The narco-ballad of Roberto Salazar, the US marine who trafficked fentanyl

The drug trafficker, who has sentenced to 12 years in prison, contacted a Mexican songwriter to write a song about his double life

Roberto Salazar
U.S. Marine Roberto Salazar with his daughter.Cortesía
Elías Camhaji

“I wanted to study and became a soldier, but I liked the fast life better.” That’s a line Roberto Salazar suggested be included in the song about his life. The 26-year-old American had been exchanging text messages with a Mexican songwriter, whom he had commissioned to write a drug ballad known as a narcocorrido. Salazar wanted a song about his double life as a Marine and cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl dealer. And he wanted it to be a corrido, a music genre closely associated with drug trafficking. Everything changed on February 7, 2022, when Salazar was arrested and the contents of his phone were revealed. The revelation that he had commissioned a corrido did not come to light until April 21, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced he had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for drug trafficking.

At the time of his arrest, Salazar had already spent seven years trafficking drugs and six as an active member of the Marines Corp. According to his mother Carmen Salazar, he was a very shy and sickly child. When he was just 18 months old, he was admitted into intensive care due to a virus, and at age four, he had to undergo an angina operation. But Salazar flourished at school. He was a good student, sporty and sociable. “When he was 10 years old, everything changed in our family,” said Carmen Salazar in a letter addressed to the court. His father was deported to Mexico, and the Salazars moved to Tijuana to start over. “For my son, everything was an adventure. He always saw the bright side no matter how bad the situation was,” his mother wrote in the letter.

The versions of Salazar’s life start to diverge when he was a teenager. His family say he was a young man who did the best he could under the circumstances: he taught himself to play the drums, joined a musical group from an evangelical church and spent a large amount of his time doing community work, giving food to homeless people and collecting money for his church. In other court documents, however, sources say he experienced many challenges, such as his father’s addictions, economic difficulties and the constant trips back and forth across the border. On the encouragement of his father, Salazar became involved in migrant and drug trafficking when he was just a teenager.

In 2015, when he was about 17 or 18 years old, Salazar recruited one of his classmates from Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista to smuggle drugs into the U.S. and deliver them to different parts of California. On his father’s instructions, Salazar paid his friend — identified as S.I. in the court documents — $2,000 for each shipment that crossed the border. For months, S.I. smuggled in drugs to the U.S. He hid kilos of cocaine and methamphetamine in cars, and delivered the drugs to the Los Angeles area. A year later, Salazar’s father was deported back to Mexico and Salazar joined the Navy. “According to his plea agreement, Salazar recruited, managed, and paid multiple drug couriers — both before he joined the Marine Corps and while he was on active duty,” the Attorney’s Office stated in its press release.

By this point, Salazar’s methods had become more sophisticated. Co-conspirators met at a garage, picked up the cars where the drugs were concealed, and delivered them to California and Nevada. Orders were given in encrypted messages and payments were made via digital applications to avoid detection. When no one else could deliver the packages, Salazar did it himself.

In early 2017, his older sister became seriously ill and died. Salazar’s sister — who also enlisted in the Navy — wanted her brother to stay away from crime, and he decided to rise through the ranks to honor her memory. The Marines and drug trafficking — two apparently incompatible worlds — defined Roberto Salazar and marked the course of his life. He became a radio operator and worked at a base in the border city of San Diego, but according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Miller, it was just a front.

That same year, Salazar had a baby girl and, after various problems with his daughter’s mother, he won custody of the child when she turned two. “He would comb her hair, dress her, feed her, pick her up from day care and tuck her in before she went to bed every day. I was amazed at what a good father he was,” his mother wrote in the letter to court. His lawyer argued that Salazar had tried to leave the drug business, but that his salary as a Marine was not enough to take care of his daughter.

soldado Roberto Salazar carga a su hija.
Roberto Salazar and his daughter.Cortesía

Meanwhile, Salazar was forming his own team of drug traffickers and in 2021 he recruited two former marines, who are identified in court documents as A.U. and J.R. On at least five occasions, A.U. drove a blue BMW with several kilos of drugs across the border. The drugs were hidden in the car, and false license plates were used to evade controls at immigration checkpoints. J.R., who has also been recently discharged from the Marines, trafficked the drugs in a white BMW, following the same modus operandi. But within a few months, his collaborators were discovered. At that point, they were moving thousands of doses of fentanyl into the southern states of the U.S. However, they had started to take risks: leaving the drugs in supermarkets and other public places, narrowly escaping arrest and sometimes getting caught.

It was in the summer of 2020, when Salazar — a father, churchman, Marine and drug trafficker — contacted the songwriter in Mexico about the corrido, a musical tradition has been around in Mexico for decades. These songs tell epic stories of heroes and villains. They are a kind of oral history, sharing tales of both the everyday and the extraordinary. After the outbreak of the drug war in Mexico in the mid-2000s, narcocorridos became more popular, despite censorship and criticism that the songs justify crime. Famous drug lords were cast as the protagonists of narcocorridos, and these kingpins often paid money to feature in the lyrics.

But many songwriters have reclaimed the music genre, and called for it not to be criminalized. “What the corridos narrate is a consequence of what is happening in Mexico and not the other way around,” explained Oswaldo “Walo” Silvas, vocalist of Banda MS, one of the most famous groups in Mexico, which recorded a corrido for the video game franchise Call of Duty last year. Silvas told EL PAÍS that a good corrido must have three elements: a catchy melody, a good harmony and lyrics that reflect a true story, told from an impartial point of view. “A corrido is news,” he said. The song that Banda MS wrote for Call of Duty, for example, was based on the fictional story of a Mexican agent working for an elite crime-fighting group.

In Salazar’s case, he wanted his corrido to focus on his work as a Marine, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, the Attorney General’s Office also said that the lyrics covered his activities as a drug dealer. The complete version of the song was not included in the court summary, nor was the identity of the songwriter who had been commissioned.

At the end of 2022, eight months after his arrest, Salazar pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute controlled substances, including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl, and to importing fentanyl into the United States from Mexico. The move came after two of his closest associates also signed a plea agreement. Salazar’s friends and family hoped that he would be given a second chance and asked for clemency so that Salazar could continue to care for his daughter. But the crimes he confessed to were serious and carried a jail term of 10 years to life and a maximum fine of $10 million. In the end, Salazar was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

His family claimed he was genuinely sorry, but authorities saw his actions as a serious offense. “Mr. Salazar betrayed his oath to the Marine Corps and posed a significant threat to our national security by participating in an illegal operation to smuggle fentanyl into the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge Todd Battaglia of the NCIS Marine Corps West Field Office.

U.S. authorities did not say whether Salazar was collaborating with a cartel or a larger criminal organization to sell fentanyl, a drug that causes tens of thousands of overdose deaths each year in the U.S. and has strained relations with Mexico. In 2014, nine people were convicted of trafficking fentanyl. In 2021, that number rose to 1,533, and according to official figures, more than 86% had U.S. citizenship. “I know I made a mistake,” Salazar told the judge before being sentenced.

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