Murdering Mexico's Musicians

The November 2006 murder of Mexican singer Valentín Elizalde was tragic—but not entirely shocking to his friends and fellow musicians. The 27-year-old recording artist had written lyrics honoring Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán, one of Mexico's most notorious druglords, and Elizalde was one of the country's leading practitioners of narcocorridos, ballads that glorify the exploits of drug traffickers. When gunmen in two vehicles shot Elizalde, his manager and driver dead minutes after he finished a concert in the border town of Reynosa last year, many of his fans assumed it was the work of the Zetas, a death squad of ex-soldiers allegedly in the employ of El Chapo Guzmán's rivals in the Gulf of Mexico cartel. But the slayings of two crooners and a trumpet player in the past seven days who never performed a narcocorrido or had any known links to the country's drug kingpins have shaken thousands of professional musicians, many of whom are wondering who might be next. "I'm no detective, but I don't think people singing love ballads are getting killed over a song," says Heraclio García, lead singer of the popular norteña band Los Huracanes del Norte. "It has to go beyond that."

All told, 15 musicians have been killed in the past two years—bringing home a grim reality about Mexico that tycoons, soccer coaches and actresses figured out some time ago: being rich and/or famous south of the border can be seriously hazardous to your health. Firearms have never been more plentiful in Mexico, thanks in large part to their ready availability on the U.S. side of the border. A wave of drug-related violence has fanned the epidemic of lawlessness in recent years, and thousands of homicides routinely go unpunished each year. The toxic mix of firepower and impunity may help account for the brutal deaths of Zayda Peña, the 28-year-old singer of grupera love songs from the border city of Matamoros who was gunned down in a hospital bed one day after she had taken a bullet in the neck in a motel room on Nov. 30, and Sergio Gómez, the Indiana-based lead singer of the top-selling group K-Paz de la Sierra whose corpse was found bearing signs of torture on Monday.

The music industry was still reeling from the news of their murders when police in the southern state of Oaxaca found the manacled body of José Luis Aquino, a 33-year-old trumpet player in the band Los Conde who had been repeatedly bludgeoned in the head. "In an increasingly violent environment, being a very visible figure has its dangers," notes Elijah Wald, a music historian and author of the 2001 book "Narcocorrido: A Journey Into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas." "Someone up onstage in a nice costume singing romantic songs can be easily killed because some guy's girlfriend has fallen in love with him."

Mexico's music industry has seen its share of violent death. One of the early stars of the narcocorrido genre was Chalino Sánchez, a native of the northern state of Sinaloa who became the stuff of legend when an unemployed mechanic shot him during a 1992 concert in Southern California and the singer, who usually carried a loaded pistol at his waist at all times, leaped from the stage, pulled his gun and opened fire on the assailant. (Sánchez survived his wounds but was murdered four months later, after doing a show in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan.) Grammy-winning singer Joan Sebastian's son Trigo Figueroa was shot dead in August 2006 when Figueroa resisted the angry demands of three men who wanted to meet his father following a concert in Mission, Texas. But for the most part, Mexican musicians are more worried about robbers and disorderly fans than they are about druglords. "The death of a musician makes big headlines," says Virgilio Canales, leader of the Monterrey-based band Liberación, who shared the stage on several occasions with Sergio Gómez. "[But] frankly, we worry about bandits on the roads, not drug traffickers."

Somebody had it in for Gómez. He and his bandmates canceled a gig in the Michoacán state capital of Morelia last year after receiving death threats, and the same warnings surfaced recently after K-Paz de la Sierra scheduled a Dec. 2 concert in that city. A product of Michoacán, which has become a major center of Mexico's illicit drug trade in recent years, Gómez refused to heed the threats on this occasion. But band members later told reporters that the father of three was visibly rattled on the evening of the Morelia show and confided to backup singer Humberto Durán that he felt nervous and was prepared to die that night because he had achieved all the goals he had set for himself and the group. After the concert ended, Gómez and two business associates were intercepted by men traveling in a convoy of 10 Chevrolet Suburbans. His body turned up on the side of a rural road last Monday with burns on the legs and signs of strangulation and severe bruising on the thorax and abdomen.

Though Zayda Peña's mother works for the district attorney's office in Matamoros, police are probing the possibility that her killing was a crime of passion. Whatever the real motives behind the murders of Gómez, Peña and Aquino turn out to be, a siege mentality has crept into Mexico's music industry. "The atmosphere is very tense, very heavy," says Pablo Zuack, information coordinator for Bandamax, a Mexico City-based cable TV channel specializing in regional Mexican music. "People are fearful of what could happen when they cross the street or go to a concert." The list of nominees for the Latin category in next year's Grammy Awards ceremony includes both K-Paz de la Sierra and Valentín Elizalde—a fresh reminder of the toll taken on Mexico's bereaved community of recording artists.