On November 25 last year, Mexican banda singer Valentin Elizalde, aka “The Golden Rooster”, was being driven away from a concert in the border town of Reynosa when two cars came up alongside his Chevrolet and riddled it with automatic gunfire; killing Elizalde, his manager, and his driver. The culprits were Los Zetas, a notorious hit squad in the employ of the Gulf drug cartel, and the reason for their hit was a video of an Elizalde song that had recently been posted on YouTube.
The song was a rousing brass band backed number entitled A Mis Enemigos (To My Enemies), and the video was a ghastly procession of images of drive-by shootings and gangland executions. It earned Elizalde a death warrant because of his known affliation with the Sinaloa drug cartel who were rivals of the Gulf cartel. The video was thus perceived as provocative taunt at the Gulf cartel’s expense and Elizalde suffered the consequences. (Elizalde’s killers then followed up his execution with a posting of the video of his autopsy on YouTube.)
As shocking as this episode seems, it is an unsurprising outcome of a long and increasingly entangled connection between one style of Northern Mexican music and the drug-smuggling underworld. That style is known as narcocorrido; literally “drug ballads”. It has its roots in the polka-based narrative ballads (or corrido) that were sung in Northern Mexico in the early 20th century to celebrate local outlaws who allied themselves with the revolutionary forces of the time. These outlaws, who had Robin Hood like reputations, would sustain themselves by raiding local mining concerns and smuggling luxury goods into Mexico from the US.
With the advent of Prohibition in the US, the direction of the smuggling trade reversed and the outlaws became tequiladeros, spiriting a regular supply of the Mexican national drink to thirsty gringos north of the border. When Prohibition ended, other illegal substances took the place of alcohol and the drug trade was borne. By this time, the songs about the practitioners had devolved from heroic ballads about “people’s bandits” to cautionary tales of small-time traffickers who met regrettable ends.
One particularly famous example of this is Carga Blanca (White Cargo) which tells of a group of smugglers who travel to San Antonio, Texas to sell their illicit “white cargo”. Once the deal is done, they are stopped by a car full of shady characters who are obviously working for the buyers and who ask them to hand over the money. Shots are fired, two of the smugglers are killed, the rest end up in jail, and the buyers ultimately get their money back. (Since this song was first recorded in the 1940’s, over 60 versions of it have been released. The one I’ve posted was laid down by Los Cuatesones in 1948 and appears on the Arhoolie Records album, The Roots of Narcocorrido.)
Although its modern form was well-established by the 1940’s, it was not until the 1970’s that narcocorrido finally came into it own with bands like Los Tigres Del Norte popularising it. As its popularity has grown, however, so too have the direct links between the corrodistas and their subject matter. Although many will not admit it, it has now reached the point where drug-smugglers pay songwriters to write ballads about their exploits. It is thus no surprise that it has all finally come to a head with the tragic case of Valentin Elizalde.
(Although it is cold comfort for Elizalde, his death has turned him into an Internet celebrity, and this has recently translated into record sales with two of his albums finally reaching the top of the Billboard Latin charts.)