Roll of the Dice: Sinaloa Cowboys | E Street Shuffle (2023)

“The cookers themselves–recruited from the fields–sometimes are not aware of the dangers. Hydriodic acid… eats through not only skin but concrete. If inhaled, its fumes cause chemical pneumonia, which can bring a quick, painful death.

“‘We have no idea how may dead Mexicans we find in the desert died from breathing in meth fumes,’ one DEA agent said.”

— Mark Arax and Tom Gorman, Los Angeles Times, March 13, 1995

On March 13, 1995, Bruce Springsteen opened his morning newspaper and read with fascination an expose by reporters Mark Arax and Tom Gorman.

Arax and Gorman revealed a vast Mexican network of methamphetamine laboratories spread throughout the state of California but owned and operated by “cowboys” south of the border in the state of Sinaloa.

“These ‘Sinaloa Cowboys’,” wrote the reporters, “with their beaver hats, boots and ostrich-skin belts are armed and dangerous. ‘Stay out if you value your ass!’ read the spray-painted message in Spanish and English on the side of a large shed in rural Firebaugh, west of Fresno.”

Roll of the Dice: Sinaloa Cowboys | E Street Shuffle (1)

Roll of the Dice: Sinaloa Cowboys | E Street Shuffle (2)

Roll of the Dice: Sinaloa Cowboys | E Street Shuffle (3)

Cooked in California and smuggled to virtually every American state, the Sinaloa cartel ran a frighteningly efficient and lucrative operation–one that proved irresistibly tempting to field workers doing back-breaking labor for a fraction of the pay. “Workers who earn as little as $5,000 a year picking California’s crops can make that much in half a dozen illicit cooking sessions,” wrote Arax and Gorman.

But the rewards came at great risk: the byproduct hydriodic acid fumes claimed countless lives. “One cook had 18 bottles cooking at one time with four sub-cooks,” said state agent Dan Callahan to the reporters. “But there were no condensers [to contain the fumes]. They were breathing acid gases and spitting blood.”

“‘Farm labor is a dangerous occupation’ said Merced County Sheriff’s Detective Mario Anaya. ‘Unfortunately, they are trading that job for an even more dangerous one.'”

That article made a lasting impression on Bruce. Later that summer, Arax received a phone call from someone claiming to be Bruce Springsteen’s assistant. The Boss, it seemed, was looking for some background on the people Arax and Gorman had reported on, their places and their language. “Springsteen saturates himself with just enough in a place and language to bring it off with realism,” Arax observed to the Fresno Bee in 1996, and he told the Los Angeles Times that Bruce “”needed to get an image in his mind of this valley that he may have never seen before, and it was interesting being a conduit for that.”

Arax shared what he could and then promptly forgot about the conversation–until that autumn, when he received a fax with Bruce’s lyrics for a song called “Sinaloa Cowboys.”

But Arax and Gorman weren’t the only inspiration for Bruce’s tale.“A song like ‘Sinaloa Cowboys’ came from a lot of places,” Bruce told Will Percy in DoubleTake in 1998. “I’d met a guy in the Arizona desert when I happened to be on a trip with some friends of mine, and he had a younger brother who died in a motorcycle accident. There’s something abut conversations with people–people you’ve met once and you’ll never see again–that always stays with me.”

Something about his transient friend’s intimately personal tragedy combined with the backdrop of a larger epidemic fused in Bruce’s mind, and the result was the quiet short story/folk song that Bruce included on his 1995 album,The Ghost of Tom Joad.

“Sinaloa Cowboys” is the tragic three-act story of Miguel and Louis Rosales, two fictional young brothers from northern Mexico who cross the border to make a decent living as field workers in California, despite their father’s warning that no gift comes without a price. It’s a somber, contemplative performance, performed entirely by Bruce and solely on his acoustic guitar and keyboard.

Well Miguel came from a small town in northern Mexico
He came north with his brother Louis to California three years ago
They crossed at the river levee when Louis was just sixteen
And found work together in the fields of the San Joaquin

They left their homes and family, their father said, “My sons one thing you will learn
For everything the north gives, it exacts a price in return”
They worked side by side in the orchards from morning till the day was through
Doing the work the hueros wouldn’t do

Before long, the brothers hear of an opportunity to earn far greater rewards for far less work, cooking meth for the Sinaloa cartel. Bruce threads detail from Arax and Gorman’s article throughout Act Two, and it’s a testament to his craft that Bruce is able to rhyme methamphetamine in service of the story and make hydriodic acid sound melodic.

Word was out some men in from Sinaloa were looking for some hands
Well deep in Fresno County there was a deserted chicken ranch
And there in a small tin shack on the edge of a ravine
Miguel and Louis stood cooking methamphetamine

You could spend a year in the orchards or make half as much in one ten-hour shift
Working for the men from Sinaloa, ah but if you slipped
The hydriodic acid could burn right through your skin
They’d leave you spitting up blood in the desert if you breathed those fumes in

As I noted above, this is not a tale that ends well, and we can tell where it’s going based on the detail Bruce chooses to include. Sure enough, disaster strikes in the song’s final act: an explosion in the laboratory claims the life of Louis Rosales. Miguel kisses his brother goodbye and buries him in an unmarked grave.

It was early one winter evening as Miguel stood watch outside
When the shack exploded, lighting up the valley night
Miguel carried Louis’s body over his shoulder down a swale to the creek side
And there in the tall grass Louis Rosales died

Miguel lifted Louis’s body into his truck and then he drove
To where the morning sunlight fell on a eucalyptus grove
There in the dirt he dug up ten thousand dollars, all that they’d saved
Kissed his brother’s lips and placed him in his grave

A life in exchange for ten thousand dollars–that’s the price exacted by the North.

Bruce tells his story in rich detail and plain language without a trace of metaphor. So vivid is his tale, in fact, that we expect to see Louis and Miguel featured in Arax and Gorman’s original article–but his story is entirely fictional. “[Bruce] took things we did and created his own little short story about two brothers,” Arax told the Los Angeles Times that November.

Bruce credited the reporters in his album liner notes, and he dedicated the song nightly to his unnamed Arizona biker friend throughout his solo acoustic tour from 1995 to 1997.

“Sinaloa Cowboys” worked perfectly on the Ghost of Tom Joad Tour. Bruce politely (and sometimes not-so-politely) asked for and received respectful quiet to give his songs room to breathe, and in that space it was easy to close your eyes and watch the story of the Rosales brothers as if on the silver screen.

But when Bruce reunited the E Street Band in 1999, most of the songs from his recent solo album didn’t or couldn’t successfully translate to the E Street stage. Bruce did give “Sinaloa Cowboys” a shot once, though–in Oakland on October 28, 1999, the song’s only full-band performance ever.

Besides that full-band one-off, “Sinaloa Cowboys” has made only three appearances in the years since–all acoustic, and none later than 2005.

Bruce wrote and released “Sinaloa Cowboys” not long after the Sinaloa Cartel first came to American awareness and attention. In the years since, both the cartel and their product have only strengthened their hold, their leader El Chapo becoming an almost mythical anti-folk hero.

The Sinaloa Cartel remains the most dominant drug cartel in Mexico to this day.

Sinaloa Cowboys
March-August, 1995
Released:The Ghost of Tom Joad(1995)
First performed: October 28, 1995 (Mountain View, CA)
Last performed: October 20, 2005 (Worcester, MA)

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