Leaving Behind The Cartel's 'Songs Of Death'

Narcocorrido singer El Imperial was once the favorite balladeer of the Sinaloa Cartel, living a life that mirrored his songs about drugs, women and death. Then he decided to walk away from it all.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Narcocorridos are a form of Mexican folk music that tell the tales of drug traffickers. They are tremendously popular in Mexico and the Southwest borderlands. NPR's John Burnett has this story of one ex-Narcocorrido singer who escaped that life and lived to tell the tale.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: When Jorge Rivera, stage name El Imperial, watches old images of himself on YouTube these days, he's filled with conflicted feelings.

JORGE RIVERA: (Foreign language spoken)

BURNETT: There he is talking to the camera high on cocaine wearing an expensive cowboy hat, shiny shirt and gold jewellery. He misses those days, and yet he doesn't.

RIVERA: (Through Translator) Yeah, I do miss it because now life is hard and I'm short of cash. I miss it when I see some of my friends singing and playing.

BURNETT: In those days, his narco fans always had plenty of cash. They gave him everything he wanted; a gold-handled pistol, nice clothes, women and all the cocaine he could snort. He says he was a coke addict for six years. But it all came at a price. Rivera tells his story at his kitchen table in a spartan apartment above his parents' tiny grocery in Culiacan. He used to drive a Ford Mustang. Now he rides the bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Rivera started singing professionally in 2004 with his joker's personality and riotous brass section. El Imperial and his band quickly became favored troubadours of the Sinaloa cartel. Rivera wrote this song for the drug lord Joaquin Chapo Guzman, who was captured last month after 13 years on the run.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RIVERA: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: El Imperial sang for the narcos, but they were a demanding and dangerous audience. They would want him to sing at their raucous parties from 8 at night until 5 the next morning.

RIVERA: (Through Translator) And it's logical that with these people, you can't really tell them no.

BURNETT: The corridos he composed celebrated the men behind the vicious Mexican cartel wars which have claimed more than 60,000 victims. The musicians also got dragged into the violence. Singers Chalino Sanchez and Valentin Elizalde were murdered because they chose sides in the drug war. And once Jorge Rivera was in bed with the Sinaloa mafia, he became a target too.

RIVERA: (Through Translator) I got death threats and I didn't even know who gave them. He told me you can't sing these corridos around here anymore.

BURNETT: In his sixth year as a narcocorridos star, at time when he began always carrying a pistol in his belt, Rivera decided to call it quits. At 35, now he has a wife and a 2-year-old daughter. He goes to law school at the state university and acts as a paralegal to help poor people fight city hall. He also gives talks against addiction and violence.

RIVERA: (Through Translator) I had to decide - money or my life. I don't have the extravagances I used to have, but I still have keepsakes. My cowboy hat and ostrich boots. My life is different now. If someone comes up and asks me to sing a narcocorrido, I tell him no, no.

BURNETT: El Imperial rises from the table to go pick up his daughter and he shares a final thought. Narcocorridos are songs of death, he says. That's what I think about them now. John Burnett, NRP News.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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