Aggrandizing ‘El Chapo’ in song: KU professor studies Mexican ‘narcocorridos’
It was 2009, and Rafael Acosta was at a party in his native Mexico dancing to a lively traditional corrido, when he realized this corrido wasn’t the old-fashioned kind.
“Suddenly I paid attention to the lyrics of what I was dancing to,” said Acosta, an assistant professor of Spanish at Kansas University. “And there was a guy singing, ‘if you are not good for killing, you are good to be killed.'”
The song was about the drug trade.
That sparked Acosta’s interest in studying the narrative Mexican ballads known as corridos, specifically a genre known as narcocorridos — ballads about the country’s drug lords, including modern-day legend Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Guzmán’s criminal activity and power in Mexico made him globally known. The Sinaloa Cartel leader again made international news in early January when he was captured by the Mexican government for the third time, after twice escaping maximum-security prisons there.
Acosta suggests that narcocorridos have contributed to making Guzmán even larger than life in Mexico, other Latin American countries and even the United States — where the narcocorrido industry is big.
“I can assure you that 99 percent of Mexicans have never seen El Chapo,” Acosta said. “These songs definitely contributed to his fame.”
Acosta’s research specializes in narratives of Mexico and the United States, particularly political uses of violence in narratives. In 2014 he published a novel, in Spanish, about the Mexican drug trade, “Conquistador.” He expects his research on narcocorridos to be part of an academic book in progress, “Druglords, Bandits, Cowboys and Illegality in the Mexican American Frontier.”
Acosta said the corrido tradition hearkens to the ballads of Medieval Spain, which functioned like “the newspapers of the time.”
A newer style was born here after the Mexican-American War, when most Latinos had no access to information, such as Spanish-language newspapers, Acosta said. Another big surge happened in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution (back then, Pancho Villa was a lead character).
The corridos narrated what was going on, Acosta said. They told people’s stories and also propagandized political causes.
Narcocorridos are no different; they just specialize in the drug trade and its leaders.
Acosta said they often glamorize the drug trade and the power of cartels, which means many of them are not allowed to be played on the radio in Mexico, where a “flimsy” but intact law makes it illegal to publicly support criminal actions.
No matter, though, Acosta said, because narcocorridos easily sell albums — on the up-and-up or pirated — and some of the most popular singers can pack stadiums for shows.
The narcocorridos about Guzmán create a narrative about his power that’s definitely rooted in facts — Guzmán rose from poverty to the Forbes 500 list, and has presumably done or ordered done heinous and violent acts — but probably goes beyond, Acosta said.
“It is hard to verify and contrast them with reality,” he said.
“It’s not so different from what (Donald) Trump does, in the construction of a physical persona that doesn’t relate to the actual facts,” he said.
Acosta has heard songs describing Guzmán as the prime minister of his own para-state. Others reference mythological characters, or describe him an heir to Mexico’s other powerful drug lords. He’s often portrayed as the businessman and mastermind over the cartel’s violent special forces.
Acosta said he’s found a few pre-2006 corridos about Guzmán but that those weren’t as popular as more recent ones.
Guzmán’s prison escapes also seemed to be better fuel than his capture, or the United States’ ongoing attempt to extradite him from Mexico to face charges of drug trafficking, homicide and money laundering.
Acosta said a few corridos came out quickly after Guzmán’s capture in early January.
“We’ll probably have to wait and see for a few months until actual records come out, and some more reflective songs come out,” he said.
“He’s been captured before, and it wasn’t long till he was free again … I don’t think the last song about El Chapo has been written yet.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied the song mentioned in the first paragraph was about El Chapo. That particular song was about another drug leader.