MEXICO CITY — The story of a drug cartel hood who dissolved the bodies of 300 victims in acid might dominate news reports and then R-rated movies. But in Mexico, it is also the subject of popular songs.
Santiago Meza, a 45-year-old who confessed last week to the grisly work he committed for crime bosses over the last nine years, is revered in lively ballads with names such as “The Cook.” “I have got many women, and I make a lot of money, because I am a specialist, the best cook,” croons the singer of Explosion Nortena, a group from the border city of Tijuana, where Meza was arrested.
Mexican musicians are increasingly singing so-called narco corridos, or drug ballads, as the nation suffers from an unprecedented wave of drug-related bloodshed.
While the music has the familiar folksy sound of accordions and 12-string guitars, the lyrics are all about Kalashnikovs, cocaine kingpins and contract killings.
But the sombrero-clad crooners are not only chanting about the glories of gangsters. They are also among their bullet-ridden victims. In the last two-and-a-half years, at least 20 musicians have been gunned down, strangled or burned to death in murders that have the hallmarks of organized crime.
In an October attack, gunmen sprayed more than 100 bullets at the group Los Herederos de Sinaloa as they stepped out of a newspaper interview in the northwestern city of Culiacan. Three group members and their agent were killed.
In another incident, masked men kidnapped Grammy-nominated singer Sergio Gomez, tortured him and burned his genitals with a blowtorch before they dumped his body on a road in December 2007.
In the vast majority of musician slayings, police have made no arrests or named any suspects.
The lack of progress reflects a generally dreadful clearance rate of less than 5 percent of crimes, as Mexico suffers a widespread breakdown in security. Last year, there were more than 5,300 killings believed to be drug related, including those of 500 police officers and soldiers.
But in November, the police finally nabbed a suspect for one of the most high-profile musician murders — the shooting death of Valentin “The Golden Rooster” Elizalde in 2006.
The suspect Jaime Gonzalez — who police say masterminded and took part in the hit — is alleged to be one of the leaders of the Zetas, a group of former army special forces who defected to become assassins for the Gulf Cartel.
Elizalde sang many ballads glorifying gangsters from the Sinaloa Cartel, the archrivals of the Zetas. Unknown producers also concocted amateur videos to his songs that showed graphic images of dead Zetas and posted them on the Internet.
Those close to the artists, however, say many of the killings could have more to do with personal gripes than the ballads being sung.
“These are not necessarily attacks on these guys for being musicians,” said Conrado Lugo, a producer at Sol Discos, a label with more than 180 balladeers. “They could have had a beef with someone over money, women or whatever.”
Even so, the drug ballad artists concede that they do live close to the world of the traffickers, playing at their parties and even receiving payment to write songs about their exploits.
Drug ballad composers in Culiacan, considered the home of the genre, openly quote the prices they charge for writing a ballad about someone.
While lesser-known musicians ask for as little as $1,000 for a song about an up-and-coming thug, big-name stars charge tens of thousands of dollars for a tune about a major kingpin.
But the best-selling balladeers such as Los Tigres del Norte, who have signed deals with major U.S. record labels, tend to disassociate themselves from the gangs.
“For a young group, having a gangster patron can make all the difference. It can mean having some serious money in your pocket,” said author Elijah Wald, who wrote a book on drug ballads. “But the real big stars have nothing to gain by being too close to a certain crime group.”
Unsurprisingly, the Mexican government lambasts the ballads with the same criticism many use against rap music in the United States. Drug ballads are banned on Mexican radio, and more than 70 stations since 2001 have been fined for playing them.
“The ballads encourage the use of guns and the growing and selling of drugs. They are praising crimes that go against society,” said Alvaro Lozano, head of Mexico’s radio, television and cinema directorate. “Liberty has its limits.”
However, like some rappers, balladeers defend their music with two main arguments: They say they are just writing about what they see, and they are giving the fans what they want.
Cesar Jacobo, composer of "Grupo Cartel," said he grew up listening to his father humming love songs. But he says he became a fan of the drug ballads because they speak about the reality in his urban slum.
“I saw friends of mine becoming hit men and dying young,” he said. “Drug ballads speak about what is really going on. They are just like a form of news for the people on the street.”