Death Rattle

GerardoOrtiz.net

Gerardo Ortiz, whose latest CD both celebrates and questions the culture of drug violence

In 2010, the collective of Mexican musicians known as Movimiento Alterado released a rousing carousel blitz of tubas, accordions, and snare rolls it called “Sanguinarios del M1.” The song’s title roughly translates as “The Bloodthirsty Killers of El M1”—M1 is the nickname for Manuel Torres Félix, an infamous member of the Sinaloa drug cartel. (He also goes by El Ondeado, “The Off One” or “The Crazy One.”) His long rap sheet includes a 2008 “message murder” in which he left three decapitated bodies with severed legs in the trunk of a car with a signed note and a decapitated snake.

“Sanguinarios” begins with the sound of semiautomatic gunfire, and then a rotating cast of singers role-plays as AK-47- and bazooka-toting M1 mercenaries. “We are crazy bloodthirsty guys,” the singers declare. “We like to kill.” They brag about their kidnapping, beheading, and torture skills and declare themselves architects of a reign of gunfire that, they promise, will never end. When the singers deliver these lines in the video, some carrying guns, others wearing ski masks and bulletproof vests, they stare into the camera, its lens splattered with blood.

The sing-alongs of Movimiento Alterado could only have been born during this blood-soaked moment of the U.S.–Mexico drug war. The statistics are now an unwelcome media mantra: More than 40,000 people have died, and more than 9,000 have gone missing since President Felipe Calderón began his campaign against Mexico’s cartels in 2006. Reports of mass graves, torched casinos, and mutilated bodies have become so commonplace that there are days when the Google Mexico news feed is nothing but a death scroll.

A groundswell of populist outrage has emerged, peaking last April when marches and vigils were held in 38 cities across Mexico. The protests were spearheaded by the poet Javier Sicilia, who founded the Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity after his own son was killed (along with five others) by members of the Gulf cartel for allegedly reporting drug activity to a government hotline. The demonstrations have voiced opposition not only to cartel and military violence but also to the government’s response, demanding everything from changes in anti-trafficking strategy to the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “There they come / the beheaded, / the handless, / the dismembered,” the poet María Rivera recently wrote in “Los Muertos” (“The Dead”), a piece she read aloud at last year’s National March for Peace in Mexico City. “So lonely, so silent, so ours.”

 In a recent essay in the Mexican newspaper Milenio, the Tijuana writer Heriberto Yépez claims that Mexico’s cartels have gone from being an economy to becoming an ideology that saturates society. The term narco can refer to both “drug trafficker” (el narco) and “drug life” in general (lo narco). For Yépez, narco was once a prefix, an adjective that described an aspect of Mexican culture. Now it is Mexican culture; “narco and culture are synonyms.”

Movimiento Alterado is the first major musical effort to exploit this cultural shift. In Spanish, alterado means “altered,” but it can refer to being agitated, angry, violent, or even, more colloquially, to being high. These are all states of mind associated with the hyper-violent culture of the Mexican narco, and they’ve been turned into a popular brand by Movimiento Alterado’s creators, Burbank-based producers and musicians Adolfo and Omar Valenzuela (also known as “Los Twiins”).

The newest Movimiento compilation, Desvelada Party Loquera (Crazy All-Night Party), is the sixth in less than two years, and with songs like “Mi Vida Es Una Fiesta” (“My Life Is a Party”) and “Let’s Go to the Fiesta!,” it might be the first narco album to be overtly, and perversely, packaged as a nonstop Saturday-night dance party. On “La Fiesta del Cartel” (“The Cartel’s Party”), one of the collective’s most prominent acts, Los BuKnas de Culiacan, takes us into a fictional private bash for the Sinaloa cartel at which the band is playing. “Cheers for another year,” the performers sing as shots ring out and a champagne cork pops. “The cartel celebrates its good deeds.”

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For as long as the U.S.–Mexico border has existed, there have been songs about the contraband that crosses it. In the 19th century, it was cashmere and corduroy. Once Prohibition hit, it was tequila and bootleg liquor. The first recorded song about drug smuggling, “Por Morfina y Cocaína” (“Because of Morphine and Cocaine”), didn’t arrive until 1934, and like so many early contraband tunes, it concludes with a moralizing warning: The smugglers sing the blues on a chain gang in Leavenworth prison.

The contemporary drug ballads known as narcocorridos—enormously popular songs heard across the U.S. and Mexico that take their inspiration from the headlines of the cross-border drug economy—tend to be anything but moralizing. If mafiosos die, they die in a blaze of Scarface glory. If traffickers end up in prison, they are serenaded as underground heroes and scrappy capitalist hustlers who go from rancho rags to Escalade riches. If cartels live by impunity, they are only following the example of corrupt politicians, soldiers, and CEOs.

The first narcocorrido hit, 1973’s “Contrabando y Traición” (“Contraband and Treason”) from the California-based band Los Tigres del Norte, is a fictional Bonnie and Clyde epic that begins with tires full of pot in Tijuana and ends with a shootout in a Hollywood alley. It established a dominant narcocorrido trend that would continue into the next century: Reporting on drug violence and sensationalizing it are two sides of the same musical coin. As the U.S.–Mexico drug economy blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s, so did narcocorridos that detailed the exploits of murdered DEA agents and cartel-connected attorneys general and painted rising drug lords like Sinaloa’s Rafael Caro Quintero and Tijuana’s Arellano Felix brothers as border Robin Hoods.

But the narcocorridos of Movimiento Alterado make those of its predecessors look quaint. The songs, which the members often refer to as corridos enfermos, or sick corridos, are more like necrocorridos, songs that normalize a culture of death and violence. The group’s songs are not about drug cartels; they are told from the perspective of drug cartels. The singers don’t sing in the third-person style of most narcocorridos about the dirty work of a cartel sicario (assassin); they sing from the sicario’s point of view. They often compare their super group—a merger of different singers and bands—to the recent merger of four drug cartels (Jalisco, Pacífico, La Resistencia, La Familia). During Movimiento Alterado’s live shows, men have appeared onstage in ski masks next to the bands, and in some of the concert publicity, blood drips from the letters of the group’s name.

The Valenzuela brothers were born in Sinaloa but have lived most of their lives in Southern California, where they have been both omnipresent producers and sharp entrepreneurs, at the center of shaping Mexican musical tastes from within the United States. They originally worked in straight-ahead banda, or brass-band, music (their father was a member of one of the biggest bands back in Sinaloa), helped pioneer “banda hood,” or the banda hip-hop craze, of the early 2000s, and last year launched a reality show on NBC’s Mun2 channel that followed them everywhere from a spa day in Phoenix to a meeting with Snoop Dogg. It’s hard not to see Movimiento Alterado as anything but a shrewd business decision, a carefully plotted attempt to cash in on Mexican drug violence as if it were a new dance craze and to do so at a distance—from within the relative safety of the United States. As Adolfo Valenzuela recently told a reporter, “It’s a market, and I’m in the music industry. If I don’t do it, someone else is doing it.”

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The ethics of sensationalizing mass murder may not bother Movimiento Alterado, but it does seem to have had an impact on at least one artist formerly affiliated with the group. On 2010’s Movimiento Alterado Vol. 2, Gerardo Ortiz—a popular banda and norteño singer born in Southern California, raised in Sinaloa, and by most accounts now back living in Southern California—appears on “El Comando del Diablo” (“The Devil’s Commando”) as a vicious cartel henchman proud of his grenade launchers and torture methods. That same year, Ortiz played a member of the Sinaloa cartel on his hit album Ni Hoy Ni Mañana (Neither Today nor Tomorrow), which includes “Líder del Genocidio” (“The Leader of the Genocide”), a song that presents him as a member of El Antrax, the vicious security team of Sinaloa cartel boss El Mayo Zambada (in press photos, Ortiz appears with men in ski masks and camouflage pants).

In March 2011, Ortiz was leaving a concert in the Mexican state of Colima when attackers opened fire on his Suburban, killing the driver and his business manager Ramiro Caro. Although the motivation for the attack on Ortiz remains unknown, many believe it had something to do with his music’s identification with the Sinaloa cartel. The attack has left its mark on Ortiz. His first album since the shooting, Entre Dios y el Diablo, or Between God and the Devil, sounds like nothing else in the world of contemporary narcocorridos. It is a meditation on death and violence. True, it opens with the popular single “Aquiles Afirmo” (“El Aquiles Affirms”), depicting Ortiz in character as the Sinaloa trafficker known as El Aquiles, but otherwise it is surprisingly introspective. Ortiz does a wistful Spanish-language version of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love?” and memorializes his manager on “Ramiro Caro,” in which he portrays his lost friend from the grave, giving him a final chance to say goodbye. On “Cara A La Muerte” (“In the Face of Death”), Ortiz makes his biggest, and most important, alteration of the altered movement. He switches from one side of the AK-47 to the other; narrating from inside a coffin, he laments the damages and wounds of his life. “Good friends, loving children, I failed them on my journey,” he sings with reflection and regret. “I’d love to escape my body, be reborn, have a new life.”

As a rejoinder to violence, “Cara A La Muerte” is only one song—a meek offering considering the scope of Mexico’s social crisis—but it’s closer than any narcocorrido has come to joining the protesters and the poets and the bereaved thousands in saying ya basta, enough already, no más sangre, no more blood. It holds out a sliver of hope that as Mexico’s body count continues to grow, there might be a new song to sing.

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