Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Narcocorrido band Explosion Norteño

Songs about Mexican drug cartels proving dangerous for performers

By Anna Cearley
San Diego

January 2, 2007

TIJUANA – Three months after gunmen seriously wounded Alberto Cervantes Nieto, the popular Tijuana norteño singer was back on the stage at Las Pulgas nightclub, singing his trademark songs about the Arellano Félix drug cartel.

Metal rods protruded from his right arm, where a shattered bone continues to heal, as Cervantes smiled and bounced to the beat of the accordion music. His fans, wearing cowboy hats and leather boots, sang along. One was about “El Cholo,” a suspected Arellano member who is at large:

“No one will detain him,

He is a determined man,

He has lots of people under his command,

All have AR-15s and AK-47s.”

Cervantes' group, Explosion Norteña, is known for its peppy narcocorridos. The genre, in which bands tell musical tales of the drug world and how cartel members stand up to authority, has been compared to gangsta rap in the United States for the way it depicts criminal lifestyles and for the controversy it engenders.

Pressure from community groups has effectively banned narcocorridos from Mexican radio stations, but the groups remain popular. The songs, disseminated on CDs, are memorized by fans who flock to the groups' concerts.

It was inevitable that the Aug. 10 assault on Cervantes in the Tijuana office of his record producer would raise questions about the singer's familiarity with the Arellano Félix cartel.

Cervantes, 31, who was in a coma for 12 days, says he has no idea why he was attacked.

“I don't know if someone didn't like how I sing, or if it was because someone just didn't like me,” Cervantes said before his comeback concert in November. “Nothing can be determined until the person who did this is arrested.”

However, Mexican investigators said last week that they have been stymied because Cervantes declined to give them a statement.

That has left rumors to fill the void. They range from his angering the Arellanos, or being targeted by a rival cartel, to more mundane theories of rivalry and jealousy.

Members of other banda and norteño musical groups have been attacked recently in Mexico, and most of the cases remain unsolved. At least five assaults were reported in 2006, including the killing in November of singer Valetín Elizalde in Reynosa, south of McAllen, Texas. The slaying has been linked to organized crime.

The incidents have revived public discussion over the responsibility that artists bear and the danger they face when depicting such sensitive subjects.

Alberto Capella, president of a public security citizens advisory committee in Baja California, said the songs set a bad example for youths.

“It contributes to a way of thinking that people dedicated to these illicit activities are a type of hero,” he said.

The singers say they are just portraying life on the streets and that what they sing about is no different from what people read in the newspapers. But the code names and other cryptic phrases used by the groups prompt speculation that the songs spring from a deeper knowledge of the underworld.

A U.S. drug investigator, who declined to be identified because of his work on sensitive Arellano cases, said Explosion Norteña has performed at the Arellanos' parties but that there's no indication the musicians themselves are involved in drug trafficking.

Explosion Norteña, a five-member group, also produces popular love and dance songs with no mention of drugs. José Manuel Romo Gallardo, artistic manager at Tijuana's “La Mejor” FM 97.7, said the radio station regularly plays those songs, but not the ones about drugs because “as a company, we have certain values of integrity and quality.”

Nonetheless, he said, “the groups write what people want to hear.”

Artists tapping into the lore of drug traffickers can find plenty of material in Tijuana. The Arellanos have controlled the passage of drugs along much of the Baja California border for nearly two decades, but many top leaders have been arrested in recent years.

The cartel is facing internal fissures and challenges from rival groups. Suspected cartel leader Francisco Javier Arellano Félix, whom Cervantes refers to in his songs as “El Tigrillo,” was arrested in August, and a plethora of dumped bodies and shootouts with local police soon followed. Arellano, who is in U.S. custody in San Diego, faces racketeering charges that could lead to his execution.

Some norteño musicians say they won't write a narcocorrido about the Arellanos.

“Personally, we haven't . . . it's something very delicate, and you just don't do it like that,” said Ivan Quiñónez of the group Los Galleros de la Sierra.

Elijah Wald, author of the book “Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas,” said some narcocorridos require approval from drug traffickers and others don't.

When a top cartel leader is arrested, for example, lots of groups write tunes to capture the moment. Some of these songs are based more on journalistic observation than personal relationships. Other songs are penned for money or gifts, Wald said.

“These guys are both journalists and court musicians, and those are different, occasionally overlapping jobs,” said Wald, who is based in Los Angeles.

The narcocorrido has its roots in the traditional Mexican corrido, a form of musical storytelling that dates to the 1700s with themes of love, betrayal and historical events. The songs often had an anti-authority tone.

Some of Cervantes' songs depict traffickers as honorable and brave, usually surrounded by heavily armed men. He uses codes and nicknames to refer to the cartel's members and makes references to their killing techniques. Some of them are in prison, others are still on the loose.

Cervantes denies that his songs paint drug traffickers in a positive light.

“I never say a narco comes out like a king,” he said. “I just talk about how things are, but I also write about when they are detained and go to jail.”

But critics, such as Capella, say musicians are exploiting the issue for financial gain, even though Mexican media reports estimate more than 2,000 people died from drug-cartel violence in 2006.

Explosion Norteña, which was started about 10 years ago, isn't the first to touch on such themes.

The group owes much of its early exposure to the Tucanes de Tijuana, a popular group that has written numerous narcocorridos. The Tucanes paid for Explosion's first album and took them on tour as an opening act. The Tucanes, who didn't respond to a request for an interview, wrote some of Explosion's first songs. Cervantes, whose band's repertoire includes other musical styles such as cumbias, rancheras and ballads that don't touch on drug themes, said he's now the primary author of the corridos.

“I realized that I had my own voice and style,” he said.

The group has performed in places such as New York, Texas and Oklahoma, but the Arellano songs resonate most in Tijuana.

“You mention about seeing a caravan of cars going through the city, and people here know what that's like because they've seen it too,” he said, referring to armed convoys of drug traffickers.

Cervantes was attacked inside Champion's Music. Someone walked in and asked the men there if one of them was “El Beto.” When Cervantes acknowledged his nickname, he was shot in the chest, arm and leg. Two office staff members were also shot and survived. None of the group's other members was in the office that day.

The singer suffered a serious arm wound that still requires daily physical therapy, and he recently had an operation to remove a cyst near his wounded lung. Cervantes' doctors again ordered him to rest, and he reluctantly canceled appearances planned for December. “He's a very restless guy, always busy and doing things, so this is hard for him to be forced to stay in bed,” said his sister, Mariela Cervantes.

Cervantes wouldn't say what his next album will be about, or whether it mentions the attack, but he has one idea for a song about a victim of kidnapping – a growing problem in Tijuana in recent years – based on the experience of someone held for four months who wasn't freed until a ransom of more than $1 million had been paid.

In a city like Tijuana, there's plenty to write about. Cervantes said he has heard that after the attack, someone even wrote a corrido about him.

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