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Odes to Mexican drug gangs lose their appeal

A string of killings of musicians who sing about drug cartels has led many to quit the genre.

By Staff writer / April 7, 2008

'Narcocorridos': Even famous Mexican bands like Los Tigres del Norte sing controversial songs about drug gangs.

Guillermo Arias/AP/file

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Mazatlan, Mexico

Songwriter Oswaldo Valdez stands with his brass band, "Los Jaibos, on a street corner here, hoping to get hired for a private performance that evening.

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The real money, he knows, comes when a drug dealer requests not just a gig but a personal tribute. Mr. Valdez will sit down, listen to the dealer's story, and write him a narcocorrido.

The decades-old genre, which recounts tales of cultivating marijuana in the sierra and escaping gunfire on the streets, has been blamed by many for lauding criminals as heroes, much in the way rap music is often criticized in the US.

Calls for censorship over the years have irked musicians. But that stance is beginning to shift as drug-trade violence has escalated throughout Mexico, in number and brutality, and several narcocorrido artists have been killed as a result.

The recent string of deaths is prompting many, like Valdez, to think twice about composing the lucrative, but potentially life-threatening, lyrics.

"I will work with the low-key guys, but I will not write about murder, because then you, the singer, become a target," says Valdez, who's based in the state Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexico's narco-culture. "And we have to admit, it can generate violence, at least between the drug traffickers."

Murders' chilling effects

Among the musicians killed in the past year, it isn't certain that their lyrics landed them in trouble. One of the best-known singers, Sergio Gomez, who led the group K-Paz de la Sierra, was killed after a concert in the state of Michoacan in December, but was best-known for his romantic ballads. Observers say some musicians may have been victims of domestic disputes or even caught up in drug trafficking themselves.

Still, a trend – real or perceived – has chilled artists.

More than a dozen have been killed in the past two years, and that's only the singers who make the news. In 2006, Valentin Elizalde was killed after his song, "To All My Enemies," became a hit. Jesus Rey David Alfaro, known as "El Gallito," was killed in Tijuana in February.

While corridos have been around since the Mexican Revolution, drug traffickers didn't become the music's heroes until half a century later. Calls for censorship came almost immediately, at least since the release of the 1970s song "Contraband and Betrayal" by Los Tigres del Norte, says Elijah Wald, author of "Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas." In recent years, politicians have called for restrictions and radio bans.

Though musicians generally resisted calls for censorship, some now publicly support more controls. Julio Preciado, one of Mexico's most famous banda singers, used to sing narcocorridos, but at a recent concert in Mazatlan he belted his more famous themes of love and unrequited love.