Border Boyz

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

"They've tried to ban narcocorridos in Sonora, Sinaloa, Nuevo León. Parts of other states. But people love corridos. Nothing's going to take them away from the people," the 52-year-old says.

Armenta's last big drug-themed hit was a corrido about the so-called "narcosaint" Jesus Malverde, recorded by several different groups and, Armenta says, played every day on radio in Mexico and the United States. Malverde is a legendary figure in Mexican narco culture, probably an amalgam of two or more men who lived around the turn of the last century and died in Culiacán. Various stories about his life and death spawned a still-burgeoning cult surrounding the unofficial saint. When drug smuggling in Mexico exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, traficantes began paying homage to Malverde. Before hauling marijuana or cocaine across the border, smugglers would make offerings at Malverde's shrine, hoping that the spirit of the bandit hero would protect them.

On both sides of the border, Armenta says, traficantes were swelling with pride that so many songs were celebrating them. "Especially in the '70s and '80s, there was a lot of work here in Phoenix for musicians, and a lot of traficantes were at the parties." Even today, he sees a lot of drug use among the corrido-loving public. "I can tell you those parties are full of cocaine," Armenta says. "Any time I go to a party, there's drugs all over."

Kevin Scanlon
Kevin Scanlon

Armenta says he was very careful to study the Malverde legend before writing his popular corrido. He's disappointed that other artists don't seem so careful with their craft.

"You can write a good song, even though it's a narcocorrido, without using bad words," he says, adding that there's little talent involved in stringing together common obscenities. "We like to write good and true stories, rather than just putting together a lot of chingados and cabrones."

He's disdainful of Los Razos and the other narco stars who have turned the genre of telling tales about drug smugglers into profane shouting matches.

But music historian Elijah Wald says he thinks it's important to differentiate between bands like Los Razos and other relative newcomers such as gangsta-narcocorrido stars Rivera and Morales, whose lyrics rarely cause their songs to be bleeped on radio.

"I think [the Los Razos band members] remind people of their favorite uncle. The one their mother didn't especially like, but you loved it whenever he came around. He was so goddamned funny. I think that's very much their image," Wald says. In other words, few take their obscenity-laced material very seriously.

Like others, Armenta notes that the entire narco phenomenon is evolving right under the noses of an Anglo-American population that doesn't have a clue what's going on.

Nearly every day, the famous writer puts on his mariachi outfit and plays with his trio at fancy events like the one at the Biltmore. No one, he says, recognizes him, or realizes what sort of music he's famous for.

"We play all kinds of music," he says, smiling. "But when we're playing for white people, they don't request the narcocorridos. They [wouldn't] know what we're talking about, anyways."

New Times correspondent Dan Cortez contributed to this article.

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