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Mexican folk drug music


Expert Pharmacologist
Jul 6, 2021
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In Mexico, tens of thousands of people have died in the war between drug cartels over the transportation of cocaine, heroin and marijuana to the United States. The business brings in billions of dollars, and the soundtrack to the battles between the biggest players in the black market is folk songs with guitar and accordion glorifying the drug lords. BBgate residents traveled to the state of Sinaloa, the capital of the Mexican drug business, to learn more about this musical tradition and share it with you.

May 15, 1992. Culiacán, capital of the state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico. Shouts and applause fill the concert hall as six beautiful girls lead a young man in a white cowboy hat onto the stage. It's Rosalino Sánchez Félix, but everyone calls him Chalino Sánchez. While singing a love song to the music of trumpets, accordions, and twelve-string guitars, he receives a note telling him that he will be in imminent danger if the concert continues.

Somewhere in the hall, a killer was watching him. Chalino wiped the sweat from his forehead, put the paper aside, and continued singing.

It's not the first time the 31-year-old musician has found himself in a difficult situation.


Rosalino Sánchez was born in 1960 on a farm in the mountains of Sinaloa, where little seems to have changed since the Wild West. At 15, the future singer avenged his sister's rape by shooting a man at a party and escaped to Los Angeles. In 1984, his brother was killed in Tijuana, working as a «coyote»: he smuggled immigrants across the border.

Adversity inspired Chalino to write his first song. At the time, he was serving a short sentence in prison, where he met many people from similar villages. The prisoners told him exciting stories about marijuana smuggling. Sanchez began to gather material. He wasn't a great singer, but he turned out to be a great storyteller.

Chalino became a sensation among Mexican immigrants in California, mostly the same rural poor. A few months before the Culiacán show, he was performing in the United States when a drunk man jumped on stage and opened fire with a gun. Sanchez drew his weapon and a gunfight ensued. One audience member was killed and several others were injured, including Chalino himself and the man who started the shooting.

But back to the concert in Culiacán. After the show, Sanchez, his brothers and their girlfriends were stopped by two police cars.

«My commander needs to see you» — one of the policemen declared. Chalino was taken away. The next day, peasants found his corpse with two bullets in his head.

Thus ended the career of the illustrious star of the narcocorrido genre.


Mexican gangsta music
The beautifully exotic «corrido» is the name given to Mexican folk story-songs. The genre originated during the War of Independence from Spain 1810-1821, when bards told legends about the national hero Miguel Hidalgo. During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), corridos became a call to arms. The most famous of them, the world-famous «La Cucaracha», tells the story of a cockroach who over-smoked marijuana. It was sung by the troops of guerrilla general Pancho Villa when they went into battle.

Corridos about smuggling have existed since the Prohibition era in the United States in the 1920s. Back then, they sang about
«tequileros» («tequila men») who smuggled booze across the border. But ballads about traffickers of illegal substances and their exploits — modern narcocorridos — appeared in 1974, the first of which was Contrabando y traición by Los Tigres. It is about two partners in the marijuana business who betray each other.

Gangstrap originated in the African-American ghettos of the United States. Songs such as Fuck the Police attracted the attention of the FBI. Many rap singers have been associated with the underworld. For example, Tupac Shakur was part of the Death Row label, whose CEO was a member of the Bloods gang. After a fight with the rival Crips gang at a casino in Las Vegas in 1996, Tupac was shot and killed on the main street of the city. Shakur can be compared to Chalino Sanchez: both young singers led a wild lifestyle, and their tragic deaths turned them into real idols in the eyes of their fans.

All over the world, different variations of gangsta rap, which had gained huge popularity, emerged. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, drug-dealing gangsters organize parties in the style of baile funk, a trend reminiscent of rap but with more powerful vocals. At these parties, you can buy ecstasy, cocaine and «maconha» (marijuana) under the supervision of young men with machine guns.


Drug capital of the world
Although Mexico has long been a source of smuggling (dating back to the illicit liquor trade in the 1920s), the drug business flourished in the 1960s, when the American counterculture developed a voracious appetite for psychoactive substances. Local farmers were happy to help: they grew hemp and produced opium, which was then processed into heroin and shipped to the United States.

«Years ago, Chinese immigrants brought poppy seeds» — explains journalist Miguel Ángel Vega, who has closely monitored the cartels over the years. It's also a dangerous profession: his friend, the founder of the newspaper Ríodoce, Javier Valdés, was shot dead right outside his office in 2017.

«The Sinaloa Mountains have ideal conditions for growing poppies. Farmers had nothing else to do, and the United States is the world's largest consumer of this product»
— says Vega.

As a result, Mexico became the third largest producer of heroin after Afghanistan and Myanmar. In the 1980s, when U.S. authorities made it difficult for Colombian drug cartels to ship cocaine across the Caribbean Sea, Mexican smugglers offered to use their channels for the same purpose. Since the mid-2000s, the local mafia has also produced methamphetamine in secret laboratories.

The drug lords in Sinaloa are so powerful that the mafia has become a power parallel to the state.
The militants openly declare: «We are the law».


The Sinaloa Cartel keeps the city safe. They don't allow carjackings, robberies, they don't let civilians get hurt. They have enormous power and eyes everywhere: a kid washing your windshield, a cab driver or even a waiter can watch you.

Of course, the Mafia cooperates with official authorities. Last year, former Mexican security minister Genaro Garcia Luna was arrested in Texas. He answered to the president himself and coordinated major operations against drug traffickers throughout the country. He was accused in a U.S. court of collaborating with the Sinaloa cartel.

«It's no secret that, like every other major criminal organization in Mexico, they have bribed generals, police chiefs, mayors and governors. The cartel can bribe the government at any level. If they've managed to get to Garcia Luna himself, imagine what they do to the average cop»
— explains Vega.

«One day we were driving two pickup trucks with marijuana and had to unload the product into a cool place so it wouldn't dry out and catch fire. There wasn't enough room in the warehouse and there was no other place. The cops stopped us» — recalls Baldomar.

We usually pay the police a monthly bribe, but that time we were late, so they pointed guns at us and asked where we were taking the goods.

«Why won't you let us pass?»
— We asked.

The cops replied: «Because these trucks are full of marijuana and you haven't paid our share».

The cops demanded 5,000 pesos (about 19,000 rubles). It was a lot of money for us, so we called our boss, who talked to the police chief, and they settled everything.

But sometimes the enforcers had to convince their partners in Washington that the Mexican government was fighting drug trafficking. In 2006, new President Felipe Calderon declared war on the Mafia and sent troops to hot spots across the country, including Sinaloa. The disruption of the balance of power plunged Mexico into chaos and gave the perpetrators of narcocorridos plenty of fresh material.


The drug war
In 2008, the land of Sinaloa was stained with blood. During a military operation against drug cartels, one of the Beltran Leyva brothers, Alfredo, married to El Chapo's cousin, was captured. Guzmán was suspected of treason. On May 8, three cars drove up to one of his sons, Edgar, and opened fire. At least 500 bullets came out of AK-47s.

Narcocorrido «50 Mil Rosas Rojas» is the story of a grieving father buying up every last red rose in Culiacán for a funeral:
«50 mil rosas rojas se vendieron en culiacan llegando El 10 de mayo Listos para celebrar pero unos días antes se nos fue Edgar guzmann!…50 mil rosas rojas se vendieron en culiacan llegando el 10 de mayo Siempre se va a recodar y el ranzho jesus maría las Bandas les tocaran…».

A few hours after Edgar's death, seven more bodies were found in the neighboring town of Navolato. One of those killed was a policeman. The province of Sinaloa suddenly became a very dangerous place, including for musicians.


«In 2008, there was a war between Chapo and Beltran Leyva. I wrote a corrido at that time — probably the best thing I composed. But one of my friends advised me not to perform it for El Chapo so as not to anger the Beltran Leyva, who would send someone to deal with me» — Baldomar recalls.

Others have not been so careful. In 2006, the famous singer Valentin Elizalde, nicknamed the Golden Rooster, released the song «A mis enemigos». The bard did not say who exactly he was referring to as his enemies, but in a video posted on YouTube, the song was played over images of the corpses of Los Zetas, former mercenaries of the Golfo cartel. Some listeners took it as a musical threat from El Chapo. A few months later, Elizalde was ambushed after a concert in Reynosa, a town on the Texas border controlled by Los Zetas.


His car was shot at, the chauffeur and a friend of the singer who was in the car were killed together with him. Soon in the network appeared a creepy video: the corpse of Elizalde was lying on the table in the morgue, and behind the frame sounded recorded laughter. Someone really didn't like his creativity.

Such episodes were repeated throughout Mexico. Armed groups split into smaller gangs when their leaders were arrested or eliminated, their numbers grew, and blood flowed. But by 2014, Cártel de los Beltrán Leyva, exhausted from its war with Chapo Guzmán, was wiped out by law enforcers, and for a few years there was peace in Sinaloa.

On October 17, 2019, however, the military tried to capture El Chapo's son Ovidio in Culiacan — and got surrounded themselves. Clouds of smoke from burning vehicles rose over the city, and fourteen people died in the battle. Innocent bystanders were among them, and the scene resembled footage from Syria or Iraq. Frightened citizens hid in stores. In the end, the soldiers had to release young Guzmán after a personal order from the president himself.

«There have long been rumors that the Sinaloa Cartel has more firepower than the government. It seemed like a myth, but now we know it is true. On October 17, the group made it clear that it is stronger and more ruthless than the official authorities. Most of the weapons come from the US. They threw everything they had into getting their guy out» — says Vega.

And of course, the next day a corrido had already been composed about this event.

«They thought they would mock the Guzmán family with impunity, but the devil himself appeared before them and Culiacán turned into hell — sang the band Arte Norte.

The soldiers were afraid because their families were threatened.

In the rain of bullets, there were few options.

They had numerical superiority, the government was cornered, and since there was no other option, they had to vacate it.

Many lives were lost and the Chapito fighters kept coming.

Mission accomplished thanks to the support of the chaps, we continue our father's work and fulfill his precepts».
The bandits won.
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