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The savage silencing of Mexico's musicians

Mexico's music scene is rocked by the death of singer Sergio Gómez, the latest of a dozen pop musicians to have been killed in the past year. Nearly every one of the slayings bore the hallmarks of the drug cartel hitmen blamed for 4,000 deaths in the past two years.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Sergio Gómez roared into town in a big SUV, entourage in tow, pressed suits, fancy cowboy boots.

Everything about him said superstar. He had an international following, an impish smile that drove the women wild and a star on the walk of fame in Las Vegas. More than 20,000 fans swarmed the parking lot of this colonial city's soccer stadium to dance and hear him sing romantic "Duranguense grupero" pop songs backed by a driving drumbeat.

After the show, in the small hours of Dec. 2, Sergio Gómez was kidnapped. Police found his body the next day. He'd been strangled and beaten. His face -- a face that graced album covers and made teenage girls blush -- was disfigured by burn marks.

Sergio Gómez, 34, was the latest of a dozen pop musicians to have been killed in the past year in Mexico. Nearly every one of the slayings bore the hallmarks of the drug cartel hitmen blamed for 4,000 deaths in the country in the past two years.

But the savage murder of Sergio Gómez -- one of Mexico's hottest singers, a headliner whose band, K-Paz de la Sierra, commanded $100,000 a show, twice the rate of other top bands -- was different. It has set off an unprecedented chain reaction in which at least half a dozen bands have canceled concert tours. Popular bands, such as the Duranguense act Patrulla 81, which backed out of four major shows, are terrified of coming to Morelia and the surrounding state of Michoacan.

"All this is very dark for us," José Angel Medina, Patrulla 81's lead singer, said in an interview. "We're very worried. Very scared."

Among music industry insiders, Sergio Gómez's death and the previous killings are also forcing a quiet assessment of the influence drug trafficking kingpins wield over the business. It is common knowledge in Mexico's music industry, but not known to the general public, that drug cartels finance the careers of some budding musicians, then launder money through unregulated concert ticket sales, according to industry sources, musicians and law enforcement.

There has been no suggestion that Sergio Gómez was backed by drug money. But the obvious cartel-hitmen trademarks in his killing have been the catalyst for the music industry to question the risks of mixing socially and professionally with drug traffickers.

"The narcos are completely involved in the business," Lucio Tzin Tzun, who has been a concert promoter here for 20 years, said in an interview. "They control everything. It's like a mafia."

Dangerous benefactors
The marriage of music and the underworld is nothing new. In the United States, Frank Sinatra was long criticized for being too cozy with the mafia and, more recently, gangsta rappers often have been accused of celebrating violence against police.

In Mexico, the musical celebration of counterculture figures is in the country's DNA. An array of homages are still sung to Pancho Villa -- a bandit turned revolutionary-era folk hero. The new bandit heroes are drug traffickers, celebrated in songs known as narcocorridos and written by artists who are "essentially court poets for the drug world," said Elijah Wald, author of the book "Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas."

"It's all about being like Pancho Villa," Wald said in an interview.

The existence of the narcocorrido genre made the drug cartel-style killing of G¿mez all the more puzzling. Sergio Gómez, who launched his musical career in Chicago, made his reputation with romantic ballads and kitschy covers, such as the New Orleans-inflected classic "Jambalaya." He didn't sing about drug dealers. Sergio Gómez was certainly no Valentin Elizalde, the Mexican singer murdered in November 2006 after his narcocorrido "To All My Enemies," a song that mocked drug kingpin Osiel Cardenas, became an Internet sensation.

A clear line seemed to connect Elizalde's lyrics to his demise. No such line ties Sergio Gómez's music to his death.

But Wald said the popular notion that only narcocorrido singers mix with drug lords couldn't be further from the truth. Musicians are sometimes expected to give private concerts for kingpins, and to play whatever the kingpin wants to hear for as long the kingpin and his friends feel like listening.

"The drug lord is just as likely to ask for songs by Jose Alfredo Jimenez [a popular ballad crooner] as a narcocorrido," Wald said.

Deals and consequences
The nexus between drug traffickers and musicians often forms in poor mountain villages. Young musicians have few sources of income to launch their careers. There is scant public funding for popular music genres, which ruling elites look down upon as "lower-class junk," according to Wald.

Drug traffickers are often the only wealthy people in the mountain villages of states such as Sinaloa, a hotbed of cartel activity. In the most extreme situations, the musician can become almost a serf to his kingpin sponsors.

"There are those who dedicate themselves to singing for those people," Alfredo Ramirez Corral, lead singer of Los Creadorez del Pasito Duranguense, said in an interview. But Corral, whose group canceled a December show in Michoacan, was reluctant to criticize musicians who cater to narcotraffickers, saying that "each person has to do what they can to make a living."

Traffickers are drawn to musical acts because they provide an easy platform to launder money. There are other easy options, but none is so culturally prestigious. It is the glamour of the music scene that makes it irresistible to narcotraffickers, said Rolando Coro, a well-known disc jockey at Radio Tremendous in Morelia.

"They show up at the dances, these drug traffickers, and order the expensive whiskey, not just a glass, but the whole bottle," Coro said. "They have pretty women following them around. It's fun for them."

Bands that make deals with drug traffickers get a crucial leg up on the competition. Tzin Tzun, the promoter, can spot them with ease.

"They come into town with the most expensive equipment, stuff from Germany, stuff that costs thousands of dollars," he said. "But nobody's ever heard of these guys. They were on the rancho yesterday, today they're on billboards."

But support from a drug dealer comes with strings. Traffickers expect a hefty cut of profits -- sometimes 20 percent or more -- and react violently if they don't get what they believe they're owed, music industry insiders say. Still, bands take chances.

"Bands start to get popular and sometimes they want to keep more of the money," Tzin Tzun said.

Drug traffickers can also expect musicians to be available to them at a moment's notice. But band leaders, especially those who achieve major commercial success, sometimes grow weary of altering schedules to suit their patrons' desires.

"So a capo has supported you since you were kids," Wald said. "Now it's his daughter's birthday party and instead you take the gig in Morelia for $100,000."

The consequences of such intransigence can be fatal, industry insiders say.

Proximity with drug traffickers can also lead to other dangerous entanglements. Music industry sources have theorized that some of the singers killed in the past year may have been romantically involved with the wives and girlfriends of drug kingpins, or simply that cartel honchos may have become jealous of handsome musicians.

"Skirts," Coro said. "That's what they say a lot of this is about. Musicians chasing skirts."

A week of tears
The spasm of violence against musicians in the state of Michoacan began a year ago, about the same time that Mexican President Felipe Calderón, a native of Michoacan, was launching a military offensive against drug cartels here. On Dec. 14, three days after the arrival of more than 6,000 soldiers and federal police officers, Javier Morales Sergio Gómez, leader of the popular band Los Implacables del Norte, was gunned down in Michoacan. Sergio Gómez, no relation to Sergio Sergio Gómez, had sung narcocorridos with titles such as "Death Contract" and "Drug Tragedy."

Two months later, four members of Banda Fugaz were shot to death in the town of Puruaran after a concert. A fifth band member survived the shooting.

Then there seemed to be a calm. No musicians died in Michoacan in the spring, summer or fall. Sergio Sergio Gómez, who grew up in Michoacan, was set for a big show in December and tickets went fast. The decision to play Michoacan surprised some here. Coro said Sergio Gómez canceled a show the year before amid rumors that he had offended a violent drug trafficker.

As Sergio Gómez was preparing for his appearance, the music industry was jolted by news from the far north of Mexico. The worst six days in the recent history of Mexican music were about to begin.

On Friday, Nov. 30, Zayda Peña, the 28-year-old singer of Zayda y Los Culpables, was shot in the neck in Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville, Tex. She was rushed to the hospital. But a gunman came into her room Dec. 1 and blasted a bullet into her heart. She died instantly.

That evening, Sergio Gómez stepped to the microphone in Morelia, nearly 500 miles to the south. Hours after his show, around 3 a.m. on Dec. 2, he was kidnapped. His body was found the next day.

There did not appear to be a connection between the killings of Sergio Gómez and Peña. Still the violence wasn't over. A few days later, the body of José Luis Aquino, a trumpeter with the band Los Conde, was found in the southern state of Oaxaca. His hands and feet had been bound and his head was covered with a plastic bag.

It should have been a joyous week for Mexico's sizzling music scene, instead of a week of tears and funeral Masses. Grammy nominations were due on Thursday, Dec. 6, and Mexican bands were expected to fare well.

The nominations went off as planned. When the Banda album category was announced, the list was stocked with Mexican musical royalty. But it was also a reminder of the violence that racks this country.

One of the five nominees, the singer Lupillo Rivera, had survived when his SUV was hit by seven bullets in December 2006 in Guadalajara. Two other nominees, Elizalde and Sergio Gómez -- who was nominated with his band -- were dead.