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Border & Immigration

Narcocorridos: Telling Truths, Or Glorifying An Escaped Drug Lord?

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It took only a few minutes for Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo to escape from a maximum-security prison in Mexico earlier this week. It took only a few hours for musicians to start uploading songs, mostly corridos, about that escape.

Corridosare a narrative style of Mexican music that dates back to the Mexican Revolution in the early 20th century. The songs were a way for news of battles and victories to travel from one part of the country to another.

For the last few decades, Mexico has been undergoing a different kind of upheaval, in the form of the drug war. Cartels have been fighting each other, while the government pledges to stop them. The violence has birthed a new genre: narcocorridos, or corridos alterados,in which the exploits and lives of drug lords and their henchmen are narrated in song.

Narcocorridosare as popular as they are reviled. When I lived in Mexico, for every taxi driver I met who would blast them, I'd also meet plenty of young Mexicans who considered them in poor taste for glorifying a lifestyle that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

Whether or not you listen to narcocorridos has a lot to do with where in Mexico you live: Teenagers in Sinaloa, El Chapo's home state, often jam out to them, while teenagers in Mexico City are more likely to see them as crass.

I also found that whether or not you listen to drug ballads also has a lot to do with where you fall in the rigid class hierarchy of Mexico. After all, narcocorridosdo a lot more than just talk about who fought who and who controls what drug route. They provide the vicarious pleasure of listening to the exploits of poor men made rich in a country where social mobility is difficult, poverty is crippling and government corruption is rampant. In that way, they might not be that different from telenovelas: escapist entertainment that's not always wholesome, and that can celebrate toxic behavior.

There's undeniable cynicism in lyrics about how El Chapo escaped without even messing up his hair, most likely with help from prison guards. Make no mistake: A lot of the regions I visited in Mexico while on assignment — the ones most affected by the drug war — saw many of the drug lords as Robin Hood-like figures.

We want to be clear about one thing on Alt.Latino: We aren't discussing the merits of drug lords or condoning the violence they create, but we are a show in which we discuss culture and society. When our colleague, NPR reporter Eyder Peralta, stumbled upon nearly a dozen ballads addressing the escape of El Chapo, including songs by several high-profile singers, we decided it was worth a discussion.

We've invited Eyder to join us on this week's show. And we want to ask you: Why do you think narco ballads are so popular? Are they misunderstood? Are they merely reporting what's going on, or are they glamorizing the lives of murderous criminals?

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