On November, 25th 2006, Valentin Elizalde, a handsome and charismatic popular singer from the state of Sonora, Mexico died in the border city of Reynosa, Tamaulipas, after a group of men—believed to be connected to a powerful drug cartel—sprayed his Suburban with more than 70 rounds of automatic machine gun fire. One story surrounding the murder of Elizalde points to a video that made its way around the Internet, which shows the killing, and marring of men associated with the Gulf Cartel. Elizalde’s song “A mis enemigos” was featured in the video and set as its musical background.
The singer had been warned not to visit the state of Tamaulipas, which is located within the territorial limits of the organization. After the killing of Elizalde—and in ways reminiscent of the 1990’s East versus West coast feud in hip-hop that resulted in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G—alleged members of competing drug cartels posted threats on YouTube.com against narcocorrido performers who live in areas controlled by their narco rivals. Valentin Elizalde’s death is not an unprecedented occurrence in the world of norteña music and cannot be understood in isolation from the current socio-economic situation in Mexico.
Coincidently, with a questionable electoral victory, Felipe Calderón from the Mexican right wing party Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), hurting for legitimacy, and having obtained less than a third of the popular vote, set his six-year presidential term in motion by unleashing a series of media friendly and spectacular blows against organized crime a few weeks after the death of Elizalde. Before targeting his home state of Michoacán and the northern state of Sinaloa, Calderón had promised he would generate employment, fight organized crime, social insecurity and corruption.
However, the drug trade has generated vast amounts of wealth for powerful cartels and penetrated sectors of the Mexican armed forces and law enforcing agencies. During the 2000-2006 presidential term of Vicente Fox, also from the PAN, over 8 thousand drug related executions took place. Mirroring the most crude and violent expressions of neoliberal economics, the majority of these murders were linked to the control over production, labor, and distribution of goods. During the same period, the elite paramilitary group at the service of the Gulf Cartel—Los Zetas, along with their recruits, Los Narcokaibiles (U.S. trained former members of the Guatemalan army)—expanded operations into the United States and well into the southern state of Guerrero. Under the leadership of El Chapo Guzman, the Sinaloa cartel remained quite competitive as well, recruiting members of the Mara Salvatrucha, a gang that beheads its enemies and has become notorious for its growing international reach.
In border and rural areas of Mexico, and in the Mexican immigrant enclaves of the United States, the drug trade has spun an entire culture and even features its own patron saint, San Juan Malverde. The narco aesthetic revolves around expensive vehicles, cowboy clothing, AK-47s, cocaine use, and a musical expression known as the narcocorrido. Rooted in the oral storytelling tradition of medieval Spain, the original corridos developed into a musical discipline closely associated with the period of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. These early corridos were ballads typically dedicated to the guerrilla soldiers and leaders of the rebel armies.
Eventually, corridos played to the rhythms of norteña and banda sinaloense evolved into a genre that began to document the struggles of everyday people, and migrant workers on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border. While the subjects of today’s narcocorrido are also outlaws, the protagonists are now linked to powerful drug organizations rather than the revolutionary factions of yore. In many instances, musicians are hired by narcos to compose narcocorridos. These contemporary corridos inform us of a narco’s intelligence and audacity—attributes he uses to humiliate competitors as well as the authorities.
While the murder of Elizalde is one of the most recent ones to affect the world of Mexican popular music, Chalino Sanchez is perhaps the most well-known narcocorrido singer and original tragic hero. Born in the state of Sinaloa in 1960, Chalino only finished grammar school and never received formal vocal training, but his singing style and personal appeal became the blueprint for countless imitators in both Mexico and the United States. Chalino was murdered after returning to perform in his home state of Sinaloa on May 16, 1992. His murder remains unsolved, however, Chalino’s life had been threatened in the past, and he survived a prior attempt to end his life when a stranger shot him twice with a 9mm during a performance in Coachella, California.
Bragging about connections to drug cartels, chronicling specific exploits of major capos, and performing for the actual criminal organizations that are portrayed in the narco ballads have proven to carry high costs for narcocorrido musicians. Popular performers such as Julio Preciado and Beto Quintanilla of Los Tucanes de Tijuana have had threats made against them—and considering the recent killings of singer Valentin Elizalde in Tamaulipas, and Javier Morales Gómez of Los Implacables del Norte in Michoacán —composers and performers of narcocorridos have to take such threats seriously.
Despite having arisen from salient geographical and cultural differences, it is not surprising that within narcocorridos and hip-hop, a glorification of money and power runs parallel. After all, both music styles can be traced to thirty years of failed free market orthodoxy as well to contexts involving hypocritical drug policies. In Mexico’s case, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has devastated the nation’s countryside by allowing the unrestricted importation of heavily subsidized American products. The Mexican government has opted not to place barriers on the U.S. products that have flooded its markets and, by limiting its intervention to administrative tasks, it has lost out to drug cartels when it comes to generating employment and providing basic services in isolated rural areas and in regions that relied on the maquiladora industry for economic growth.
It is from this context that the foot soldiers of the drug cartels, narcocorridos, and singers like Valentin Elizalde have emerged, and this is something which neither record executives nor talk-show hosts discuss when they parade these popular musicians as their guests, as if out of complete ignorance or a conscious distancing of themselves from the cultural products they disseminate.