Border Boyz

As narcocorridos - Mexican drug ballads - get nastier, the crowds in Phoenix get bigger and bigger

"Phoenix, MEXICO!"²

Lupillo Rivera's shout is swallowed up by a deafening roar from the tightly packed audience in front of him. The singer grins at what he sees. Men in cowboy hats and women wearing tight jeans and halter tops fill Club 602, a large nightspot in west Phoenix and one of two big Mexican showplaces that Rivera will pack with fans on this Saturday night.

One of the country's most well-known narcocorridistas, Rivera is so popular that the members of the crowd – mostly low-paid recent immigrants – have forked over $40 each to see the famous singer of drug-themed ballads called narcocorridos. These are short tales set to music that extol the bravery of Mexican marijuana and cocaine smugglers, and tell of their gun battles with law enforcement while set to a bouncy polka beat driven by accordion or brass.

A security guard estimates the crowd at about 1,000 strong. Many sit at plastic tables, nearly every one featuring a bucket filled with ice and cans of beer. Hundreds more fans are jammed together on the dance floor, screaming for Rivera, who had walked onstage tipsily after his 11-piece back-up band started things off with a three-song instrumental intro.

Just minutes earlier, Rivera had soberly given a press interview – in unaccented English – about the changing nature of narcocorridos and their lasting popularity. But now Rivera appears half-drunk, a glass of cognac in his hand, speaking and singing, like other corridor artists, in nothing but Spanish.

His fans seem to know the drunkenness is an act, but they appreciate it. They scream when he reaches for a second glass. "He's not drunk. He's just playing," says Gaston Sanchez, 25, as he watches from the dance floor. The guy standing next to Sanchez, however, isn't acting. He's so drunk he can barely hold his eyes open and keep his feet underneath him. Sanchez finally has to help the hammered fan leave the place after a beer is spilled and angry eyes turn toward the lush.

The sheer alcohol consumption in the place is prodigious (most of it in the form of Bud Light, according to a bartender). But the air is remarkably clean – almost no one in the crowd is smoking. For a crowded nightclub, it's striking how narrowly all human activity in the place is focused on drinking, dancing, and, most intensely, on Lupillo Rivera and his macho songs. Outside, off-duty sheriff's deputies on the nightclub's payroll patrol the building and the parking lot choked with cars and pickup trucks. Just blocks away, the same scene is unfolding – a huge line of people stands outside El Paraiso, a similar club where Rivera will be playing next on this evening.

Both shows are among the biggest in town, and yet go without notice by the English-speaking population and its media outlets.

Knowing that reporters he'd talked to earlier are in the audience, Rivera shouts in Spanish to the crowd.

"The American press wants to know if my banned songs [corridos prohibidos] are popular. Are they popular?"

The crowd shouts heartily, and Rivera's band begins playing one of his drug songs, "El Moreno," about a dark-skinned traficante, or smuggler.

Born in Mexico, Rivera grew up in Los Angeles and transformed the narco style when he performed corridos dressed less like a Sinaloan cowboy than like an L.A. gangbanger. Tonight, he's wearing a natty suit and a black cowboy hat on his shaved head. As the song begins, he gestures as if his hand is a pistol. When he sees a fan mimic him with his own "pistol" – holding it in his belt – Rivera yells to him: "Pull it! Pull it! Pull it!"

Then, continuing in the slang-filled language of the bad-ass Mexican balladeer, he sings:

From the table, El Moreno

Yelled to the barkeep:

Bring me a bottle of tequila

Or you'll be the first one I kill.

After a verse of the song, while the band goes into a flourish, Rivera points his hand pistol. On cue, his drummer begins hammering at a snare drum, delivering staccato "shots." Rivera guns down the audience with a big grin on his face. More shouts come from the crowd.

"I'm Lupillo Rivera, the guy with no hair. I'm the baddest of the singers of banned corridos," he says in Spanish after "El Moreno" ends, and before beginning another narco ballad about the Tijuana drug cartel. "Tell all those radio stations, on the day I die, to play my banned corridos all fucking day long!"

And then, just for good measure, he gets another reaction from the crowd when he yells, for the second time, "Fuck Phoenix, Arizona. It's Phoenix, MEXICO!"


Just a year ago, Lupillo Rivera and his father Pedro, leader of the Rivera clan of narcocorrido stars, downplayed the music that had made them famous. Claiming that the narco style had peaked and that they were more interested in romantic music, the Riveras predicted that corridos about drug smugglers were losing their importance in Mexican music.

But on his most recent trip to Phoenix -- he comes about once a year, he says -- Rivera admitted that the narcocorrido has only gained popularity, particularly in Phoenix. "Corridos are what they always ask to hear," he says of audiences here. And, he added, there's a simple reason for it.

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