Kombo Kolombia was big-15 or 16 men strong-but still far from mighty. The 3-year-old band had gained a following in its home base of Monterrey in Northern Mexico, near the Texas border, with its brand of norteÃ±o-infused Colombian cumbia, but the band was far from a household name, even in Mexico itself.
That changed on Jan. 26, when 18 band and staff members were kidnapped while playing a private show at a warehouse in the countryside, blindfolded and driven away at gunpoint. The next day, the horror unfolded, as one after another, their bodies were pulled from a remote well. They'd been shot, execution style.
That a group of such modest renown, without a label, radio hit or an album to its name, would be murdered in such a methodical and brazen fashion underscores yet again the perils that regional Mexican musicians face in Mexico.
The problem, sources say, is that many artists have links--often indirectly--with drug trafficking, and dangers that may seem far-fetched and improbable have actually materialized quite steadily through the years.
In November 2006, Valentin Elizalde, freshly signed to Universal Music, was executed in his car after leaving a concert at 3:30 a.m. along with his manager and driver. In 2007, Sergio Gomez, singer for duranguense band K-Paz de la Sierra, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered after leaving a show. Those arrested for both murders had ties to organized crime. Later, in 2010, Sergio Vega, aka El Shaka, was gunned down, also after leaving a concert, and as recently as 2011, star Gerardo Ortiz survived a murder attempt.
While at one point it was speculated the violence was tied to the content of the songs these artists sang, specifically to narcocorridos that chronicle drug traffickers' exploits, that's rarely the case, and with Kombo Kolombia, which sang feel-good cumbias, it certainly wasn't.
"Private parties"--the euphemism for high-paying events hosted by those with ties to organized crime--are commonplace in the United States (Chicago, Los Angeles and cities throughout Texas are known for them) and Mexico. Although pop acts have been known to play such parties, the entertainment is typically regional Mexican acts (although, to be clear, not all acts perform at such events).
It's also common for drug lords to sponsor up-and-coming acts, funding videos and albums. But none of these things typically becomes a problem.
"With drug lords or cartels, they're usually not into such violent attacks," says one insider with knowledge of the Monterrey scene. "If they like an artist or a band, they hire them and they pay on time."
Or, according to one promoter, "they have their groups so they can brag about them: 'My birthday is coming up. Come play.' Or, 'My daughter is turning 15. I want you at the party.' They pay upfront and they pay more. But they don't go around killing their bands."
Although no one knows exactly what has led to many high-profile murders, there's plenty of speculation: An artist could play a private party and anger someone from an opposing gang. Or he could flirt with the wrong girl at a gig.
As for Kombo Kolombia, no links to organized crime have been found, although published reports say the killings were likely a form of vengeance, possibly linked to the bars where the group usually played.
Additional reporting by Teresa Aguilera.