Drug Ballads


Along the Tex-Mex border, storytelling ballads called corridos have documented the exploits of frontier heroes and villains for more than a century. Smuggling has always been a favorite subject, with tequila, marijuana, and cocaine runners typically confronting federales or Texas Rangers and dying bravely in a hail of bullets. Traditionally accompanied only by guitar or bajo sexto in leisurely waltz time, corridos now generally march to a snappy, accordion-driven polka beat, with wailing, trilling tenor vocals and a distinctive Mexican lilt.

Pablo Acosta was made for corridos. It’s been estimated that a third of all the cocaine entering the United States in the mid ’80s passed through his hands, yet Texas sheriff Gary Painter maintained Acosta was “an honorable man.” He also identified Acosta as the informant in a 1986 memo from Richard Secord to Oliver North that states, “Our source reports that terrorists plan to use airfield near Texas border.”

Acosta met with FBI and U.S. customs agents, gave interviews to American journalists, and was introduced to author James Michener. He carried on a long affair with Mimi Webb-Miller, the blond debutante niece of the late U.S. senator John Tower. In his hometown of Ojinaga, just across the Rio Grande from Presidio, Texas, he was revered as a Robin Hood figure who built nursing homes and refurbished schools. And by the time he died in an FBI-backed 1987 helicopter raid by the federales—a pistol in one hand, an assault rifle in the other—he had survived more real-life gunfights than you could squeeze into an action movie.

Now Arhoolie Records has released The Devil’s Swing, a quasi soundtrack to director Alan Govenar’s documentary of the same title. While the film is a sort of anthropological sketch of the Ojinaga area, where singing narcocorridos is just another quaint custom like faith healing, the album focuses on a cycle of songs about local drug lords, particularly Pablo Acosta.

There are two corridos about Acosta himself, one about his nephew Pedro (allegedly tortured to death by the federales), two about his rival Fermín Arévalo (killed by Acosta in a wild shootout), one about Arévalo’s sons Israel and Guadalupe (killed and wounded, respectively, by Acosta’s men in a drive-by), one about Acosta’s predecessor, Shorty López (killed in an ambush), one about Acosta’s successor, Amado Carrillo (died during plastic surgery to alter his appearance), and one about the general situation in Ojinaga (“Once such a respectable place/the whole area has turned into a living hell/and blood is being spilled everywhere”).

Corridos are elliptical, blending fact and fantasy, so University of Texas professor James Nicolopulos supplies the context and translates the lyrics in his liner notes. But he relies heavily on former El Paso Herald-Post reporter Terrence Poppa’s 1990 book Druglord, which portrays Acosta as a coke-smoking thug and lawmen on both sides of the border as white-hatted heroes. Nicolopulos does note that Guillermo Gonzalez Calderoni, the comandante who led the fatal helicopter raid, was on Amado Carrillo’s payroll and ended up in the U.S. witness protection program, but there’s no mention of Presidio County sheriff Rick Thompson, a reputed onetime Acosta confederate now serving a life sentence for cocaine dealing.

The music itself, mostly recorded by Arhoolie’s Chris Strachwitz in Ojinaga and Presidio, belies any notion that field recordings are purer or truer than commercial ones. Accordion conjuntos predominate; only four of the 19 tracks sound like waltzes, just one with solo guitar accompaniment. Many are covers of Tex-Mex hits, the best known being “El Zorro de Ojinaga,” from Los Tigres del Norte’s chart-topping 1989 album Los Corridos Prohibidos. In the Devil’s Swing movie, Los Suspiros del Ojinaga perform a listless imitation in an empty cantina; the scene dissolves to Acosta’s hilltop grave in Tecolote, his initials spelled out on the headstone in machine-gun cartridges.

“El Zorro” claims that Acosta “guarded the border on orders from Uncle Sam, and he hunted down terrorists.” The “Corrido de Pablo Acosta” is more down-to-earth, noting the date of Acosta’s death and that he “helped the poor.” But again, Los Palomares del Bravo’s version on the Devil’s Swing CD pales beside a commercial take by Los Jinetes Del Bravo. The album’s toughest track, Los Jilgueros del Arroyo’s “La Muerte de Fermín Arévalo,” was licensed from San Antonio’s hit-oriented Joey Records.

The Devil’s Swing might not rock, but it does provide a unique musical chronicle of one battlefront in the War on Drugs. Amid the rumors (Acosta never piloted a Cessna over Arizona and denied knowing about terrorists) is such solid history as “When Pablo Acosta fell/Amado Carrillo took over the reins/to put the finishing touches/on the empire that Pablo had built up.”

Acosta may have been the last old-school border czar, a self-made man born on the bank of the Rio Grande who never forgot his hardscrabble roots. Mimi Webb-Miller remembers him as a tender lover with a keen sense of justice and a passion for education. When he died, a more ruthless breed of traffickers moved in, and the drug trade mushroomed.

In the end, neither the corridos’ romantic mythology nor Poppa’s police-blotter account captures the whole story, a convoluted tale of corruption and conspiracy stretching from the office of Mexico’s president to George W. Bush’s West Texas backyard. Today, Ojinaga is still a hotbed of smuggling, where contrabandistas are celebrated with accordions, guitars, saxophones, drums, and bajo sextos. And that may prove to be the drug war’s most lasting legacy.