Outrage spread like wildfire across social media last year when video surfaced of a 15-year-old girl from central Mexico dancing to a narcocorrido at her quinceñera celebration instead of a traditional waltz accompanied by her father. But what is behind the appeal of such songs for young people today?
Pretending to be the Queen of the South telenovela star in a white dress, shorter than a traditional long, pastel-colored gown, the young girl acted out a scene where she is attacked by sicarios, or hitmen, before the police eventually come to her rescue and save her, with the narcocorrido ballad "Sanguinarios del M1" by Movimiento Alterado playing in the background.
"With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder, cross my path and I’ll chop your head off, we’re bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill,” the song goes.
(“Sanguinarios del M1” by Movimiento Alterado)
Young people are not alone in this fascination of outlaws. Many across Latin America have been captivated by criminals -- from the likes of Pablo Escobar in Colombia to former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo" -- who were able to skirt the law and evade capture for years. The elusive lifestyle of such figures, far outside what is considered ordinary, is exciting and intriguing.
The 'Outlaw' Appeal
The outlaw lifestyle has a certain appeal to young listeners, who are attracted to narcocorridos -- a sub-genre of norteño style folk music -- in part because it has been stigmatized and prohibited in many places across Mexico and the United States, according to Miguel Cabañas, an associate professor at Michigan State University who studies the popular cultural representation of drug trafficking.
“When governments started saying we should ban these songs and control them, young people from marginalized cultures were attracted to this ‘forbidden fruit,’” Cabañas told InSight Crime.
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In Mexico, northwest Chihuahua state has banned live performances of narcocorridos or the playing of such songs on the radio. When they are played, famous groups like Los Tigres del Norte have been fined up to $25,000 for violating city laws. But trying to forbid these types of songs has had the reverse effect on young people, according to Cabañas, drawing them into the music officials wish they'd stay away from.
This dynamic isn't exclusive to narcocorridos. Famous hip-hop groups like NWA in the United States have also written songs romanticizing the lifestyles of drug traffickers and portraying the lives of marginalized communities, attracting the likes of teenagers and young adults while stirring plenty of public controversy.
However, narcocorridos aren't simply just songs that glamorize drug trafficking, they're critiques of the realities faced by many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans affected first by the so-called "war on drugs" in the United States, and later by Mexico's US-backed war against drug trafficking.
Taking Back the 'War on Drugs'
Many of the original creators of narcocorridos came from Mexico’s gulf state of Sinaloa, according to Cabañas, which makes up one part of the so-called “Golden Triangle” region in western Mexico that has long served as a major producer of opium -- the raw ingredient needed to make heroin -- and marijuana.
Sinaloa is also at the center of the drug war launched by former President Felipe Calderón in 2006. This “war” rages on today, despite serious questions regarding its efficacy after more than 200,000 people have been killed and thousands more disappeared in its wake.
These singers grew up listening to banda, a style of music typically played with wind instruments, mostly of brass and percussion, that isn’t very different from the norteño music that is played in northern Mexico and associated with narcocorridos.
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Without government support and lacking many economic or employment opportunities outside of drug production in these rural areas, some locals turned to writing songs about the realities they witnessed every day, often relating to traffickers in the drug trade, but also touching on government corruption and other topics.
Narcocorridos offered a local take on events that were often mischaracterized in the media, according to Cabañas, which citizens have long been weary of given its long history of being influenced by political operators and silenced by criminal actors and government officials.
“The narcocorrido has always had a critical eye on things that are happening during the war on drugs,” Cabañas said. “It offers a popular way to revisit certain events that happened and how people view them.”
An Alternative Opportunity
What’s more, singing narcocorridos offered some community members an opportunity to benefit economically and take back a piece of the US-supported war against drug production in Mexico. It’s one way locals can process trauma that the war on drugs has caused, while also fighting back against government policies that effectively destroy one of, if not the only way, to earn a living in regions where the government has failed to provide alternatives.
This, according to Cabañas, gets at the heart of the misunderstandings surrounding narcocorridos.
“It’s a cultural product [narcocorridos] that’s stigmatized because people don’t understand it,” Cabañas said. “It’s easier to say that, well, all these people have this culture that is violent. But they don’t understand the context of the war on drugs, how that’s affected communities and the complex way of how this trauma of violence in Mexico is processed.”
Despite efforts from several Mexican states to ban narcocorridos, the idea that getting rid of such songs is going to solve Mexico’s record levels of crime and violence is something Cabañas says is “totally insane.”
“If we didn’t have narcocorridos, we’d still have narcos and the war on drugs. Things aren’t going to change because there’s no music talking about it. It’s the social and political conditions that are creating the drug trade.”