'It's Like a Horror Movie': The Grisly Details Behind Mexico's Narcocorrido Murder Epidemic

Luis Gerardo Andrade
The crime scene in Tijuana, Mexico after Lizarraga's murder on March 21, 2015.

"Artists get killed because they played at a party for a [rival] drug dealer; because they looked at a dealer's girlfriend."

On Feb. 27, 20-year-old singer Alfredito Olivas was shot eight times while performing at a nightclub in Parral, Mexico. On March 22, grupero star Javier Rosas was shot multiple times while riding in an SUV in the northern Mexico state of Sinaloa.

Both singers, known for narcocorridos -- danceable, accordion-driven songs that tell often-celebratory tales about drug dealers -- survived. But Rogelio Brambila Lizarraga, singer of Los Plebes del Arranke, a relatively obscure group whose songs reference the notorious Arellano Felix cartel, wasn't as fortunate. On March 21, the 22-year-old's body was found in a parked car in Tijuana, Mexico, riddled with bullets from two different guns.

Singer Javier Rosas Shot in Mexico

Along with the death of narcocorrido singer Ariel Camacho in a car accident, those incidents -- which took place within the span of four weeks -- have again turned the spotlight on the dangerous lives of regional Mexican singers south of the border. The deaths aren't collateral damage in a country ravaged by drug-related violence: They're an acknowledged risk for performers of the genre.

"It's like a horror movie," says one independent promoter. "Artists get killed because they played at a party for a [rival] drug dealer; because they looked at a dealer's girlfriend; because they get paid to write or record a song about one dealer and a rival gets upset; or because they somehow piss off the dealer who's funding their career."

Indeed, Rosas (who sang songs about the Sinaloa cartel) and Lizarraga are rumored to have been targeted by rival gangs, and Olivas is said to have been flirting with the girlfriend of the man arrested for his shooting.

"When a singer gets shot, it gets bigger headlines than a police chief getting shot," says Elijah Wald, author of Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerillas.

"There's different reasons for these killings but there are two factors that haven't changed," adds Alfredo Corchado, Mexico City bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News and author of the book Midnight in Mexico. "Impunity is very high: They kill because they can. And murder is news, which is what killers seek, and it's particularly newsy if you're dealing with a famous singer."

Mexican Singer Alfredo Olivas Shot During Concert

Why would artists take such a risk? Because underworld figures are the biggest benefactors of many regional Mexican musicians' careers.

"Think about it," the promoter continues. "You're a young artist and someone offers you $100,000 to record a song and make it a hit. It goes to No. 1, and suddenly Univision and Telemundo are battling for you."

The killing spree goes back to the first high-­profile murder of the modern era: singer Chalino Sanchez in 1992. Corridos -- narrative songs telling stories of struggle, heroes and anti-heroes have been an integral part of Mexican culture since the 1800s, and the "narco" variation has been around since the early 1900s. But the genre, which was still underground at the time of Sanchez's death, has grown in popularity along with the country's drug violence. Since then, at least a dozen big-name acts have been murdered, including Valentin Elizalde in 2006 and Sergio Gomez in 2007. And in 2013, 17 members of lesser-known band Kombo Kolombia were kidnapped and executed. Following an investigation, the DA of the state of Nuevo Leon said the musicians were ordered killed by their original benefactors, the Mexican cartel Los Zetas, as retaliation for playing shows for rival drug factions.

And while some acts have curtailed their performances or stopped singing narco­corridos (like superstar Gerardo Ortiz, who has been shot at twice, though he denies any cartel connections), there is little sympathy for those who are seeking notoriety by mythologizing the cartels. "If you're not involved with drug dealers, there's no reason to be afraid," says another promoter, echoing the words of several others who work with regional Mexican acts.

Yet the songs, and the violence, go on. "There's an old saying in Sinaloa: 'I'd rather live five years like a king rather than 50 years like an ox,'" says Corchado. "When I first began covering this 10 years ago, I'd hear that in Sinaloa. Now I hear it all over Mexico. That's our sad ­reality."

An edited version of this article first appeared in the April 18 issue of Billboard.