Puneet Varma (Editor)


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Stylistic origins
Mariachi Ranchera Polka Norteño Banda

Cultural origins
Early 20th century Mexico

Typical instruments
Accordion Acoustic Guitar Electric Bass Guitar Tuba Bajo Sexto Drums Vocals

Derivative forms
Corridos Alterados Corridos Progresivos

A narco-corrido ([narkokoˈriðo], Drug Ballad) is a subgenre of the Mexican norteño-corrido (northern ballad) music genre, a traditional folk music from northern Mexico, from which several other genres have evolved. This type of music is heard on both sides of the US–Mexican border. Besides being heard in Mexico, it is widely heard and produced throughout all Latin America. It uses a danceable, accordion-based polka as a rhythmic base. The first corridos that focus on drug smugglers—the narco comes from "narcotics"—have been dated by Juan Ramírez-Pimienta to the 1930s. Early corridos (non-narco) go back as far to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, telling the stories of revolutionary fighters. Music critics have also compared narcocorrido lyrics and style to gangster rap and mafioso rap.


Narcocorrido lyrics refer to particular events and include real dates and places. The lyrics tend to speak approvingly of illegal activities, mainly drug trafficking.


This genre of music is the evolution of traditional corrido ballads of the Mexican-US border region, which stemmed from the 16th-century Spanish genre of romance. Among the earliest exponents of narcocorrido music were Los Alegres de Teran, who recorded many. In the 1980s, Rosalino "Chalino" Sánchez contributed to narcocorridos. Known throughout Mexico as "El Pelavacas" (Cow Skin Peeler), El Indio (The Indian, from his corrido "El Indio Sánchez"), and "Mi Compa" (My Friend), Chalino was a Mexican immigrant living in Los Angeles. He then began distributing his music for a sale price. His lyrics dealt with heartbreak, revolution, and socioeconomic issues. Soon he was selling mass copies. Chalino Sánchez was murdered in 1992 after a concert in Culiacán. In death, he became a legend and one of the most influential Mexican musicians to emerge from California, he was known throughout Mexico and United States as El Rey del Corrido (The King of the Corrido).

Various companies, governmental agencies, and individuals have sought to ban narcocorridos. These attempts include a voluntary radio station black-out in Baja California. Representative Casio Carlos Narváez explained that radio executives did not want to make "people who break the laws of our country into heroes and examples". Former President of Mexico Vicente Fox also proposed banning narcocorridos. On the other hand, former Mexican foreign secretary Jorge Castaneda has argued that "corridos are attempts by Mexican society to come to terms with the world around them...You cannot blame narcocorridos for drug violence. Drug violence is to blame for narcocorridos".

Narcocorridos and their lyrical content

Since music plays an important role and major influence in the Narcoculture in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, some songs have been tagged as "anthems" and banned from airplay in Mexico and parts of the United States. However, the banning has failed in Mexico because the music is still displayed and available on several radio stations in the United States, near the border with Mexico, which still reaches the northern Mexico audience, while another important point of narcocorrido distribution method has been the internet for listening and downloading. Pirated (bootleg) copies of this music are sold in the "tianguis" (outdoor and flea markets) at affordable prices.

Narcocorridos describe the lives of the poor, the destitute, and those who seek power through illegal means. Like hip-hop and rap music, the narcocorrido is heard by many Spanish speakers who vary in age, and is popular among people who are not associated with cartels or gangs. The genre is becoming mainstream in many Spanish-speaking countries in recent years, along with the emergence of Narco-subcultures and Drug consumption cultures; it is now entering countries like Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, where the music is available on an everyday basis.

Examples of such anthems include:

  • "En Preparacion" (In Preparation) (a song that refers to the life of violent sinaloa cartel lieutenant Manuel Torres Félix known as "El Ondeado", brother of Javier Torres known as "El J.T.") by singer Gerardo Ortíz
  • "El Señor de los Cielos" (The Lord of the Skies) (refers to Drug lord Amado Carrillo) by singer El As de la Sierra
  • "A Mis Enemigos" (To All My Enemies) by Valentín Elizalde
  • "El Coco" (The coke head) by El Halcon de la Sierra
  • "Nave 727" (refers to the "Boeing 727" aircraft) by Grupo Laberinto
  • "Cuerno de Chivo" ("Goat's Horn", Spanish slang for AK-47 rifle.) by Los Huracanes del Norte
  • "Mis Tres Animales" (My Three Animals) (refers to the 3 top selling Mexican narcotics: cocaine, marijuana and heroin). by Los Tucanes de Tijuana
  • "El Macho Prieto" (a supposed tribute to drug trafficker Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza) by Luis Salomon "El Arremangado"
  • "Ajustes Inzunza" (Retaliations Inzunza) (dedicated to the hitman squad led by Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza) by Colmillo Norteño
  • "La Vida Mafiosa" (The Mafia Life) by Los Canelos de Durango
  • "El Chapo Guzmán" (a tribute to Sinaloa cartel drug lord Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán) by Los Tucanes de Tijuana
  • "El Jefe de Jefes" (The Boss of Bosses) (dedicated to Arturo Beltrán Leyva) by Los Tigres del Norte
  • "Chuy y Mauricio" (Jesus and Maurice) by Los Canelos de Durango
  • "Chingon de Chingones" (The Badass of Badasses) by Los Razos de Sacramento y Reynaldo
  • "Los Duros de Colombia" (The Colombia Hardhitters) by Gerardo Ortiz
  • "Carteles Unidos" (United Cartels) (Anthem to an anti-zetas cartel aliance) by Edicion de Culiacan/Edicion Norteña
  • "El Sr. Mayo Zambada" (Mr. Mayo Zambada) (a song dedicated to Sinaloa cartel top Drug lord, Ismael "Mayo" Zambada) by Enigma Norteño.
  • " El Regreso Del Chapo" (The Return of El Chapo) by El Komander
  • " Pancho Loco" (Crazy Frank) by Roberto Tapia
  • " El Corrido de Los Zetas" (The ballad of the Zetas) by Beto Quintanilla (Dedicated to the infamous enforcer gang Los Zetas)
  • This verse of the song "El Cabron" (1998) by Los Capos is an example of typical narcocorrido subject matter.

    Original Spanish verse:

    Exact English translation:

    Movimiento alterado

    A recent trend of hyper-violent Narco-corridos has been labeled Movimiento alterado, a Spanish term translated as Agitated movement or the Alertness movement, The name is a reference to the physiological effect of cocaine consumption (alertness).

    In the same way that normal Narco-corrido lyrics contrast with old traditional corridos (that narrated stories about revolutionaries, "benevolent bandits" or that attempted to give moral message), the lyrics of the 'Movimiento Alterado' songs contrasts with previous Narco-corridos, that only romanticized the trafficking lifestyle, but kept the lyrical content obfuscated and "cryptic" (using words like "polvo"(dust) for cocaine and "cuerno"(horn) for Ak-47), and maintained the violence at the minimum (accounting only when or where a tragic event occurred).

    However, in the Movimiento alterado trend, the songs cynically and deliberately express the pride that modern narco-traffickers have in murdering, torture, beheading, and dismembering their rivals, using explicit descriptions of their exploits, and also naming the military grade weaponry they use (grenade throwers, body armor, "bazucas", AR15, 50 caliber bullets, knives etc.)

    The lyrics of a famous Movimiento alterado song, dedicated to the notorious cartel enforcer Manuel Torres Félix, starts as follows:

    With an AK-47 and a bazooka on our heads
    cutting off heads that cross our path
    We're bloodthirsty and crazy – We love to kill
    Bullets fired and extortions carried out, just like the best of us
    Always in a convoy of armored cars, wearing bullet-proof vests and ready to execute people.

    The songs under this trend have been also labeled as: corridos arremangados (rolled-up sleeves ballads), corridos alterados (alertness ballads), corridos progresivos (progressive ballads), corridos enfermos (sick or insane ballads), etc.

    Narcocorrido as money laundering scheme

    In Mexico, South America and some regions of the US south border it is common to hear the sudden appearance of "new artists", mainly in folk radio stations, who are not known in the music industry, have no previous career and with no explanation of where they come from. These music groups and singers start to appear consistently on radio, television and public broadcasts with a strong promotion of their concerts. This happens for a fixed amount of time, and in the same sudden way they appear, they stop their promotion and disappear from the music scene, or change their stage name. Such artists are commonly manufactured by producers of dubious origin, who pay payola and do events in order to launder money from drug trafficking, prostitution or other illegal operations.

    Violence in narcocorrido industry

    Between 2006 and 2008, over a dozen prominent Mexican musicians, many of them connected to the narcocorrido genre, were murdered. The violence came in the midst of the Mexican drug war. The most popular musicians killed were Valentín Elizalde and Sergio Gómez, the lead singer of Chicago-based Duranguense band K-Paz de la Sierra. In December 2007, both men were nominated posthumously for Grammy Awards in the banda category. On June 26, 2010, Sergio Vega, known as El Shaka, was gunned down in Sinaloa state. He was shot dead only hours after he had denied reports of his own murder. Ramiro Caro, Gerardo Ortiz's manager and cousin, was also killed when Ortiz's Chevy Suburban was attacked by men with AK-47's in an attempt to kill Ortiz. Ortiz escaped unhurt.

    Other murdered music industry figures include Javier Morales Gómez (a singer for Los Implacables del Norte), four members of Tecno Banda Fugaz, four members of Los Padrinos de la Sierra, Zayda Peña (a singer for Zayda Y Los Culpables), trumpeter José Luis Aquino of Los Conde, record producer Marco Abdalá, manager Roberto del Fierro Lugo, Jorge Antonio Sepúlveda, Jesús Rey David Alfaro Pulido, Nicolás Villanueva of tropical group Brisas del Mar, four members of Los Herederos de Sinaloa, and the singer Fabian Ortega Pinon (El Halcon de la Sierra), who was executed along with two other victims in Guerrero, Chihuahua, in August 2006. Additionally, three members of Explosión Norteña were shot and wounded in Tijuana, in August 2006.

    While few, if any, arrests have been made in these cases, experts and musicians themselves say that the murders can be explained by many Mexican musicians’ proximity to drug traffickers. Some speculate the killings could be related to romantic disputes and jealousy. Others cite cases in which a musician has written a song praising or criticizing a drug trafficker; many assert that Valentín Elizalde's murder, for example, was related his song, "A Mis Enemigos", which some interpreted as an attack on the Gulf Cartel following its appearance in a widespread YouTube video.

    There has been debate about the motives behind the killings and about whether or not the media has exaggerated the trend. Narcocorrido expert Elijah Wald has disputed the assumption that any of the murders were related or that musicians on the whole are targets for drug traffickers. But given the grisly nature of the murders, some of which were accompanied by torture and disfigurement, few doubt that drug cartel hitmen are to blame.

    In the wake of the high-profile murders of Elizalde and Gómez, among others, some prominent corrido musicians postponed concert dates in certain parts of Mexico. Narcocorrido singers travel with relative ease and security inside the United States, but many Mexican American narcocorrido singers take extra precautions while venturing into Mexico by hiring extra security, traveling in well-guarded caravans, not being as open to the public in larger concerts, and limiting their tours into high violent cities in Mexico. Others have said they are afraid to sing narcocorridos in public for fear of offending the wrong person. Likewise, some vendors of narcocorrido CDs have reported low sales, citing fear among listeners of buying a CD featuring songs favoring one group of traffickers over another. This fear, once thought to be silly and paranoid, has become real as Mexico has become the most dangerous country not only for journalists but for anyone who speaks up or is affiliated with the opposing cartel. The Zetas cartel has been known to torture and kill online and social media bloggers who speak about them. In one incident, the tortured and mutilated bodies of a man and a woman who had posted about cartels on social media were found hanging of a bridge in the city of Nuevo León, in September 2011. A sign stating, "This is going to happen to all the Internet busybodies", was found next to them signed with the letter Z.

    Growing popularity in the United States

    Unlike in the years before, many of the new narco corridos music is being aimed directly at the American Market, and produced mainly by Mexican-American entrepreneurs. Like many other concerts or sport events, many corrido artists are choosing American cities as venues for the ability to fill the concert halls at higher ticket prices than would be affordable by the average Mexican citizen. Many of the music and CDs are distributed by American labels as well as videos intended solely to be sold in the United States.

    The growing popularity of the music in the U.S. is correlated with Mexican immigration. Over a quarter of the residents of the Los Angeles area are now Mexican, and they have brought this folk music style with them. Narcocorridos are now played in L.A. clubs, on radio stations, and do not have the negative stigma attached to them by some in Mexico, this is mainly because the Spanish lyrics are only understood by Hispanophones, and the distance American society has with the reality of Mexico, makes them feel they are only listening to works of art and fiction.


    Mexploitation films, especially the subgenre narcocinema, feature narcocorridos. Many of these feature appearances by famous narcocorrido singers and are rumored to be financed by drug lords themselves (although only a few cases or the latter have been proven). Some other films which feature narcocorridos include:

  • Al Otro Lado (2006, To the Other Side)
  • Narco Cultura (2013, Narco Culture)
  • Radio

    On the radio, airplay of narcocorridos has increased in recent years. Artists such as Larry Hernandez, El Compa Chuy, and El Potro de Sinaloa, and songs such as "El Katch", "El Piloto Canavis" ("The Cannabis Pilot"), and "El Señor de la Hummer" ("The Man with the Hummer") have increased the genre's popularity. Listener requests have helped to overcome radio stations' reluctance.


  • In 2008, the Fox TV show America's Most Wanted mentioned the genre while depicting the case of a criminal wanted for murder and trafficking, who may be traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States.
  • Breaking Bad season 2, episode 7 ("Negro y Azul"), opens with a narcocorrido by Los Cuates de Sinaloa, co-written by Vince Gilligan and inspired by the events depicted in the series.
  • In the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode "Snakes" (2005), a freelance reporter who has gone undercover in the narcocorrido-producing subculture is killed for writing an article critical of the genre.
  • In Law & Order season 20, episode 7, a narcocorrido is used as evidence in a murder.
  • "Tuyo" ("Yours"), the theme song of the Netflix Original series Narcos (which debuted in September 2015), is a Spanish-language narcocorrido written and vocalized by Rodrigo Amarante, which reflects the type of music drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s mother would have listened to when raising her son. The song debuted at No. 6 on the Latin Pop Digital Songs around the 2015 series premiere and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Main Title Theme Music.
  • The Shield season 3 episode, "Safe", contains a narcocorrido about an unrequited love and the man killed her. However, several bodies are found, from killed by meth lab exposure. Later evidence proves that the "victim" is alive and living with the boyfriend, so the narcocorrido turned out to be fake. The detectives use the corridos albums to close cases from stories that are true.
  • References

    Narcocorrido Wikipedia

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