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CLACS Faculty, Rafael Acosta, talks about Mexican drug lord ballads and the lore of 'El Chapo'

Thursday, January 14, 2016

LAWRENCE – Movie deal or not, Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera’s status as a folk hero has been cemented in the ballads sung throughout Mexico, a University of Kansas professor said.

Rafael Acosta, assistant professor of Spanish, has studied the drug lord ballads, known as narcocorridos, written about Guzmán, the alleged leader of Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel, who was captured Friday by Mexican authorities and faces extradition to the United States. 

Acosta, who researches Mexican social banditry, said the drug lord archetype dates back to the 19th century, when profits were made from cotton and tobacco smuggling. It continued through the Mexican Revolution, a time when leaders such as Pancho Villa used redistribution of wealth, smuggling and alternative political organizations to uphold ideas of freedom in northern Mexico.

“These are the same mountains that Pancho Villa used to roam before he became a revolutionary. There is a very long history in this area of Mexico of banditry from people who resist the government,” Acosta said.

In 2014, Acosta published a novel, “Conquistador,” that examines Mexico’s drug trade. He is currently working on an academic book, “Druglords, Bandits, Cowboys and Illegality in the Mexican American Frontier.”

At first, Acosta said, the narcocorridos written about Guzmán portrayed him as a businessman. Later, he shows up in political guises, with one song describing him as a prime minister. Another ballad laid out the rules for Tijuana after the Sinaloa Cartel took control of drug operations in the city.

Acosta said there is speculation on the degree to which cartels influence singers and composers of narcocorridos.

“Many singers have blood ties to the Sinaloa Cartel. And some have had stellar careers or risen to fame very quickly in ways that other singers, regardless of talent, have not,” Acosta said.

After Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on the cartels in 2006, music that was seen to enable drug-related crime was forbidden on the radio. However, Acosta said, these ballads can still be heard online. For instance, the music of singer Gerardo Ortiz, who is known for his corridos, can be streamed on Spotify.

“His music is far more complex than most popular music, but you can also find striking lyrics to his songs,” Acosta said. “It is a good example of how not only ‘El Chapo,’ but several of his lieutenants, have risen to stardom and become legends in popular culture in Mexico and the U.S.”

Acosta first became interested in Mexican drug ballads while dancing in 2009 to what he thought was a traditional corrido song, until he overheard lyrics that translate to "if you are not good for killing, you are good to be killed."

“It struck me that this didn’t use to be the tone that most corridos upheld,” Acosta said. “And what it meant was the culture was mobilizing for war.”


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