SCOTT SIMON, host:

A controversial music genre called narcocorridos - drug ballads - reflects the news of Mexico's bloody drug cartel war. Ballads are like journalism put to song � telling stories of drug lords, arrests, shootouts, daring operations and betrayals.

But like the cartel war itself, writing corridos about drug traffickers can be risky. NPR's John Burnett has this report from the corrido heartland along the Texas-Mexico border.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHN BURNETT: It's a slow night on Calle del Taco in the border town of Reynosa, Mexico. Lovers sit in their vehicles eating tacos and sipping bottles of cold beer while the trios warm up: musicians with scarred instruments, wearing cowboy shirts buttoned tight across paunches and open at the top, machismo-style.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) In San Jose, Costa Rica (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: They're singing an older narcocorrido about the 1985 capture in Costa Rica of Mexican druglord Rafael Caro Quintero.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

BURNETT: The composer of "The Ballad of Caro Quintero" is one of Mexico's most prolific corridistas: Reynaldo El Gallero Martinez � a 71-year-old fighting-cock breeder with a pencil mustache and a gambler's grin. He's with us tonight, listening approvingly to this rendition of one of his most famous corridos.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. REYNALDO MARTINEZ (Cock Breeder): (Through translator) The kids of Reynosa and Matamoros and many parts of Mexico learn the words to a corrido before they learn the national anthem.

BURNETT: Martinez may be overstating it, but it's undeniable that the popularity of narcocorridos has tracked the spiraling cartel violence in Mexico. More than 13,500 people have been killed in drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006.

Standing nearby, guitarist Agustin Llamas says if they don't sing narcocorridos out here on the Calle del Taco, they won't make any money.

Mr. AGUSTIN LLAMAS (Guitarist): (Through translator) The people say sing me a corrido about narcos with bullets and marijuana. They don't want a bolero, they want a narcocorrido. That's how it is here on the border.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Spanish)

BURNETT: Corridos have chronicled life and death in Mexico since the time of the Mexican Revolution. Narcocorridos first came into vogue in the 1970s, then exploded in the 1990s. The more the cartels make news, it seems, the more songs there are about them.

To make his point, Reynaldo Martinez took us to a music store on a busy downtown street in Reynosa. The manager pointed out her best-selling CDs.

Unidentified Woman: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: On the covers are musicians in cowboy attire gripping AK-47s, aping the traffickers they sing about. Afterwards, Martinez tries to explain Mexicans' enduring fascination with stories about smugglers. He compares it to the reasons why they go to bullfights.

Mr. MARTINEZ: (Through translator) They always want to see the bull gore the matador. We always want the weak one to win. And that's how we see the narco-traffickers.

BURNETT: But now that drug mafias like the Sinaloans, La Familia and the Zetas have grown more powerful than the police or even the army, they're not the underdogs anymore.

The romanticizing of traffickers and the glorification of the drug trade has irritated the Mexican government to the point that narcocorridos are banned from the Mexican airwaves. And so a curious flip-flop has occurred.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing in Spanish)

BURNETT: The program Killer Corridos airs each afternoon on Radio Papalote in Edinburg, Texas, about 20 miles north of the Rio Grande. It's one of the stations along the U.S. side of the border that broadcasts prohibited corridos deep into Mexico. It's the flip side of the famous border blasters that thrived in Mexican border towns from the 1930s through the '80s. High-powered transmitters broadcast preachers, hucksters and rock 'n' roll into the American heartland.

Mr. JOSE JAIME ZAVALA (Disc Jockey): (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: The fast-talking DJ is Jose Jaime Zavala. He says it's dicey playing a type of corrido, for instance, that mentions the name of a cartel or a particular trafficker. A rival cartel might take offense.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. ZAVALA: (Through translator) There's one called "Suicide Bodyguards" that tells of the Zetas. This is very dangerous to play on the radio, because you don't know if someone's going to hear it and there will be reprisals. The station owner told me to try to avoid strong corridos.

BURNETT: Though narcocorridos have created hits for dozens of bands throughout Mexico, they create something of an occupational hazard.

More than a dozen Mexican musicians were murdered between 2006 and 2008. Motives are shadowy, but it's suspected some were killed for what they sang. One was the 25-year-old banda star from Sinaloa named Valentin Elizalde. He was machine-gunned in his car as he left a concert right here in Reynosa three years ago. People suspect one of his songs somehow offended the Gulf cartel that controls this territory.

The murder of Valentin Elizalde sent a chill through the narcocorrido music business. Martin Gamboa, an up-and-coming singer who lives in Matamoros, says musicians have to be careful these days.

Mr. MARTIN GAMBOA (Singer): (Through translator) Many times, you can't put certain words in a corrido. What you have to do is use nuance, so that you don't offend anybody. And if any of my corridos has offended anyone, I ask their pardon.

BURNETT: Or if you do put the name of a powerful drug lord in your song, you'd better be somebody like Chuy Quintanilla. He's a blustery, 58-year-old songster from Reynosa whose brother is the late narcocorrido superstar Beto Quintanilla. Perhaps Chuy's musical bravado has something to do with the fact that he used to be a federal judicial police commander, a position in Mexico that's ascribed godlike powers. In the current climate of caution, Chuy belts out corridos other artists wouldn't whisper.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CHUY QUINTANILLA (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

BURNETT: This ballad extols Antonio Tony Tormenta Cardenas � the current chief of the murderous Gulf Cartel. But Chuy doesn't like the term narcocorridos.

Mr. QUINTANILLA: (Spanish spoken)

BURNETT: Let's do away with the term, narcocorrido; it's vulgar, he says. A narco is a person who's guilty of a crime that you or I can't ascertain. Only a judge can say.

No, Chuy Quintanilla writes corridos about current events. Time will tell. Tony Tormenta is currently on Mexico's most wanted list and under indictment by the DEA.

John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. QUINTANILLA: (Singing in Spanish)

SIMON: And you can find some popular narcocorridos, read the lyrics to one, hear the story of how one singer actually tried to bribe John Burnett at NPRMusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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