Mexican Mass Graves: Arrests remove narco-minstrels' best material

AN UNEXPECTED boom in drug busts this year has left humble narco- minstrels singing the blues. Balladeers in cantinas across northern Mexico are on tenterhooks after anti-narcotics agents pounced on their patrons.

Police continue to capture members of Mexico's notorious Juarez Cartel, which has managed to elbow out the Colombian drug lords from Medellin and Cali to corner most of the cocaine and cannabis distribution in the United States - an estimated 180 tons annually.

Scores of guitar-strumming musicians, whose melancholy songs are inspired by outlaws' exploits and reversals of fortune, must now puzzle over their own economic future while law enforcers on both sides of the border gloat over their string of high-profile collars. If all the drug runners with clout end up behind bars, lucrative bids to commission ballads that extol the bravery of rival Mexican drug traffickers may soon dry up completely.

Groups with names such as "Los Tiranos", "Huracanes del Norte", and the upstart "Cartel de Nuevo Leon" are now reduced to living off the proceeds of their cassettes, which are hawked at street markets and cantinas, rather than composing new tributes to perform at extravagant narco-parties. But drug runners have far fewer opportunities to show off once they go underground.

At the tomb of Jesus Malverde, patron saint of the drug lords in Sinaloa state, some worried musicians are already making supplications. They lop off a long hank of hair, plait it, and pin it to the stucco walls of a shrine dedicated to a bandit king who was slain in 1909 near the railway tracks of Culiacan.

Usually, it is the drug lords themselves who come to ask this Robin Hood figure for bumper marijuana and opium harvests, or else for protection from turf wars or police raids. But lately, it seems that few have bothered to worry enough about zealous customs agents and cops. The usual strategic bribery did not eliminate all their obstacles this autumn.

In quick succession, the cartel has been hit by critical arrests. First came Operation Impunity, when US and Mexican officials dismantled the Juarez cartel's stateside distribution network and seized nearly 13 tons of cocaine, each block stamped with a cheeky Roadrunner cartoon.

Next came Operation Millennium, a swoop in the US, Mexico and Colombia that led to hundreds of arrests. Then police announced the capture of Juan Jose Quintero Payan, also known as El Juanjo, who is the mentor for a Juarez cartel kingpin on the run.

The cartel's Mario Silva, known as El Animal, who had previously infiltrated the police, was trapped yesterday. Hopes are that he will point the way to the ex-Governor of Quintana Roo, Mario Villanueva. His Caribbean playground mutated into "a narco-state where the Juarez cartel owned everyone, from the local cop up to the Governor", a senior US official complained.

Most musicians keep tight-lipped about their rich backers, and only watch and wait. It won't take long before second-string traffickers dare to surface, cash in hand, eager to pay minstrels to immortalise their names. After all, they cannot run adverts to plug clandestine products, but the fame of Acapulco Gold first became widespread through song, not smoke rings.

These corridos or running ballads reach an audience that spans generations, making them a publicist's dream Narco-minstrels still can tap into smugglers' fears and bravado, even if new patronage is not forthcoming.

The latest ballad mocks Mexico's elite anti-drug squad. Three of their finest switched white flour for six kilograms of cocaine just before it was set to blaze in Juarez, the nefarious border town where agents today are digging for the bones of snitches that the cartel executed years ago. Yesterday they have found the partial remains of two, and an informant claims up to 100 may be buried there.

Not all narco-minstrels are hirelings for drug traffickers, even if they do sing about them. Los Tigres del Norte, who will often include a wry moral twist in a cautionary smugglers' song, have found a patron of another calibre: they have been tapped to croon a ballad on Pope John Paul II's Millennial Jubilee CD.

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