Border Boyz

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

Her brother-in-law, Rey Perez, 25, gets a little defensive when he's asked about the subject matter of the songs and whether they encourage listeners to take up drug use or violence. "People don't listen to Snoop Dogg and then go out to kill somebody to become famous. They aren't that stupid," Perez says. "Let me tell you, I'm listening to corridos. That doesn't mean I'm going to use drugs or sell drugs. If you're smart, you know better than that."

His older brother, Oscar Perez, 32, nods in approval. "We don't do drugs. But when they talk about drugs [in the songs], we love it," says the city employee. "The narcocorridos are the best. They tell stories that are true. I like them especially because the Mexican government doesn't like them. . . . When you listen to Mexican music and you hear about drugs, you get excited and that's when you drink. But it doesn't mean that you do drugs."

Oscar's holding a can of beer when he makes this statement, but he swears he keeps away from intoxicants of the illegal kind. Not that he doesn't see others indulging. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin: Oscar says the drugs are just under the surface in the narcocorrido scene. "You can get any drug at El Paraiso. You just need to go to the rest room. They got a lot of police outside, so I don't know how they do it," he says.

At El Paraiso, Eileen Ruiz and Paola Martinez say they dig Los Razos and their profane lyrics, but go elsewhere to meet men.
Tony Ortega
At El Paraiso, Eileen Ruiz and Paola Martinez say they dig Los Razos and their profane lyrics, but go elsewhere to meet men.

Virginia Barraza, event coordinator for El Paraiso, disagrees. "You can always come and see. We have police and sheriff's deputies outside. We have professional security guards. I don't think anyone's going to take the chance to sell drugs in our rest rooms."

Rey Perez notes that for recent arrivals, the struggles of traficantes against American authorities provide a macho version of what other immigrants have been through. "You want to survive in this country. The people, when they come here, they got nothing. Now they got a house, a car."

Rey and his brother Manual, the birthday boy, are electricians. Although they still have family back in Mexico, they consider themselves successful. "The people here," Rey says, indicating the people at the party, "they got jobs. They aren't into drugs. We just want to drink, listen to the music and have a good time." He adds that it's pointless to try to keep the songs off the radio. "Some people are worried about teenagers hearing the songs, but it's not a problem."

Eventually, after Avila has played nothing but narcocorridos for more than an hour at the request of the Perez brothers, some of the women persuade him to play the more danceable cumbias. It's time to couple off and start moving to something less lyric-heavy.

Avila smiles. He'll play anything they want.

A couple of hundred casually dressed businesspeople from New Jersey are milling about on a lawn at the Arizona Biltmore, sipping drinks after spending the day at an educational seminar. It's a cool April evening, and the Biltmore's Paradise Garden has been prepared for a lavish dinner -- tables with white linen wait for diners, and waiters stand by buffet tables.

The mostly Anglo middle-aged folks don't seem to pay much attention to the small mariachi group dressed in elaborate white outfits as they take their position. Four men with stringed instruments -- guitars and the bajo sexto, a kind of Mexican bass guitar -- begin strumming a lively version of an old mariachi standby.

"Guadalajara, Guadalajara!" the four musicians harmonize.

In such a sanitized, precious setting, it's hard to believe that the band's leader, Jesse Armenta, is famous for writing some of Mexico's most notorious corridos.

Armenta lives in Arizona, but his songs are known throughout Mexico for their controversial lyrics.

"I wrote one of the most dangerous corridos," he says, referring to "El Circo," which he penned in 1996 about two characters who own a circus, Carlos and Raul. They buy up other circuses until they fall on hard times -- one is exiled, the other jailed. The song startled listeners in Mexico, who realized that the song was really about the ultimate drug cartel kingpins, former president Carlos Salinas de Gotari and his brother Raul. After leaving the Mexican presidency in 1994, Carlos left the country rather than face allegations of corruption and theft. "The implication [of Armenta's song] was that they had corralled much of Mexico's drug business and stashed their profits abroad," Wald writes. "This was not exactly news, but it was a shock to hear it sung about on the radio."

Some claim that writing narcocorridos about actual drug figures can be a risky enterprise, but Armenta denies it. "I never went into the street telling people I wrote El Circo' -- it was pretty dangerous back then. But nothing happened. I've been writing a lot of songs about traficantes, and nothing's happened to me." Writing songs instead allowed Armenta to supplement his income as a foreman at a building products company (he retired in 1999 after 30 years on the job). His royalties haven't made him rich -- he still performs in modest-paying mariachi gigs nearly every day. But he's done well enough to have homes in both Phoenix and Payson, and he's put three sons through college.

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