Even the musicians behind Mexico's infamous narcocorridos have become nervous about the country's violence.
In his new book “May They Bury Me With Narcocorridos,” author Edmundo Pérez documents the roots of the musical genre and the stories of the musicians murdered due in part to their work setting the legends of the country's drug cartels to song. Narcocorridos adapt the format of the corrido, a storytelling folksong popular along the U.S.-Mexico border that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century as a way to glorify the heroes of the Mexican Revolution. But instead of war heroes, narcocorridos sing the praises of drug cartel leaders.
It’s not the safest way to make it as a musician. A favorable narcocorrido can fetch anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, according to Pérez. On the other hand, musicians who associate with drug cartels often end up killed. Pérez’s research tuned up some 50 narcocorrido musicians who died in circumstances that led the author to suspect the involvement of drug cartels.
Most of the musicians mentioned in Perez's new book were murdered in the years since 2006, when singer Valentín Elizalde was shot to death in his truck by a group of assassins. That same year, President Felipe Calderón launched a full frontal assault on the country’s drug cartels. The ensuing violence has left over 50,000 Mexicans dead.
Watch Valentín Elizalde perform the narcocorrido “To My Enemies” below.
The uptick in violence has made musicians who play narcocorridos weary of the artform.
“There’s been a change in attitude,” Pérez told The Associated Press. “Before, the groups traveled by bus, with a big sign. Now they go in trucks, each member by himself, and they meet up at the site of the concert.”
Drug violence has also prompted local governments to crack down on the music since at least 2002, The Associated Press reports.
Grammy-award winning band Los Tigres del Norte found themselves banned from playing in the city of Chihuahua earlier this year, because of their narcocorrido “Queen of the South,” about a fictional female drug dealer, according to the BBC. Chihuahua banned the performance of narcorridos last year.
In the neighboring state of Sinaloa, Gov. Mario López Valdés issued a decree banning narcocorridos from venues that sell alcohol last year. The move sparked criticism from free speech advocates, like the Article 19 Association -- an organization named for the section of the Mexican Constitution that delineates human rights recognized inside the country.
“The only thing that narcocorridos do is narrate reality,” Cinthya Cárdenas of the Article 19 Association told Mexican daily La Jornada. Cárdenas disputes the idea that the music itself leads to murder.
Whether or not the narcocorridos breed violence, Pérez’s research shows that the personal relationships musicians forge with cartel leaders expose them to danger. Bands that play narcocorridos often play parties thrown by drug bosses. Most of the narcocorrido musician murders followed perceived betrayals or fights over women.
“We don’t know how the next government will confront the violence,” Pérez told The Associated Press. “But the bands will keep on playing.”