Pubdate: Wed, 30 Jul 2008
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2008 Los Angeles Times
Author: Richard Marosi, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Mexico Under Siege


As Drug-Related Violence Escalates, Tijuana Is Losing Its Taste for
Songs That Glorify Gangsters.

TIJUANA -- The whiskey is flowing at La Cantina when Calor Nortena
kicks out the accordion jams for a homage to gangster Arturo
Villarreal, who rose from drug cartel protege to crime boss in a
six-year reign of mayhem and murder.

"The law calls me a dangerous [criminal] so don't dare take me on
because I have bullets to spare," the band members sing, as
beer-swilling youths shout and long-nailed women twirl on the dance

"He was one of the top bosses, not some street dealer," says one man,
explaining why he deems the convicted racketeer worthy of a
narcocorrido. "He was a powerful man."

But the revelry proves too much for some patrons, who watch glumly or
shake their heads. "It's horrible," says Leslie Guzman, a 25-year-old
courier. "It glorifies the ugliness, the murder, the death. Everything
this city is living right now. It's so sad."

Since drug traffickers set foot in this border city, Mexican musicians
have strummed behind, chronicling their exploits in the traditional
polka-based rhythms of the corrido. The sub-genre has been a
soundtrack for the city, with cover bands like Calor Nortena
sprinkling their repertoires with tunes about the city's most feared
gunmen. But with drug war violence and kidnappings escalating, the
narcocorridos are losing their swagger.

Radio stations have stopped playing the songs and promoters have
banned the music from many public events. Nightclub owners ask bands
to turn down narcocorrido requests. At the cavernous Las Pulgas
nightclub downtown, managers banned the music two months ago -- a
decision tantamount to West Hollywood's Whisky A Go-Go banning heavy
metal hair bands in the 1980s.

Narcocorridos still draw legions of fans, despite government efforts
to squelch the music. Calor Nortena played the song about Villarreal
only because of repeated requests from hard-drinking bar-goers. But it
was a momentary exception to a backlash that has succeeded like none
before in changing people's attitudes toward the music, say members of
several bands, nightclub owners, concert promoters and government officials.

They describe a growing dislike, even revulsion, for music that
critics say celebrates the people terrorizing a community that has
suffered at least 207 violent deaths this year. Attendance at
narcocorrido concerts has dipped; bands say audiences request the
music less and less, preferring dance and romantic tunes that take
their minds off the city's troubles.

"Things are changing. . . . It's not like in the past, when people
would hear corridos and shoot their guns in the air," said Mario
Limon, the goateed accordion player for Los Linces Boyz, an ensemble
that grew popular largely for singing narcocorridos. "Now, people
would rather grab their girlfriends, squeeze close on the dance floor
and kiss."

Narcocorridos are rooted in Mexico's musical story-telling tradition,
which has immortalized revolutionary struggles, great romances and
social movements.

Tijuana's emergence as a hotbed of narcocorrido music paralleled the
rise of the local Arellano Felix drug cartel, one of Mexico's most
powerful organized crime groups, during the 1990s.

Los Tucanes de Tijuana achieved stardom singing about hit men,
bumbling U.S. agents and the rags-to-riches lives of the Arellano
Felix family and other drug kingpins.

But the music of Los Tucanes is considered almost quaint compared with
the songs of the new generation of bands that toast a new crop of
gangsters, considered by many to be crueler and more indiscriminate in
their crime sprees.

The harder-edged lyrics frequently name the gangsters (past songs
spoke in more general terms) and sometimes carry threats. Recent
narcocorridos glorify Jorge Briseno Lopez, known as El Cholo, a feared
cartel lieutenant, and Raydel Lopez Uriarte, nicknamed Muletas, or
Crutches, for allegedly leaving so many of his enemies with crippling

Blurring the lines between art and reality, some Tijuana musicians'
lives have started resembling the lives of gangsters they sing about.

In February, the body of local singer Jesus Alfaro Pulido was found in
a field, wrapped in a blanket and showing signs of torture. Last
November, the lead singer of Explosion Nortena, Jose Alberto Cervantes
Nieto, was arrested and charged with racketeering.

Last month, all the members of Banda Nueva Clave de Oro were arrested
along with about 40 other organized crime suspects after police raided
a baptism celebration where they were playing. One of their songs
praises a group of Tijuana police officers fired in May, in a purge of
corrupt cops.

Even outside such suspicious venues, narcocorridos can prove
dangerous, bringing out the worst in crowds, band members and
promoters say. The alcohol starts flowing and fights break out,
especially if the narcocorridos are about gangsters from rival cartels.

But turning down requests often is not a viable option. Band members
say they have been threatened and beaten for refusing to play certain
songs. According to one local legend, crime boss Briseno Lopez once
compelled a band to play a song six times in a row, after they refused
his first request.

The cartels also dangle a quick path to success to many bands,
offering to pay for recording sessions, tours and clothing.

"As a musician, you learn to know what's going on," said a member of
one band who declined to be identified for fear of retribution.
"You've got to be careful of who offers you fame. . . . It seems
tempting at first. But there are consequences that come along with

The current campaign against narcocorridos began in April, after a
bloody shootout here between rival gangs claimed the lives of 14
gunmen. Baja California Gov. Jose Guadalupe Osuna Millan asked radio
stations to stop playing the music because, he said, it contributes to
the crime problem.

"It was a call to citizens to reject narcocorridos and the culture of
violence," said Maria Elena Rodriguez, the state deputy secretary of
public security. "They glorify the gangster lifestyle. They tell kids:
With guns you can gain riches."

But fans and other observers scoff at claims that the music turns fans
into addicts or gangsters. For many, especially poor or working-class
residents living on society's margins, the music's rebel spirit gives
voice to frustrations and skepticism toward a government that
facilitated the rise of the cartels and is believed to be either too
inept or too corrupt to control the chaos.

"Corridos tell the truth," said Juan Tenorio, a 63-year-old retiree
shopping for corrido recordings at a swap meet. "There are many other
bad guys: the government. America's appetite for drugs, corrupt cops."

Whether true or mythical or a mix of both, narcocorridos for now are
being muted.

The Pancho Villa bar, the most notorious narcocorrido venue, is a
no-go zone for many fearful citizens after a cop was fatally shot
there last year. Over at Las Pulgas downtown, DJs dealing with
narcocorrido fans direct them to signs prohibiting the music. The only
corrido music allowed now can't reference the gangster lifestyle. DJs
call them Corridos Lite.

On a recent Friday night, about 300 people, among them teenage girls
in mini-dresses and middle-aged men in cowboy hats, gathered at the
Rock Disco for a battle of the bands. In the past, such contests would
feature song after song about the Tijuana criminal underworld.

But most of the bands instead played rancheras, cumbias and other
dance tunes, with no complaints from the audience.

"We're not playing any tonight," said Gerardo Espericueta, the
19-year-old accordion player for Los Plebes de Tijuana. "Our music is
going in a different direction. We prefer playing romantic songs."