The Savage Silencing of Mexico's Musicians

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

MORELIA, Mexico -- 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.


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