Remembering Ariel Camacho, the 22-year-old star of Mexico's narcocorridos

The World

Star Mexican singer Ariel Camacho died in a car accident on Wednesday. He was just 22.

Camacho, the lead singer of Los Plebes del Rancho — "The Plebians from the Ranch" —  came from a town named Guasabe in the state of Sinaloa, the heart of drug country. He had gained a large following for singing narcocorridos, songs glorifying Mexican drug cartels, and was scheduled to perform in the US over the weekend.

“His songs were mostly about the really famous narcos,” says music journalist Elijah Wald. Wald is the author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas." One of Camacho’s popular narcocorridos, called “Guerras de Poder," tells the story of how the biggest drug cartels fought for control of the market.

Narcocorridos come out of the long Mexican tradition of singing corridos, or ballads.

“Corridos have been around for a long time," Wald says. "They were songs of brave gun fighters, and really, in the 1920s, the big news of brave gun fighters in the border area was Prohibition. The first big drug smuggling operations were smuggling alcohol."

Many of today's drug cartels started as Prohibition-era bootlegging cartels, Wald says. Only in the 1930s, when the US made alcohol legal again, did the cartels switch over to smuggling illegal drugs.

Camacho gained fame for playing narcocorridos in the grupera style, which Wald says is a specific type of Sinaloan music. “The classic, old-fashioned sound everywhere was just guitars and singers, and the classic Sinoalan sound is brass bands.”

Los Plebes del Rancho consisted of just two guitar players and a tuba player. Camacho played the requinto, a12-string guitar. Wald says the band pays homage to another band, El Canelo y Los Dos del Sitio, that first started the trend of playing with just two guitars and a tuba about 15 years ago.

“I thought it was going to be a one-off novelty, but it actually caught on,” he says.

While Camacho gained fame for singing narcocorridos, he also had a reputation as a crooner. One of his biggest hits, “Hablemos,” is a love song.

“He was only 22 years old, he’s a good looking, young guy, and he really had a romantic appeal and that’s a big deal," Wald says. "Narcocorridos, like gangster rap, has mostly been a boys' style, but he’s clearly been a guy who appealed to young women.”

On Tuesday, Camacho left a now-final video message to his fans on his Facebook page. "I want invite all my beautiful people in Chihuahua to come see us on March 13th in Santa Rita," he wrote. "I'll be expecting all of my people there, especially all the beautiful girls. Here's a kiss to all of them!”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.