Only in freewheeling Mexico could ballads about drug lords be considered an art form.
Mario Quintero Lara of Los Tucanes de Tijuana on stage: 'We have to behave well and pray to God for help and protection wherever we go,' he says.
By: Diodora Bucur
Saturday's Globe and Mail
Sergio Vega was driving along a stretch of Interstate Highway 15 in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa, when his flashy red Cadillac approached a toll booth about 200 kilometres from his destination, the farming town of Alhuey.
Accounts of what happened next vary greatly, but they agree on one thing – that his last words came in a frantic plea made over his cellphone: “Call the federal police. I am being ambushed.”
There was a burst of gunfire, and the Caddie spun out of control, coming to a halt 30 metres off the road. A passenger in the car told the police that, although wounded in the neck, Mr. Vega struggled to escape but could not remove his seatbelt before the assailants arrived and ended his life with shots to the chest and head.
The bullet-riddled Cadillac driven by singer Sergio (El Shaka) Vega.
And who was the doomed driver trying so desperately to reach with his final call? His agent.
Mr. Vega was a singer, and Alhuey was to be the next stop on his “Pacific tour.” A few hours earlier, he had had to deny a rumour circulating online – that he had been murdered.
FATHERED 17 CHILDREN
With his thick mustache and signature cowboy hat and suit, Sergio Vega was known to fans across Mexico and the southern United States as El Shaka – regional slang for “the best” – and once claimed that he had fathered no fewer than 17 children.
His death at the age of 40 two weeks ago is the latest evidence that artists are anything but immune to the violence that has plagued Mexico since President Felipe Calderón declared war on his nation's infamous drug cartels.
In the four years since the President took office, his crackdown along with a fierce turf war among feuding cartels has sparked a surge in violence and claimed as many as 26,000 lives.
But in Mr. Vega's case, his art may well have been what sealed his fate. No arrests have been made and the police have yet to give a motive for the killing, but El Shaka was the seventh high-profile performer of narcocorridos – ballads dedicated to the drug trade – to be gunned down in Mexico.
Mr. Vega walked a fine line between music and organized crime. He sang about danger and love, and he died in the state that is called home by such feared cartel bosses as Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán Loera and Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada.
Narcocorridos are part of the norteño (northern) folk music tradition that enjoys wide popularity here and among Mexican immigrants in the United States. But that popularity presents a challenge to the administration of Mr. Calderón, who has made the battle against the cartels central to his political agenda and deployed thousands of troops to trouble spots in northern Mexico as well as the southwestern states of Michoacán and Guerrero.
“What this war against drug cartels does is to inspire even more ballads about drug trafficking because this musical genre feeds on these traumatic moments the society is going through,” says Diego Enrique Osorno, a prominent journalist for the newspaper Milenio whose report on the 2008 killing of the son of El Chapo (Shorty) provided the inspiration for a narcocorrido.
Also the author of an acclaimed book called El Cartel de Sinaloa, Mr. Osorno feels that the public's morbid interest in tabloid crime coverage is what fuels the appeal of the drug ballads. “It is not new or exclusive to Mexico that stories about criminals and bandidos draw people in. Murder is the topic people around the world talk about most.”
Mexican lawmakers have attempted to restrict and, in some cases, slap a gag order on the distribution of narcocorridos. Authorities have even cancelled shows, arguing that the controversial musical genre instigates violence and poses security and health risks.
Conservative Congressman Oscar Martín Arce of the ruling National Action Party is pushing for a bill that would earn musicians and record producers up to three years behind bars for promoting songs dedicated to organized crime.
“A lot of them work for these characters, and when they [the traffickers] hear a message they dislike, they think the musicians are part of a rival cartel and assassinate them as if they were their enemies,” Mr. Arce told the BBC recently.
‘A LITTLE DANGEROUS'
But the threat of attack won't stop the performers from doing what they love, counters Mario Quintero Lara, lead singer and songwriter of Los Tucanes de Tijuana, a celebrated six-member norteño band.
“Singing or composing corridos today has become a little dangerous,” he says, speaking from San Diego, where Los Tucanes are recording their next album.
“It's sad to live in fear, so I think that, instead of living in fear, one has to be prudent. What else can one do? We have to behave well and pray to God for help and protection wherever we go. … The only thing we want is to work and bring our music and entertainment to all corners of the world.”
Formed in the 1980s, Los Tucanes have sold more than 13 million records and received several Grammy nominations. Their latest hit is titled El Papá de los Pollitos (The Godfather) and shows band members firing AK-47 assault rifles, but their repertoire also includes songs that have nothing to do with the underworld.
“For me, the corridos are like short, three-minute action movies – most are stories about the brave making headlines and causing controversy,” Mr. Quintero says. “One has to base [his music] on what's reported in the news, on what people say, like in the old days of the Revolution.”
And yet it is not uncommon for singers to perform for drug lords at private parties or to have songs commissioned by kingpins seeking to bolster public support. Musicians who co-operate run the risk of being targeted by rival cartels, although some slayings of gruperos, as the performers are also known, have been attributed to other causes, such as the settling of accounts involving trafficking, money laundering or simple revenge.
“The execution of corridos singers in Mexico is nothing new,” says Mr. Osorno, the journalist. “Some of them remain controversial figures living on the edge.”
Not long before he was shot, El Shaka told an interviewer for an entertainment website that “it's happened to me for years now – someone tells a radio station or a newspaper I've been killed, or suffered an accident. And then I have to call my dear mom, who has heart trouble, to reassure her.”
Mr. Osorno contends that “there's no specific pattern to indicate that these murders occur because of the corridos they sing.
“In the case of singer Valentín Elizalde, we know he had an extramarital affair with the female partner of a Los Zetas [gang] member who, in a fit of rage, ordered his assassination. In the case of the vocalist of the band, K-Paz de la Sierra, I understand the musician paid with his life for money he owed.”
The tortured body of K-Paz singer Sergio Gomez was found on Dec. 3, 2007. Three days earlier, 28-year-old corrido singer Zayda Peña had been wounded in an attack that left two people dead in Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Texas. The following day, an assailant walked into the hospital where she was recovering and killed her.
Another famous case involves Grammy-winning King of the Accordion Ramón Ayala, who was detained last Dec. 11 after the military raided a Christmas party allegedly thrown by the infamous Beltrán Leyva, who managed to avoid capture only to die in a gun battle with marines five days later. Mr. Ayala was released, saying he was unaware those who had hired him were drug suspects.
BANNED IN TIJUANA
A month earlier, Tijuana police pulled the plug on a Los Tucanes show after learning the group was going to perform a song dedicated to a brutal drug lord. The city on the U.S. border has banned drug balladsfrom local airwaves and even the public transit system since 2008.
Still, “the toucans” insist they're artists, not criminals.
“Some radio and television stations in Mexico don't play corridos, but this has always been the case and our fans listen to corridos in their cars, homes, at parties and online,” Mr. Quintero says.
“We don't feel we have a negative impact. We are part of the entertainment world and the public has the right to listen to whatever type of music they want.”