In celebration of drug smugglers 'Narcoculture': In northwest Mexico, a culture of adoration grows for narcotics smugglers, who beat the odds by getting their goods across the border to feed the habits of gringos.


CULIACAN, Mexico -- Near the stage at a recent concert by the band Los Tigres del Norte stand four young men in cowboy boots, large belt buckles, tight jeans and cowboy hats.

Three are college students -- studying computers, architecture and dentistry -- and one is a teacher. But they are dressed like country boys, as if they were not, in fact, born and raised in Culiacan, a city of more than 700,000 people, capital of the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa.

They identify with the hills because that is where narcotics smugglers came from.

A "narcoculture" is growing in northwestern Mexico, where providing gringos their drugs has been an economic activity for nearly three decades. Drug smugglers are imitated, admired and venerated as heroes who take their product across the border against all odds, beating the authorities and gringos.

The culture has a characteristic dress, music and attitude toward life and government. It even has its religious side. The poor of Sinaloa have for years believed that Jesus Malverde, a legendary bandit whom the government hanged in 1909, grants miracles. The press has dubbed him "the Narco Saint," as apparently many drug smugglers call on him for protection in their work.

Typically, "narcofashion" includes a cowboy hat, boots from the leather of some exotic animal -- most recently, ostrich skin -- gold chains, a large belt buckle, a sports suit of finely pressed slacks and jacket, often with snakeskin lapels. This style is known as the "Chalinazo" -- for Chalino Sanchez, a legendary and murdered singer of narco ballads.

Silk shirts -- usually with ornate designs in brown, beige and yellow -- have been popular for more than a year. The originals were Versaces and went for 3,000 pesos -- about $375. Chinese knockoffs run about 200 pesos, double that for shirts with gold thread.

Many shops stock shirts with images of Jesus Malverde or the Virgin of Guadalupe on the back. Other shirts are adorned with marijuana leaves, AK-47s, cowboy hats and playing cards.

The "narcocorrido" has become the favored pop music for much of northwest Mexico. Ballads -- telling of bandits or revolutionary heroes -- have been a part of Mexican folk music for at least a century. Recently, the "narcoballad" has taken over the genre.

Narcocorridos limn the exploits of drug smugglers -- executions, betrayals, shootouts with the "federales" -- bloody events set to a polka beat and obliviously cheerful accordion line.

Hundreds upon hundreds of bands play nothing but narcocorridos. And some get too cozy with their subjects, accepting sponsorships from drug gangs.

"That's what we want," says Jesus Garcia, a Culiacan promoter of a young norteno band, Juventud Norteno. "We want some narco to hear us and sponsor us. Any group that's going to make it big has to be sponsored by a narco. The band that doesn't have a sponsor ends up playing cantinas."

In the summer of 1994, members of Los Huracanes del Norte were injured when a car bomb went off outside a hotel where they were playing a party for a relative of Rafael Caro Quintero, who is in prison for the murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena.

In its accompanying violence, as well as its subject matter, the narcocorrido has its parallel in gangster rap in the United States. In both genres, most songs are never heard on the radio. Radio stations have an understanding with the Mexican government that they won't play the narcocorridos.

Chalino Sanchez is the music's Tupak Shakur, an American rapper gunned down two years ago in Las Vegas. Sanchez was taken from his car after a Culiacan show in May 1992. His body was found the next morning, with two bullets in his head. The case remains unsolved, but Sanchez's influence lives on. A number of narcocorrido singers imitate his raspy tenor; one even goes by the stage name "Chalinillo" -- Little Chalino.

Narcoculture bespeaks an acceptance of drug smuggling as normal to everyday life.

"You can be talking with a drug trafficker and it's the most common thing in the world," says Daniel Valencia, the teacher at the Tigres concert. "You talk about it like you're talking about your girlfriend or a soccer game."

To live in Culiacan is to be conversant with the legends of specific "narcotraficantes," whose names are as recognizable as those of great athletes or musicians: Baltazar Diaz was gunned down in the streets of Mexico City. Lamberto Quintero fell in a shootout in Culiacan. The slain "El Borrego" is immortalized in a song by Los Tucanes de Tijuana, one of the hottest narcocorrido bands, said to be sponsored by the Arellano Felix drug gang in Tijuana. (The band denies the allegation.)

Some narcos never die. "They said 'El Cochiloco' [Manuel Salcido] was dead four times and he still kept coming back," says Armando Salcedo, the computer student. "People say he's still alive."

L People are saying the same thing now about Carrillo Fuentes.

Sinaloa, where marijuana and opium poppies grow nicely in the mountains, is the wellspring of drug smuggling in Mexico. Most of the important Mexican drug cartel leaders in the past 25 years have been from here, though those still at large usually live somewhere else.

"We've been living for more than 50 years with the drug-trafficking culture," says Oscar Loza, president of the Sinaloa Commission for the Defense of Human Rights. "When we talk of a second and third generation living with drug trafficking, they begin seeing it as something natural, not something criminal. Many people still see it as a crime, obviously, but more and more see it as just another economic activity." Smuggling may be prohibited legally, Loza says, but not socially.

The government, by contrast, has little credibility among Sinaloans, especially those from the mountains.

A series of military anti-drug sweeps in the 1970s, organized by the U.S. and Mexican governments, resulted in ferocious and arbitrary abuses of the population. It set off a great country-to-city migration.

Moreover, the government is unable or unwilling to control crime in Sinaloa -- fewer than 10 percent of murders are ever solved -- or even to provide basic services in many far-flung communities. But drug smugglers have been known to pave streets, build clinics and pay for operations.

"When drug lord Miguel Felix Gallardo went to jail in the mid-1980s," says Tomas Castillo, the dentistry student, "people were really sad. Here these guys aren't enemies, they're friends. They're really well-liked."

Pub Date: 9/21/98

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