. “The government doesn’t give any job opportunities,” Daniel Garcia, an unemployed 20-year-old, explained to The Guardian. Garcia was one of more than 1,000 Mexicans who marched through the streets of Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, to call for the immediate release of Guzmán and protest his possible extradition to the United States. “The situation is, honestly, really difficult and [Guzmán] helps out the young people, giving them jobs,” said Garcia.

Mexican police forces responded to the protests by arresting hundreds of demonstrators. But Dr. Fernandez believes that the government will not successfully end Mexico’s drug issues by stifling public discourse like music or protest. “There’s a reason why people are listening to this music and we shouldn’t just dismiss it,” he explained. “People have legitimate grievances not just against the government but also against the economic, political, and social systems of the country.”

In its magazine editorial on Mar. 2, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico described the public demonstrations in support of Guzmán as the “Chaponization” of the country—a play on the religious canonization process. Dr. Fernandez believes that this deification will only continue in the immediate future. “I think narco culture and narcocorridos will become even more important in people’s daily lives,” he explained. “At least until some fundamental questions in Mexican society are resolved.”

With its capture of Guzmán, the Mexican government has certainly moved one step closer to defeating the country’s drug cartels. But its goal of eradicating the country’s drug culture might be unattainable as long as Mexico’s outlaws are also its saints.