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'Narco Cultura:' How Mexican 'Gangsta Rap' Glorifies Drug Lords

First Posted: Dec 05, 2013 04:56 PM EST

You could call it Mexican 'gangsta rap,' but instead of lyrical rhymes, bass and gold chains, it has some accordion-based polka beats, sombreros, cowboy boots and references the drug cartel, which can be badass in its own right. This type of Mexican music that glorifies drug lords is considered to be a 'drug ballad,' otherwise known as the "narcocorrido."

The 'genre' has reportedly has evolved out of the "norteño folk corrido tradition," and can be heard on both sides of the US-Mexican border. You might even have come across it while watching an episode of "Breaking Bad," and laughed it off as just a silly soundtrack for Walter White, a.k.a. "Heisenberg" standing in the middle of the desert in all his glory with his iconic black hat.

But for many, the sub-culture that has evolved around narcocorridos is anything but a laughing matter.

Narcocorridos have been around a lot longer than gangsta rap has, however; it supposedly dates back to the early 1900s.

"The first corridos that focus on drug smugglers-the narco comes from "narcotics"-have been dated by Juan Ramírez-Pimienta to the 1930s, according to Wikipedia. "Early corridos (non-narco) go back as far to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, telling the stories of revolutionary fighters.

"Narcocorrido lyrics refer to particular events and include real dates and places. The lyrics tend to speak approvingly of illegal activities such as murder, torture, racketeering, extortion, drug smuggling, illegal immigration, and sometimes political protest due to government corruption."

"For anyone slightly familiar with Mexico's cartel violence, it's known that it's not just about being in the wrong place at the wrong time that will get a person killed in the crossfire of cartel violence but sing the wrong corrido and that can also put a target on someone's - or in many cases, a whole band's - back," Latina Lista reports. 

Narcocorridos are extremely popular well beyond the Mexican border and fans scream for band members as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert. A new documentarty callled "Narco Cultura" highlights different angles of the world of the from the standpoint of the narcocorrido singers' as well as the crime scene investigators.

Director Shaul Schwarz's film is based on one of the narcocorrido genre's young, rising stars: Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Edgar Quintero of the popular band Buknas de Culiacan.

According to The Washington Post, Schwarz's film cuts back and forth between Quintero - who seems to have a pretty nice life in California - and the depressing world of Richi Soto, a busy crime-scene investigator in the Mexican border town of Juarez. As Soto tells it, in a somber, almost dirgelike recitation of statistics, the number of drug-related killings in Juarez keeps climbing, now reaching well over 10,000.

"By the end of this troubling film, the cognitive dissonance that it highlights - between the theoretical glorification of the illegal Mexican drug industry and its actual cost in blood - is jarring. It's an important film, but 'Narco Cultura' is also maddeningly hard to watch.

"Quintero compares narcocorrido music, aptly, to gangster rap. The fact that some places in Mexico have tried to ban the genre only seems to have made it more popular. One delicious irony is the fact that American Wal-Marts carry narcocorrido CDs, despite the chain's occasional practice of banning music by acts it deems offensive, such as Marilyn Manson."

This trend, while popular, is disturbing for many Latinos caught in the crossfire as well as the law enforcement who risks their lives everyday to combat drug violence in Mexico. The last thing they need is to have the drug cartel further glorified as their people live in fear. But these reckless outlaws "represent a pathway out of the ghetto, nurturing a new American dream fueled by an addiction to money, drugs, and violence," unfortunately a desire that fuels the fire.

Check out the trailer for "Narco Cultura:"

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