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on the border line between the US and Mexico

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Juárez Hip-Hop Resembles Narcocorridos: Music Balm for Sin-Sick Souls

By Adriana Gómez Licón
El Paso Times
Members of MC Crime band, Carlos Ernesto Romero (Aka Estrago) and Victor Aguero Espinoza (aka Obio) write "narcocorrido" songs Hip Hop Style, about the ongoing violence in Jurez, where both grew up in. Both musicians said they were somehow engaged in organized crime, but they managed to left behind those experiences, since many of their acquaintances and friends had been killed for their involvement in organized crimen. (Jesus Alcazar / Special for the Times)

Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua - It was hip-hop that saved an emerging Juárez artist's life -- and his hand. José Aaron Carreón García, aka MC Crimen, was at a hairdressers' shop popular among gangs in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Carreón García, 23, wore a bracelet that read "Amor por Juárez," which in English means love for Juárez.

One day, a man Carreón García refers as "The Don" stepped into the shop,

saw the young man's bracelet and ordered other men to cut off Carreón García's hand.

"I said, 'No, wait! I am a hip-hop singer, not involved with any cartel,'" he said.

"The Don" gave him an opportunity to prove he was truthful. He arranged a meeting at an auto repair shop.

Carreón García rapped for "The Don," who then gave him 4,000 pesos, or $325, to compose three songs in his honor. Carreón García said he heard "The Don" on the phone that day order the execution of a federal police officer. Hours later, a federal agent was killed.

Juarez youth enjoy hip-hop as a way to remember the old days when violence wasn't rampant. (Jesus Alcazar / Special for the Times)

"The Don" is just one of the many stories Carreón García documents in his songs. And Carreón García is one of at least 10 hip-hop artists in Juárez attracting national attention because of their lyrics. His music has even been pirated in Tepito, a Mexico City neighborhood known for its open-air market, he said, laughing.

Former gang members, these new artists say they are influenced by American rapper Tupac Shakur. They say the unstoppable bloodshed on the streets of Juárez inspires them to write. Tupac Shakur was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1996.

In many ways, the hip-hop songs sound just like Juárez.

The noise of helicopters, machine guns and news reports accompany their beats. Their lyrics tell cruel tales of people who succumbed to the temptations of the narco business.

More than 5,200 people have been killed in the city many know as the epicenter of Mexico's drug cartel violence. There, gang members such as the Aztecas, La Línea, Mexicles and Artistas Asesinos (Artists Assassins) do the dirty work for rival Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels.

The gang violence escalated in 2009, and producer Carlos Ernesto Romero noticed an increase in his workload in December. He owns Estrago Records and makes albums for amateur hip-hop singers in Juárez.

"Many artists are writing about our problems," he said.

The difference between reggaeton, the Latin American blend of tropical and urban-style music, and their hip-hop is simple, these artists say.

Reggaeton songs narrate the weekends, the luxury and the women. Juárez hip-hop artists write about weekdays and life on the streets.

"Our rap is more about survival, our experiences," Carreón García said. "It gets more real."

Juarez youth enjoy hip-hop as a way to remember the old days when violence wasn't rampant. (Jesus Alcazar / Special for the Times)

Criminals or artists?

Federal officials arrived at Carreón García's home about a month ago, he said. They wanted to interview him because they believed he had ties to the Juárez cartels. Federal police said he knew he was getting paid to compose music for the cartels.

"I make music of the streets," he said he told the federal commander.

But these artists do get paid by criminals such as The Don, who bonded with Carreón García during his short stay in Aguascalientes, eventually paying Carreón García more than $1,600.

Another music request was by Javier Manuel Ramírez, known in the streets as El Pando. He has killed people and spent time in the Cereso prison.

"He was like the puppet of the devil," Carreón García says in a song.

Ramírez, now a Christian pastor, preaches to a congregation at the beginning of the track.

Artists also get paid by relatives of drug war victims. In December, Carreón García said, he sang at the burial of a boy killed by a rival gang.

In a way, Juárez hip-hop resembles narcocorridos, folk songs popular in North Mexico and the Southwest United States that tell stories of drug smugglers, or narcos.

Several hip-hop artists describe themselves "as powerful as Caro Quintero" in a song.

"Rafael Caro Quintero is a legend," Carreón García said.

The drug lord preceded famous cartel members such as Sinaloa's Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán. Caro Quintero was sentenced to 40 years in prison in Mexico for the murder of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Enrique Camarena, and his pilot, Alfredo Zavala, in the 1980s.

Juarez youth enjoy hip-hop as a way to remember the old days when violence wasn't rampant. (Jesus Alcazar / Special for the Times)

Drug-dealing tales

Carreón García admits he became involved with gangs at a young age.

His father was a Latin Kings gang member in Los Angeles. Carreón Garcia was raised mostly by his mother in Juárez. He dropped out of middle school and never attended high school. When he was 10 or 11, he developed an interest in lowriders. "I associated lowriders with gangs in my 'hood," he said.

At 13, he became a drug addict and then dealer. He worked in Juárez's corners all the way until he was 21. He left the gang because of his sons, he said.

Victor Agüero Espinoza, aka Obio, calls himself the "poet of the hoods." The Juárez man gets paid to write lyrics and to perform. In the song "Así se hace," in English, "That is how you do it," Agüero Espinoza describes how he made a living delivering drugs for his clients in Horizon City and Socorro.

Agüero Espinoza, 25, said his drug dealing was based in Horizon City, in East El Paso County.

"I moved the drugs everywhere," he said. "I was the boss."

A turning point in Agüero Espinoza's gang life occurred one day when a 50-pound drug load was lost in rural San Elizario. He got a call from members of a cartel.

Men picked him up at the Zaragoza international bridge and took him to a ranch in the Valley of Juárez. There, he saw a high-ranking police official with a map pointing out where the load could have been lost. When Agüero Espinoza recognized another man the cartel members were torturing on the floor, they threatened to kill Agüero Espinoza.

The men freed Agüero Espinoza so he could find the truck with the drug load and sell it on the U.S. side, he said.

Before he knew it, Agüero Espinoza said, he was working directly for the cartel.

After living in Horizon for five years, he moved back to Juárez in 2008 to be with his wife. A year later, he stopped selling drugs because the killings began hitting close to home.

"I cannot be calm," he said. "But the music has given me peace."

Peace for Juárez

Agüero Espinoza attacks the Mexican government in his songs. His lyrics, in essence, say authorities are corrupt and cannot be trusted.

Carreón García also said the government is hypocritical.

"It is the medium I use to express social discontent," he said. He hears the radio and watches TV news to get inspiration for his songs.

When federal police arrived at Carreón García's home to question him, a local police commander told him they brought national reporters to conduct interviews.

The police commander told him not to talk about drug cartels, gangs or anything that could damage his reputation.

"Don't forget to mention social prevention programs in the city," he said the commander told him.

"I cannot say they are helping me. I am helping them ... I felt used by the authorities," he said.

Both Agüero Espinoza and Carreón García volunteer in community centers in Bavícora, the Juárez police district. They work spreading the message among Juárez's youth that the narco life is dangerous.

The youth in Juárez are perhaps the most vulnerable to brutal attacks, they said.

"The cartels are using gangs and filling them with weapons and drugs," Carreón García said. "They are abused because they are very young boys."

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