Mexico: the danger of 'drug ballads'
In the past two years, 15 mexican musicians have been murdered. Their crime: to fall foul of the country's drug barons.
It was three in the morning and the Mexican group Banda Guasavena were driving back from a concert at a cockfighting festival, just over the border from Texas. The audience had been even more rapturous than usual and Fausto Castro-Elizalde, the band's horn player, recalls them chatting happily about the evening.
Then Kalashnikov bullets started flying through the window. 'The whole moment was unreal,' he says. 'One second we were all happy after the show. The next we being cut up by bullets.'
Castro-Elizalde, 34, was hit by seven 'caps' in his arm and legs but miraculously remained conscious. His cousin and the band's 27-year old singer, Valentin Elizalde, was not so lucky. 'He died instantly. He fell into my arms and I kissed him,' says Castro-Elizalde.
Elizalde's murder is not an isolated incident. In the past two years, assassins have shot, burnt or suffocated at least 15 Mexican musicians. The latest victim was sprayed with 20 bullets as he sang alongside his band, Brisas del Mar, at a dance near the Acapulco resort in March. In December, three entertainers were killed in a week: one singer was kidnapped, throttled and dumped on a road, a trumpeter was found with a bag on his head and a diva was shot dead in her hospital bed.
The attacks on musicians come amid a wave of bloodshed in Mexico, which has usurped Colombia as the drug trafficking capital of the Americas, unleashing violent turf wars and fighting with police. For their part, Mexican musicians have been increasingly singing about cocaine, corpses and Kalashnikovs alongside their traditional tales of poverty and lost love.
Almost all the bands targeted included so-called narco corridos, or drug ballads, in their repertoires. The accordions and 12-string guitars create a folksy sound, but the lyrics tell explicit tales of cocaine seizures, execution-style hits and trafficking kingpins, often with real names, dates and places. Although banned on Mexican radio and television, the drug ballad - reminiscent of American gangster rap - has become one of the most popular music styles in the country.
Some attacks have targeted entire bands. Four members of Los Padrinos de la Sierra were shot in June, four months after masked gunmen ambushed them in the town of Puruaran, killing four and wounding one. The carnage has claimed both up-and-coming musicians and best-selling artists. Sergio Gomez of K-Paz de la Sierra won a Grammy nomination after releasing Pero Te Vas a Repentir, or 'You Will Have Regrets,' a love song so catchy that half of Mexico was humming it.
He was abducted after a concert and tortured for two days, his genitals being burnt with a blowtorch, before he was strangled with a plastic cord.
One of the most popular drug ballad composers, Elizalde had been nominated for a Grammy shortly before his murder, having gained a hardcore following for songs such as 118 Bullets. 'There was a big shoot-out,/ With 14 bullet-filled bodies, / And the American government, /Took away the marijuana,' he sang in his other hit, Contraband on the Border.
Despite the nature of their music, Castro-Elizalde and the other members of Banda Guasavena are modest and cheerful when I meet them in the sweltering city of Culiacan, nearly a year-and- a-half after the shooting. Castro-Elizalde, who spent six months in hospital and is still receiving therapy, has just started performing again and, like the rest of the band, is constantly bursting into song and telling jokes.
'I just thank God every day that I'm alive,' he tells me, inspecting the bullet wound on his left arm. 'And I'm a really lucky person to be making a good living as a musician. Many people in my country don't have enough money to eat.'
In April, police arrested one of the alleged gunmen in the shooting of his cousin. The suspect, Raul Hernandez, is accused of being a paid assassin for the Gulf cartel, which is one of Mexico's most powerful drug trafficking organisations and has its stronghold in Reynosa, where the murder took place. However, officials have not revealed a motive.
The band are all natives of Sinaloa, the mountainous Pacific state which is home to the Sinaloan cartel, the main rival to the Gulf-based mafia. Castro-Elizalde agrees that Reynosa is considered enemy terrain by the Sinaloan gangsters, whose kingpins, such as Joaquin 'Shorty' Guzman, have featured in their songs. 'Reynosa is their territory. There is no love for us Sinaloans there,' he said. 'We will never play there again - out of respect for Valentin.' However, he said there was a rumour that the attack may have had more to do with a song called For My Enemies, in which Elizalde wrote about envious rival musicians.
The police have made no arrests, named no suspects and revealed no motives in connection with the murders of the other 14 musicians, although they have said that they all bore the hallmarks of organised crime. Family members and fellow musicians have kept quiet about the killings, many admitting they fear for their own lives.
A certain murkiness clouds most investigations into the mountains of corpses blamed on drug violence in Mexico. Since January, more than 1,300 people have been killed in execution-style hits or gunned down in fire fights, which often rage for hours in broad daylight and turn residential neighbourhoods into war zones. If the trend continues, 2008 will top last year's toll of 2,500 deaths in drug-related killings. The numbers are tallied by Mexican newspapers in so-called 'execution meters' alongside graphic photos of the corpses. But 95 per cent of the crimes go unsolved, according to law and order lobbies.
Many of the corpses are mutilated and dumped in public places alongside messages threatening informants and rival gangsters. In one recent case, a decapitated head was left next to government offices in the state of Michoacan, accompanied by a note saying 'See. Hear. Shut up. If you want to stay alive.' In another shocking episode, thugs burst into a Michoacan nightclub and rolled five human heads onto a dance floor, smearing the white tiles with blood. Just last month, Mexico's police chief was ambushed and killed in his own home, allegedly as a response to his role in the arrest of a Sinaloa cartel leader.
The highest murder rate is in Sinaloa, which has long been at the centre of Mexican organised crime. Peasant farmers began growing opium poppies to make heroin in its arid mountains back in the 1900s and developed violent crime organisations that later took over the marijuana, cocaine and crystal meth trades. The state is also the cradle of the drug ballad genre and boasts thousands of singers crooning about trafficking and bloodshed.
Several musicians have admitted that their links to organised crime go beyond just singing about it. Some play at drug traffickers' parties, sometimes for very large sums. What's more, up-and-coming villains pay composers to write songs about them. One lesser-known artist said he would charge £500 to compose a ballad about a gangster's exploits, while another mid-level writer said he charged about £2,500.
'For the narcos, getting a song written about them is like getting their doctorate,' said Conrado Lugo, a producer at the Sol Discos record label in Culiacan, the Sinaloan state capital. 'It shows they are somebody in the crime world.'
Sitting in his studio, Lugo said his label focuses on drug ballads because that is what sells best. Sol Discos now has 183 artists and is one of at least five labels in Culiacan alone. The biggest artists are sold on to international record labels such as Universal. Lugo likes producing the groups because the musical arrangements are simple - most bands use basic four pieces: drums, bass, 12-string and accordions, although some also incorporate brass sections.
Almost all the high-profile killings, drug busts and arrests are retold in ballads. The songs are often written within days of the events and are rapidly recorded onto compact discs or simply passed around musicians by ear. One ballad describes the February arrest of the alleged kingpin Alfredo 'The Ant' Beltran, while another tells of the recent killing of five Mexican soldiers in an ambush. Sometimes these 'news' ballads become anthems for the fans, such as one song that describes how the kingpin 'Shorty' Guzman escaped from a high-security federal prison in 2001.
Composers say they have to keep abreast of current events in organised crime. 'I like to read newspapers and watch the TV to get ideas,' said Omar Meza, a 32-year-old singer and songwriter who calls himself 'El Comandante'. 'I also keep my ear to the street to find out what is happening.'
Meza recently performed a song about four young men who were shot dead by soldiers at a checkpoint in Sinaloa's opium-growing territory in April. The ballad was written quickly, in time for 'El Comandante' to sing it at the men's funeral.
'One of the men who was killed was a good friend of mine so the song was close to my heart,' Meza said, showing the dusty mountain road where the victims were shot by the troops. A middle-aged woman who lived next to the path greeted Meza and congratulated him for singing at the funeral, cursing the soldiers for being an invading force. She then proudly showed off a bunch of opium bushes she had grown in full sight of the road.
The use of the song to relay news goes to the roots of the Mexican corrido. The ballads were born in the late 18th-century in northern Mexico, and would carry news of coronations and beheadings to rural communities which had no other news outlets. In the bloody revolution of 1910-17, thousands of ballads were written about guerrilla commanders such as Pancho Villa - a moustachioed bandit turned revolutionary who won spectacular victories over federal soldiers.
The genre broke into the modern recording industry in the 1970s when Sinaloan band Los Tigres del Norte made records while working as immigrant labourers in California. However, most Sinaloans consider the real father of the drug ballad to be Chalino Sanchez, a small-town roughneck who sung tales of crime and violence in the late 1980s.
Sanchez was shot dead in an unsolved killing close to Culiacan in 1992 and accounts of his life mix fact with legend. At 13, he was said to have killed a man who raped his sister, and his fans tell of how he shot dead assailants at concerts. Whatever the truth, Sanchez's influence on the music scene is undeniable.
'With Chalino we made songs for the barrio [neighbourhood],' said Nacho Hernandez, a 40-year-old singer and composer who played with Sanchez and was with him the night he died. 'We made songs for the people in the cantina, for the people on the street. We talked about the things they want to hear about. We didn't care if the radio wouldn't play us.'
Hernandez, a jovial but imposing figure with a thick neck and huge hands, has gone on to record 36 albums of drug ballads since the death of Sanchez, while also composing for other best selling artists. He rejects the idea that the music encourages violence or drug dealing.
'The violence is already there. We are just singing about what we see,' Hernandez said, chewing on a hearty breakfast in a Culiacan cafe. 'The killings of the singers aren't connected with the music either. They happen when the victim has upset someone over a girl or money or something. I am not worried about something happening to me because I don't mess with people. I treat everyone with respect.'
The ballads have become steadily more popular and are now an integral part of a 'narco culture' that is endemic in many other parts of Mexico and the southern United States. In the streets of Culiacan, the songs blare out of huge, expensive pick-up trucks with bumper stickers of marijuana leaves. They rock nightclubs full of women with inch-long false nails embedded with precious stones, and men with 500lb alligator-skinned boots who fire their guns in the air to the music. And they are played by street musicians outside shrines to Jesus Malverde, a Sinaloan bandit who has become the unofficial patron saint of drug smugglers.
The lyrics talk with pride about drug trafficking, describing it as a route out of poverty. They mix in the expressions of the Sicilian mafia, calling the crime bosses 'capos' and 'godfathers'. And they herald the gangsters for being the valientes or 'brave ones' who are not scared of police or soldiers.
'The thing that can be hard for foreigners to understand is the pride that some Sinaloans have in being at the head of organised crime,' said Elmer Mendoza, an author from Culiacan. 'Mothers can be proud that their sons have become gangsters, even if this leads to death, as it is a way that they have made something of themselves.'
Cesar Jacobo, 33, who founded and composes the songs for Grupo Cartel de Sinaloa, is typical of the new generation that has grown up immersed in drug ballads and narco culture. Moving from rural poverty to an urban slum when he was 10, he heard his father sing love songs at home. But the young Jacobo was only interested in ballads about the gunslingers and crime bosses that ran his barrio.
When he founded his group two years ago he named it after Sinaloa's organised crime syndicate. 'I wanted a name that said it like it is, with no disguise,' Jacobo said as the group posed for photos in a Culiacan cemetery packed with elaborate graves, mostly of young men who had suffered violent deaths.
Grupo Cartel's explicitly violent lyrics push the barriers of the genre, talking of balaclava-clad assassins and blood-thirsty triggermen, people he says he grew up with. But he also mixes the reality with fantasies and metaphors. In one ballad he describes a hired killer arriving in hell to be confronted by his murder victims. 'For me the words are the most important thing,' he said, singing snippets of his ballads. 'I get the message right. Then I make it fit the rhythm.'
Grupo Cartel's hard stance has earned it a strong following and it can now charge £2,000 to play at a party in Culiacan and more than £5,000 to play in larger towns. However, Jocobo admits their name's association with the Sinaloa cartel is potentially dangerous.
'We basically won't play anywhere outside of Sinaloa and some close states. But I tell the group it is better to live great for a couple of years than spend your whole life in poverty,' he says, grinning.
Songs by drug ballad bands feature on the YouTube website alongside amateur videos. In many cases the clips are covered with messages favouring a particular cartel and threatening rivals with death alongside gruesome pictures of dead bodies. The bands claim to have no connection to those producing the videos. 'Who knows who is making these films?' Jacobo said. 'There are just some sick people out there.'
In one video, a beaten man is shown begging for his life before he is shot in the head. Another shows autopsy footage of Elizalde's body with laughter dubbed over it. Funeral home workers later admitted to filming the video on their mobile phones, but no charges were pressed.
A rising number of mexican politicians argue that drug ballads should be made illegal altogether. This anti- ballad lobby was particularly incensed when the popular band Los Tucanes de Tijuana posed with automatic rifles and pistols during a high-profile video shoot in Mexico City. Irineo Mendoza, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, is preparing a bill that would force record labels to show the lyrics of proposed recordings to government officials. If the words were seen as promoting violence or drugs, the recording would be forbidden.
'These ballads are perpetuating the problem,' Mendoza said. 'Young children listening to the music want to become gangsters. That is very bad for society.'
Other groups simply say the government should work harder to bring down the cartels. President Felipe Calderon claims he is winning the war against the gangs by sending 25,000 soldiers and federal police to the worst-hit areas, making record drug seizures and, where appropriate, extraditing wanted men to the United States. In November, soldiers seized 23.5 tons of cocaine - enough for about 200 million lines - in the world's biggest ever cocaine bust. It was torched in a public bonfire. Calderon's offensive has earned him praise from the States, and George W. Bush has proposed giving Mexico $1.4 billion in aid to help the effort.
But some independent investigators say the crackdown is not getting to the root of the problem. The bloodshed is driven by a huge profit motive, with gangs fighting rivals and police for lucrative smuggling routes to the States.
Mexican cartels make an estimated $10 billion to $30 billion a year trafficking cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal meth to their northern neighbour, in a country where wages are as low as $5 a day.
They also have access to the biggest handgun market in the world, buying the latest machine guns and automatic pistols in American stores and smuggling them south in the same vehicles that head north with the drugs.
'Calderon sending soldiers to pace round towns is just a show. It doesn't bring down these criminal organisations,' says Ismael Bohorquez, who runs a newspaper covering organised crime and corruption in Sinaloa. 'This unpunished
violence leaves an atmosphere of impunity and terror where ugly incidents, like these slayings of singers, can take place.'
But the drug ballad bands can, perversely, benefit from the killings. Both K Paz de la Sierra and Guasabena have seen sales rocket since the murders of their lead singers. Websites dedicated to their memories are packed with adoring messages from followers and their tombs are visited from afar and covered in flowers. For some fans they are already martyrs.
'Valentin Elizalde died a hero for many people here,' says Alejandra Aguilera, a friend of the singer in Culiacan. 'His spirit lives on. He is still alive in his music.'