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Thursday, December 27, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Killings add note of fear among bands in Mexico

The Washington Post

MORELIA, Mexico — Sergio Gomez 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, Gomez was kidnapped. Police found his body the next day. He'd been strangled and beaten. His face — which had graced album covers and made teenage girls blush — was disfigured by burn marks.

Gomez, 34, was the latest of a dozen pop musicians 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 Gomez — 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 a half-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 Michoacán.

"We're very worried. Very scared," said Jose Angel Medina, Patrulla 81's lead singer.

There has been no suggestion that Gomez was backed by drug money, but it is common knowledge in Mexico's music industry 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.

"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."

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."

Gomez 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 Gomez'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.

The nexus between drug traffickers and musicians often forms in poor mountain villages.

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. "Each person has to do what they can to make a living," he said.

Traffickers are drawn to musical acts because they provide an easy platform to launder money — and because of the glamour of the music scene, 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.

Music-industry sources also 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."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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