Since the 1990s, popular Mexican singers have been increasingly crooning about Kalashnikovs and cocaine alongside their traditional ballads of hard work and lost love. Take “Contraband in the Border” by Valentin Elizalde, one of the thousands of drug ballads or narco corridos that are played in cantinas and parties from the mountains of Mexico to the immigrant ghettos of Los Angeles. “There was a big shoot-out/With 14 bullet-filled bodies/And the American government,/took away the marijuana” go the lyrics, as tubas and accordions drone out the melody to the rhythm of a German polka.

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In November 2006, gunmen ambushed and killed Elizalde and took out his manager and driver while injuring his cousin outside a cockfighting ring in the border city of Reynosa.

Elizalde’s murder is not an isolated incident. Singers have not just been chanting about the bloody drug violence ravaging their country; they have also been among its most prominent victims. At least 13 musicians have been killed — gunned down, burned or suffocated to death — since June 2006. The violence gained international attention earlier this month when three entertainers were killed in a week: a male singer was kidnapped, throttled and dumped on a road; a trumpeter was found with a bag on his head; and a female singer was shot dead in her hospital bed. (She was being treated for bullet wounds from an earlier shooting.)

The Mexican public was particularly shocked by the slaying of singer Sergio Gomez, who founded his band K Paz de la Sierra while he was an immigrant in Chicago. He had scored a recent hit with Pero Te Vas a Repentir, or “But You Will Have Regrets,” a love song so catchy that half the country was humming it. Gomez was abducted after a concert in his native Michoacan state, beaten and burned and then strangled with a plastic cord.

Thousands mourned him at sprawling wakes in Michoacan, Mexico City and Chicago, where he was finally laid to rest. “Being a fan of Gomez, this news really makes me sad,” Mexico City Police Chief Joel Ortega said during the wake here. “These things shouldn’t happen in our country. Whatever the causes were, it is very sad. He was an extraordinary vocalist.”

Investigators have yet to solve any of the 13 musician killings. Nor have they revealed any suspects, although they have said that drug gangs could be responsible. The same murkiness clouds most of the 2,500 slayings in Mexico this year that have been tallied by the leading Mexican newspapers in what they call “execution-meters.” Those killings involve ambushes or abductions and appear to bear to marks of organized crime.

The federal government has held back from giving any hard numbers on drug-related murders. However, President Felipe Calderon insists he is winning the war against the trafficking cartels by making record cocaine seizures, extraditing kingpins to the United States and putting soldiers on the streets of the worst-hit towns and cities.

The slain entertainers all played related styles of music. Hailing from ranches and small towns in northern Mexico, the genre (which includes Banda, Nortena, Grupero and Durangense) combines Mexican folk melodies with the marching band ryhthms of German immigrants. The music has now evolved to include electric guitars and keyboards and is as popular in big Mexican and U.S. cities as it is in the countryside.

The musicians of these styles grew up in communities rife with drug traffickers, who often pay the entertainers to play at their parties and to write songs about them. The singers perform the drug ballads along with their love songs: the narco corridos have been among the biggest-selling records in the country.

The managers, fellow musicians and loved ones of the slain entertainers have been mum about pointing the finger at any suspects or motives. Some have said they fear for their own safety. Elijah Wald, author of a recent book on narco corridos, argues that entertainers are not being specifically targeted. They are just in the same circles as many drug traffickers and are caught up in the jealousies and arguments that afflict everyone in that world. “If you were to drop a bomb on a random party of drug traffickers you would always get a few musicians,” Wald says. “Singers also attract the attention of people’s wives and girlfriends, which could be enough to get them killed. The rising gangsters gain their reputation by proving how much they are cold-blooded psychos.”

The real=life bloodshed has not damaged the posthumous popularity of the entertainers. Sales of Elizalde and Gomez records have rocketed since their deaths. This month, they were both nominated for 2008 Latin Grammys, which will be awarded in February.

* By Ioan Grillo/Mexico City (Dec. 2007)