Reporting on the Mexican Cartel Drug War

For Narcocorridos Singers, the Lyrics can be Lethal

Tuesday, July 13, 2010 |

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.”

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22 Borderland Beat Comments:

Anonymous said...

Now, now.....calm down the hateful rhetoric and racial slurs. This kind of hostility has no place in civil society...

Whether you agree with narcocorridos or not, no one should face death or injury for exercising free speech. And no person should face the violence, kidnapping, extortion and murder the cartels are perpetrating.

The sad part is the incredible level of corruption in government and the military. Presidente Calderon needs to clean house beginning at the top and be very transparent about it. Send a message that if you work with the cartels, you are going down.....

Anonymous said...

Of course it's social commentary, but both of you should be ashamed of your statements above. The use of such pejorative racial insults and ugly offensive words have no place here.

Anonymous said...

haha. Is anyone who looks at the pictures of murdered, tortured, and decapitated bodies really going to be offended by the f bomb? I'm a white guy from alabama, but i'm tired of hearing Alabamians and Americans sit back and talk trash about mexico. When this is largely our fault! America and Europe, by creating such a massive black market, allow these cartels to exist. We aren't ever going to knock them out, we are keeping them in power. Calderon will not be able to root out the good politicians from the bad, things just aren't that simple. Narco life is embedded in that culture hand in hand with poverty. As long as the people of mexico are poor the cartels will have soldiers. And America is first and foremost an immigrant state! America was founded by immigrants, built by immigrants, and now full of immigrants. Just because my family and your family have lived here for a few generations doesn't make them not immigrants. We will never stem the tide of immigration here as long as we have more than our latin american neighbors. Narco corridos are a reflection of the culture of poverty just like songs in this country about money reflect our greed.

Aaron H

eye-luv-wiggers said...

TO A-RON
yeah ...right blame the USA...dumb ass...half the shit goes to Canada anyway...plus Mexico has a long history of kidnapping, extortion, robbery, and general abuse of the peaceful by the violent...from the days of the aztecas, this is just a flareup, also the Mexican people turned a blind eye to the drug business as long as it only poisons the gringos, now some of these pico pollos have come home to the roost...part of the blame is on the USA, deveras, but not all of it...have you ever seen any of those old clint eastwood movies , or the magnificent 7...well that kinda shit has and, is still going on in Mexico...nothing to do with the american drug habit...it is a manifestation of desperation to have it all, to be king for a day, and corruption from top to bottom..it is a wild west mentality, where with enough nerve and a gun you can have it all....tony montana is a hero in Mexico...you see posters up in restuarants...tony montana...the world is yours, has a big appeal

you ever hear that joke about alabama boy goin to georgia, and takin a mississippi boy with him, so he could find his way back home...sure you have ....the mississippi boy don't know how to get back to alabama either ...but he knows how to get back to mississippi...pretty funny huh?....

everbody knows corridos glorify narcotraficants ...that is why some cuidads in mexico ban them...and big time narcos have their own ballads composed to romanticise their exploits...just listen to your (c)rap music, you mis-guided, identity crisis wigger, callate tu boca y quit trying to sound smart you alabama cracker...ud no sabes nada sobre mejico...

Anonymous said...

I bet that man got killed for a reason that has nothing to do with narco corridos. If that was the case then you would have dead musicians all over Mexico. They sing corridos because that is what they are living. And like any other business person they look for trends and that's whats hot right now. Its nothing personal and just cause they sing the song it doesn't mean they wrote it. And it doesn't mean they know the drug dealers. And what about our past here with Frank Sinatra and his mob ties? And what about the rappers that WERE drug dealers and now they have a record deal and can take care of their families the right way now. Did anyone ever think about who was gonna benefit from this man's death?

Hint: -record label
-one of his many wives from what I here he has over a dozen kids
-another musician
-maybe he slept with a capo's daughter or wife
-mistaken for someone else after all he was in a Caddy?
-maybe he didn't pay his narco "quota"-"tax"
-etc. the list can go on forever.

He's not the only musician to be killed in the last few years. It's just another day in Mexico with all the kidnappings and random shootings with innocent bystanders in the crossfire.

Anonymous said...

yeah, being a big time culero who brags about how many women you cojer can get you ass killed ,mebbe he wasn't payin for some of those kids, and the padre o tio shoot him

Anonymous said...

@eye-luv-wiggers
Y sabes poco sobre los E.U. Starts comparing the US market with the Canadian and that was that for me! Know how many inhabitants Canada has? And how many the US? Well it seems as if you don't so let Wiki help you out there and then please clarify to me how the US is not responsible for the messy situation.

Starts talking about the Aztecas wow...as if violence had been restricted south of the Rio Grande for eternety...I don't belong to the group of people who blame it all on the U.S. but blaming it all on Mexico is certainly not correct either.

el clarifier said...

ok smart guy...
clarification.... first Canada:
http://www.thestar.com/News/Canada/article/596153

next ...Mexico:
http://www.thestar.com/News/Canada/article/596153

i never blamed it all on Mexico...
quote :unquote "part of the blame is on the USA, deveras, but not all of it"

it was my fault as an American that you were uninformed...but now you are ...the USA is the primary market...but not the only one...ok now you are better informed ...thanks to an 'ol bad American...awww...don't mention it ...you're welcome ...no problem

ohh...almost forgot the aztecs conquered and enslaved thousands of other smaller tribes...who do you think helped the Spanish overthrow them...

further clarification...i love Mexico, my esposa is Mexican, i have family in Mexico....but the truth still stands...IT IS NOT ALL THE FAULT OF USA

te entiendes mas bien ya. si?

Anonymous said...

Well I heard El Shaka was killed because he was driving the same model and color car as a top leader for a rival cartel and that the sicarios shot first and then verified the identity of the poor guy. Why the hell wouldn't you buy a bullet proof car or at least bullet proof glass dammit?

Borderland Beat said...

This is not a platform for racial motivated comments and are not tolerated. Keep it civil and on topic, the racial rhetoric serves no purpose on these forums.

Play nice!

Anonymous said...

I heard the same mistaken identity story, gunmen were at a checkpoint, a CDS member was supposed to be driving the red Cadillac, so they tried to pull him over and confirm, but the dude didn't stop and they killed him. But, granted I took this from another forum, have little idea how much truth is in it, but it is a plausible explanation.

Anonymous said...

First off corridos are here to stay they talk about basicly the same thing rappers put in there lyrics from Money to drugs to guns and women so i dont get why the mexican government is trying to bann corridos i dont see that happening the fans will always be there just like rap music is not going anywhere 50 cent is gonna keep making music about guns violence drugs and money same with corrido bands.

finga-likn-good said...

duh...just because people eat it don't mean they should have it fed to them, rap glorifys, romantacises, and promotes a criminal lifestyle, the music company promoters make a fat living from it,

what if they promoted songs about the bad aspects of the criminal lifestyle, addiction, prison, death, destruction of familys, destruction of whole neighborhoods, enrichment, and empowerment of evil people, what if it was put down to be a criminal , instead of promoted, IT WOULD MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE

just like the fast food adds on tv, just because it is being pushed on you, and you are eating it , don't make it good for you,

the corridos are not nearly as bad, they are in ballad style, and are more narrative in form,

afro-american rap musica PROMOTES the lavish lifestyle, girls, fancy cars, violence, dis-respect of women, plus they target the poorer, younger ghetto men, it is so nasty

promotion of criminality under the guise of art , or free speech should be tightly regulated, under promotion of criminal conspiracy laws, but the people who control the press, pop media, and music industry also control the govt.

these same people are behind the drug business worlwide

really what is so cool about being a drug dealer and having your brains shot out at 24, or staying on the run for all of your life, surrounded by people who you can't trust, no family, nothing but a flash in the pan, but they really make it attractive with the rap music

at least the corridos have some realism to them, with the poor guy trying to make it big , but ending up tragic

Anonymous said...

calling someone a cracker is racist as well as saying the N word...why is it ok for some people to say it and not ok for others...if it is bad for one , it should be bad for all, but this is a USA problem, gracias a dios Mexico dosen't have THAT problem

it makes me so sad to hear bad news about miguel german, mier , guerrro, i have spent a lot of time in that area, it is really sad that the good people there have had their lives taken over by the drug war, these little towns could have a real little tourist industry, that brings money to all the people , instead of living in fear,

the Mexican govt should get really serious about guarding , and patrolling the area, to deny the malo hombres the space to do their fighting in, they seem to have given it over to them, and the Americans just stand across the river and watch it and are not allowed to do nothing,

everbody knows who these people are, even when they cross over to go to rio grande city to go to walmart or heb, they drive the big suv's, and are not bothered, i think they have even bought the Americans off too

Anonymous said...

Hey jackass, due you know the difference between immigrant and illgal alien. Immigrants apply and are inspected and admitted into the u.s. legally. Illegal aliens don't and that's what we are talking about and trying remove from the U.S.

Anonymous said...

Statue of liberty:

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"

Guess they should put a sign that says sorry closed for the summer! lol

Borderland Beat said...

"calling someone a cracker is racist as well as saying the N word...why is it ok for some people to say it and not ok for others...if it is bad for one , it should be bad for all, but this is a USA problem, gracias a dios Mexico dosen't have THAT problem"

It is and when caught, we will delete it, because in Borderlamd Beat is not allowed.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I'm FOR IT! Our right to free speech is on it's SURE way to being TOAST anyway! Let's get Calderone ( Since he has so much influence in U.S. policy) to pressure Obama to BAN RAP music in the U.S. Ban that stupid TRASH! Ban that stupid TRASH!

Anonymous said...

Ok, ok lets not listen to corridos, rap, rock, and country music anymore. We can sit in traffic listening to disney music. And for parties we can change it up a little and indulge in good old barney tunes. Maybe that will end the violence and bring about world peace! :)

Anonymous said...

Ok! I'll listen to Barney and Disney till my brain implodes if I never have to hear that crap blasting INTO my car FROM yours. AH, You'll probably all kill each other off in the long run anyway.

Anonymous said...

you people are retarded is it not the same as usgay rappers rapping there bulshit..

Anonymous said...

He had a bullet proof hummer but he had just bought that car and he liked it cause it was fast and looked nice

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