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Controversial Mexican Musician Temporarily Retires From Drug Ballads


A Mexican music star says he's had enough. Alfredo Rios, known as El Komander, is retiring under pressure.


El Komander is huge on both sides of the border. You hear him on the radio across Mexico, and you also hear him when driving around Los Angeles.


EL KOMANDER: (Singing in Spanish).

CORNISH: He sings about blue-collar guys who dream of parties and alcohol and women. He also does something more.

INSKEEP: Many of his tunes are known as Narco-Corridos; that's the name for ballades that tell stories of the drug trade. Authorities have been cracking down on those songs.

CORNISH: Which is why El Komander says he's quitting. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: With machine guns and bazookas on our necks, the song says, cutting off the heads of those who cross our paths, we're bloodthirsty and crazy. We love to kill. The words allude to the Sinaloa drug cartel named after the state in northwestern Mexico. El Komander was born there, and he still calls it home. I'd been trying to get a hold of El Komander for a year. I was a bit nervous; after all this is a guy who sports Burberry-patterned bullet-proof vests. But on cell from Sinaloa, El Komander just sounds tired.

EL KOMANDER: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He says media has Satanized Corridos, but we storytellers have existed since the time of my grandfather. He's right. Here's a very old Corrido you might recognize.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: Yes, that's "La Cucaracha." Some historians say it was brought over from Spain. In one of its many, versions the cucaracha or cockroach is thought to refer to Victoriano Huerta, dictator at the time of the Mexican Revolution. Although they're as old as Mexico itself, big labels haven't always paid attention to Corridos. Omar Valenzuela runs Twiins Music Group out of LA. It's the label El Komander sings on. On the phone from his native Sinaloa, Omar told me he started off producing schmaltzy Latin pop for big record labels.

OMAR VALENZUELA: The songs were not good, you know, and I was used to make products that were real. So I was looking for something real.

GARSD: Then at parties, he discovered narco-ballads.

VALENZUELA: It was very underground. These kids were recording in their houses. They had no budget.

GARSD: It was the early 2000s. Social media was exploding. The Mexican drug war was escalating. Sinaloan kids were sharing music with LA kids. Omar says it was the perfect storm.


GARSD: Today Narco-Corridos are a multi-million dollar businesses. Dave Gaddis is a retired regional director for the DEA in Mexico.

DAVE GADDIS: There are public relations campaigns by these cartels in order to establish a certain level of popularity, and I believe that some of these Corridos actually help them do that.

GARSD: It's commonly thought that these songs are commissioned by the drug lords. But El Komander says he has no ties to any cartel.

EL KOMANDER: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: I don't know any more than you do about these guys. I just write about what you hear in the streets, in the news. Despite this, the government of Sinaloa has tried to make the songs illegal in bars, but it was declared unconstitutional. Various states have cancelled El Komander's live shows, and last year he had to pay a fine of over $7,000 for playing that Corridos at a venue in the state of Chihuahua. El Komander has also had trouble performing in the U.S. Recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma, authorities expressed concern over his visit.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: El Komander, led by Alfredo Rios is expected to draw thousands of people her Friday night.

GARSD: El Komander says these accusations depress him.

EL KOMANDER: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Do you think that I would do my music if I thought it made people kill each other? No one has ever killed anyone at one of my shows. On the contrary, people come to have fun. But he's not feeling the fun anymore, and it's dangerous work. Narco-ballad singers have been killed in the past. Sergio Gomez, murdered after a concert in Michoacan. Valentin Elizalde, allegedly shot up by Zetas drug cartel after a show.

EL KOMANDER: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Komander says, yes, of course I worry. I have children. A few weeks ago, El Komander announced he's temporarily retiring from music. Whether he stays or goes, narco culture has permeated Sinaloan society. In a cemetery in Sinaloa, where drug lords are lavish mausoleums, a group of college kids are drinking and singing narco-ballads at the top of their lungs.

The grave belongs to the boyfriend of one of the girls, Christina (ph). She asked that her last name not be used because her boyfriend was killed in a shooting. When asked why she liked these songs, she tapped two fingers on the inside of her wrist and answered.

CHIRSTINA: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Narco culture, it runs in our veins. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.
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