Mexico's Narcocorrido Body Count

by Rick Rockwell*

First, some translating is in order. A corrido is a song. And of course, narco refers to narcotics, as in drug dealing.

Narcocorridos, more or less, ballads either glorifying or vilifying drug dealers, have resounded across Mexico for the past generation. (Los Tigres del Norte, a Norteño band scored one of the first narcocorrido hits with "Contrabando y Traición" in 1972.) But in the past year, singers of narcocorridos, and those who perform in other genres too, have become targets, like no other year in memory. The death toll varies depending upon what article you read, but The Washington Post says at least a dozen Mexican musicians were killed last year.

And this wave of violence may actually have started in 2006 with the killing of popular singer Valentin Elizalde in Reynosa.

The singers are grabbing the headlines, which in this case is warranted. But they are just the tip of this lethal trend. The news of these killings has actually eclipsed the deaths of at least 4,000 Mexicans since 2006, all whom became collateral damage during an internecine war among Mexico’s drug cartels. Although the deaths have made some news north of the border, the numbers don’t seem to mean much in the U.S. until you translate. That’s about as many people killed in Mexico’s drug war in the past two years as all the U.S. troops killed in Iraq. Of course, this is a long, sad story about how Mexico is seeing its worst violence since the Mexican Revolution and the government seems unable to stop it.

For years in the bloody turf wars among Mexico’s four cartels, journalists were often the victims, and the number of journalists killed in the past two years has ratcheted upward too with the total body count. Also, entertainers, like comedian Paco Stanley of TV Azteca in 1999, have faced the wrath of the cartels in the past.

But the sheer number of musicians killed in this new wave of violence has many wondering where it will all end. Currently, about half those nominated in the banda category for this year’s Grammy Awards have been assassinated.

Of course, this is related to corruption. Cartels found fronting musical acts was a great way to launder cash. Some of the assassinations may have been the result of musicians who no longer wanted to deal with the cartels who had promoted their careers in the past.

But some of the killings may be part of a terror campaign, or as retribution. This cycle of violence may have started when Elizalde issued a violent video to a narcocorrido, which some saw as promoting one of Mexico’s cartel godfathers, Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán. By the end of 2006, Elizalde was dead, and Guzmán's rivals posted a video of the singer's dead body online. As part of the wave of terror, which even the Mexican army has been unable to stop, narco-gangs are using the internet to show beheadings, assassinations and other violence.

All of this culminated last month when three musicians were killed in one week, including singer Zayda Peña. Peña was first wounded in a botched assassination attempt in the border city of Matamoros, and then assassins came to the hospital to finish the job the next day. Peña and her band Los Culpables (The Guilty Ones) were famous for singing the song “Tiro de Gracias” which refers to the classic way gang assassins finish a hit. Peña and her band though usually just sang love songs, not narcocorridos. Authorities remain unsure about why Peña was murdered.

The solution to this problem is obvious, but it won’t come easily. The Mexican government will need to clean out the corruption that has attached itself to the country’s music industry. However, prosecutors and police chiefs are often victims in the drug war. High-ranking police and army officials have been implicated in the past of working for the cartels. If the Mexican military, police, and prosecutors have been infiltrated by the drug gangs (and this happened so long ago that even several waves of anti-corruption sweeps by the last three presidents hasn’t rid the country of compromised law enforcement) how can they be expected to clean up this new area of concern?

Unfortunately, sad songs about lost singers, and more bloody headlines are ahead for Mexico as the power of the cartels increases.

*The author wrote his first news article about Mexico in 1980; he is the author of several book chapters and numerous articles about journalism, corruption, politics, free speech, and drug violence in Mexico.

(Promotional photo of Zayda Peña from Balboa Records/Musart Discos.)

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