As news broke that drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had escaped a top security prison, TV crews, reporters and photo journalists sprung into action to bring the story to the world. At the same time, another type of storyteller jumped to work – the composers of narco corridos, or drug ballads. Within hours of the news media describing the escape that happened late Saturday, the drug balladeers had written and recorded the first songs and uploaded them onto websites such as Youtube. By Monday, there were dozens of tracks, with names such as “The ballad of the escape of Chapo 2015” moving on the Internet and playing on people’s phones, computers and TV’s.
“Chapo Guzman escaped,” sings a group called Los Alegres del Barranco (The Happy Ones of the Ravine) in one video. “The general of the Altiplano (prison). He used a lot green money. To be able to get away…Where is Chapo Guzman? Only he and God know.” Drug ballads are sung over instruments including ten stringed guitars, accordions and trombones over mutated polka beats. Some groups record videos of themselves performing their freshly written verses.
Others sing acapella. In one video, a youth boasts that he has taken ten minutes to compose the song and reads the lyrics from his cell phone. “It seems there are no bars, that he cannot open, the power of Chapo, and Sinaloa his roots, the most powerful cartel, nobody can combat it,” he croons in the nasal melancholy style of many drug balladeers. “July 11th 2015. He had noted it on his calendar. A day to celebrate. The second escape of Chapo.”
Such ballads reflect the support for Guzman and other gangsters among many in Mexico’s drug trafficking heartlands. In states such as Sinaloa, where Guzman is from, some see smugglers as heroes who have the balls to beat the Mexican federal government and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. They often refer to them as valientes or brave ones. The traffickers make billions of dollars taking cocaine, marijuana, heroin and crystal meth to American users so they provide employment and buy gifts for some in poor mountain villages or urban ghettos.
The escape of Guzman, who left prison in a mile long tunnel with lights and air vents, was seen as the ultimate outwitting of authorities. He had also escaped prison in 2001 and spent 13 years on the run before he was recaptured. After the latest escape, soldiers and police spread across Mexico searching for him but had found no trace by Tuesday morning. “Many young people here see Chapo as kicking the government in the ass,” says Rodrigo Mendez, a music producer in Sinaloa state capital Culiacan who has recorded drug ballads. “They hear about him in so many songs, he has become like a mythical figure.”
On the other side, some of Mexico’s politicians have long complained of drug ballads glorifying the exploits of violent criminals. The gunmen of Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel carry out execution-style killings, ambushes and massacres. Since 2007, more than 83,000 people here have been murdered by cartels or the security forces fighting them, according to a Mexican government count. Politicians say the music drives this bloodshed. The mayor of the city of Chihuahua City Javier Garfio recently passed an initiative banning groups from playing drug ballads in the city.
Most Mexican radio stations will hold back from playing drug ballads. However, they are popular on the Internet, which more than half of Mexico’s 120 million people now have access to, according to a recent survey. Some drug ballads can get millions of views; one of the most famous drug ballads, El Jefe de Jefes, or Boss of Bosses has over 14 million. Many in the United States, home to 11 million Mexicans, also follow the ballads. Drug balladeers can play to huge crowds from Los Angeles to Chicago.
Elijah Wald, who spent months traveling northern Mexico talking musicians for his book Narcocorrido, says the composers see themselves in the tradition of the balladeers who brought news to Mexican villages in the days before the modern media. “They say they are just describing what is happening. Not inventing it,” he says. “They pride themselves on how quickly they can write their songs after news events. Two of the biggest composers were illiterate and they said it was an advantage as they didn’t have to spend time writing things down. They kept it all in their heads.”
Drug balladeers often make money playing at the parties of the same traffickers they sing about. Drug kingpins will also actually pay musicians to pen verses about them. “The traffickers commission the songs to make themselves more famous,” says the producer Mendez. However, the latest songs about Guzman’s jailbreak, were likely done spontaneously without authorization from the kingpin, he says. “These are lesser known artists who are trying to make a name for themselves,” Mendez says. “Some of them may have written their songs about an escape already, just in case it happened.”