Arts, Culture & Media

Drug lords pay this Mexican-American singer to write their ballads

Edgar Quintero was born in Los Angeles, the son of Mexican immigrants. At 28, he's now one of the most successful writers of “narco corridos”  — Mexican folk ballads about the drug war.

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"I sing about it, I talk about it, but to a certain point where I don't get involved,” Quintero says. “They are my clients. I get all sorts of people that come up to me and say ‘Can you write a song for me?’ Who am I to sit there and be like ‘Oh, what do you do for a living, or can I do a background check?'"

Quintero is the focus of a new documentary film called “Narco Cultura,” which opened last weekend across the US. It shows, in a very personal way, how the violence in Mexico feeds into popular culture.

In the film, Quintero meets up with a client who hired him to write a corrido, and he sings an a capella version to the man inside an SUV.

"I don't like the cheap stuff," Quintero sings, "only pure quality in the jar, the clients ask and pay, and I bring them what they requested." When Quintero finishes the song, the client pulls out a bundle of cash to pay him, and Quintero promises he’ll record a version of it later.

Quintero says when a client commissions a corrido, he asks questions and does research. But there are certain things you can say, and certain things you can't. "I'm not going to start pointing fingers,” Quintero says. “That's when the problems come. That's when singers get killed."

Quintero says he grew up listening to corridos at home in Los Angeles, but they weren't as graphic as they are today. After he started writing his own songs, he was approached by a record label in Culiacán, Mexico, that helped him put together his band, BuKanas de Culiacán.

The documentary shows the band performing at a show in El Paso, Texas. Quintero gets the audience to sing along to one of their hits, which includes the lines, "With an AK47 and a bazooka on my shoulder, cross my path and I'll chop your head off. We're bloodthirsty, crazy and we like to kill."

But Quintero says he doesn’t want people to think he's glorifying violence. He says he thinks of himself more as a reporter of what's happening in Mexico — though some might argue that he’s doing PR for the drug cartels.

"I don't condone violence, but I have to be real,” Quintero says. “The music that I do is hardcore Mexican gansta rap. That's what it is." 

Quintero says that in the past year, as he's toured across Mexico, he's noticed a respect for drug traffickers.

"They're the Mexican Robin Hoods. They're the ones that these kids in Mexico are looking up to, because they're the ones that are helping out their community when the government is not doing nothing about it."

Narco Cultura's director Shaul Schwarz, an Israeli-American photojournalist, says he gets why Quintero would sing narco corridos — they're popular in Mexico and the US.

“Obviously, I don't share every view that Edgar shares,” Scwharz says. “I'm more angered by it. It's not my cup of tea. But with that said, at the end of the day, I understand that the reality created him in the genre, not vice versa.”

Scwharz says if we don't want the narco culture to thrive, we have to talk about how to start changing it, on both sides of the border. This has a direct effect on our next generation, on people who are not traffickers, who are not gangsters, and this is what I was really after in this film and in this coverage."

He’d also like Americans to understand that it's not just Mexico's war.

“Without the money and without the guns coming from the American side, none of this could exist."