Musicians play at Friendship Park at Playas de Tijuana on Dec. 21, 2022.
A file photo of musicians serenading visitors with norteño songs at Friendship Park at Playas de Tijuana on Dec. 21, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The contentious subject of narcocorridos – the Mexican norteño ballads that narrate the exploits of drug traffickers – has been back in the news these past few weeks in Baja California. And so has the inevitable debate over their place in a country struggling with drug violence.

Even as new songs and groups emerge, so have efforts to curb narcocorridos. With the topic once again in the spotlight, I spoke to a university professor about narcocorridos, their continued popularity, and their changing social context.

But first, a quick snapshot of recent developments:

  • Grupo Arriesgado, known for its narcocorridos about Sinaloa Cartel leaders, canceled its Feb. 11 concert at Tijuana’s 17,000-seat Chevron Stadium after gunshots were fired the day before as they met with fans at a mall followed by the appearance threatening “narco-messages” attributed to Sinaloa’s rival – Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion. Last week, Arriesgados’ youthful lead singer, Arturo Gonzalez (aka Panter Belico), announced his separation from the group.
  • Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero announced the return of the popular norteño group Los Tucanes de Tijuana for a July 8 concert celebrating the city’s 134th birthday. This marks their first live concert in the city since a former police chief forbade the group from performing in 2009, saying their music glorified drug traffickers. “They’ve made the commitment that most of their repertoire would not have these songs that apologize for crime,” the mayor told reporters at a City Hall news conference on Feb. 14. 
  • Baja California Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila said at a Feb. 15 news conference that she is opposed to bans on narcocorridos, that it’s more important to attack the causes of crime. A week later, officials in the Baja California capital of Mexicali signed an agreement with three concert promoters to forbid bands from playing narcocorridos in a municipal performing arts center. 
  • On March 6, Mexico’s Supreme Court upheld a Baja California state law stipulating that music such as narcocorridos “that promotes the culture of violence or apology for crime” may not be played on public transportation.
  • As crowds visited San Felipe earlier this month during the Easter break, authorities in the Gulf of California port community on April 8 demanded that musical groups refrain from playing narcocorridos on the town’s seaside promenade, or malecon, fearful this could provoke violent incidents.

Last week, I interviewed Juan Carlos Ramirez-Pimienta, a professor at San Diego State University–Imperial Valley, who has spent two decades studying narcocorridos. “They tried to censor narcocorridos and all it did was backfire,” he told me. “More and more people are interested in narcocorridos.” 

Here are edited excerpts from our interview:

Q:  When did the subject of illicit drugs and traffickers first emerge in corrido music?

A: The earliest I have been able to document is either the late 1920s or the very early 1930s, depending on the definition. The prefix narco emerged in the 1980s, early 1990s, which was applied to corridos but also to many other things.

Q: You say narcocorridos “tell a narrative from a different perspective than the hegemonic narrative.” Can you offer an example?

A: When the Sinaloa Cartel had a division within its ranks in 2008, we were told first by corridos. I’m talking about the faction of Ismael Zambada and Chapo Guzman against the faction of Beltran Leyva. They were friends and then they were enemies. And we realized that there were enemies because of narcocorridos, even earlier than we were told so by the authorities and reporters.

Q: Critics say that narcocorridos glorify and encourage violence. How do you respond to that?

A: They do not so much create a situation as they react to a situation. People forget that there was first a Mexican revolution and then corridos about the Mexican revolution. So corridos follow the historical context. In the 1990s, narcocorridos were less violent in general and talking about festivities or having fun and having a lot of money and drinking a lot of alcohol and doing drugs and being with women. Well, then 2006 happened (President Felipe Calderon declared war on drug trafficking groups) and we have a number of narcocorridos talking about violence because violence was what was going on.

(Narcocorridos) perform many functions, and they do in many aspects normalize violence. That’s not all they do. But that aspect is certainly present. 

Q: Earlier this month, a norteño singer named Said Torres was shot dead in his kitchen in Tijuana, alongside a cousin who died later at a hospital. State authorities have not named a suspect nor a motive. But Torres’s band, Grupo Dracma, had several songs about drug traffickers on its debut album, and one of the subjects was the Sinaloa Cartel’s Mayo Zambada. 

Is singing narcocorridos an inherently dangerous occupation?

A: It all depends on what kind of corrido singer or composer you are. It could be dangerous depending on the other activities or your attitudes towards the job. I don’t think it’s intrinsically dangerous. But we have to say that in some cases there’s no doubt that the person who is killed is the intended victim for sure.

In Other News

Border podcast: A geographer who studies the development of border towns, Daniel Arreola,  talks about his book, “Postcards from the California Border” on “Whose City,” a podcast hosted and co-produced by Lawrence Herzog, a scholar-in-residence at the UCSD Design Lab. In another recent episode, Herzog interviews Carlos de la Mora, CEO of the San Diego-Tijuana World Design Capital (2024).

Tijuana tech industry: U.S. companies are increasingly turning to Tijuana to fill tech jobs, reports KPBS News. The pandemic has accelerated growth in a sector that’s been growing in Tijuana since 2010.

Stuck between border barriers: Some asylum seekers have been spending days between border barriers as they wait for the U.S. Border Patrol to process them, San Diego Union-Tribune reports. Activists and human rights observers say this has been taking place at least since October, leaving asylum seekers without shelter, food and water as they wait to enter the U.S.

El Teo hospitalized: Teodoro Garcia Simental, known as El Teo, who led a violent challenge to the Arellano Felix Cartel leadership Tijuana from 2008 until his capture in 2010, has been moved from Mexico’s El Altiplano prison to a hospital in Toluca following a judge’s order. 

Missing in Mexicali:  A popular bar called Shots in Mexicali was set on fire Sunday following  protests by family members who say their relatives have been missing from the bar area popular with young people.  According to one news report, at least nine people have disappeared from the area – the latest two on April 8 after being seen at Shots. On Monday, authorities said they have two people in custody, but gave few details.

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