TIJUANA—The whiskey is flowing at La Cantina when Calor Norteña kicks out the accordion jams for a homage to gangster Arturo Villarreal, who rose from drug cartel protege to crime boss in a six-year reign of mayhem and murder.
"The law calls me a dangerous [criminal] so don't dare take me on because I have bullets to spare," the band members sing, as beer-swilling youths shout and long-nailed women twirl on the dance floor.
But the revelry proves too much for some patrons, who watch glumly or shake their heads. "It's horrible," says Leslie Guzman, a 25-year-old courier. "It glorifies the ugliness, the murder, the death. Everything this city is living right now. It's so sad."
Since drug traffickers set foot in this border city, Mexican musicians have strummed behind, chronicling their exploits in the traditional polka-based rhythms of the corrido. The sub-genre has been a soundtrack for the city, with cover bands like Calor Norteña sprinkling their repertoires with tunes about the city's most feared gunmen. But with drug war violence and kidnappings escalating, the narcocorridos are losing their swagger.
Radio stations have stopped playing the songs and promoters have banned the music from many public events. Nightclub owners ask bands to turn down narcocorrido requests. At the cavernous Las Pulgas nightclub downtown, managers banned the music two months ago -- a decision tantamount to West Hollywood's Whisky A Go-Go banning heavy metal hair bands in the 1980s.
Narcocorridos still draw legions of fans, despite government efforts to squelch the music. Calor Norteña played the song about Villarreal only because of repeated requests from hard-drinking bar-goers. But it was a momentary exception to a backlash that has succeeded like none before in changing people's attitudes toward the music, say members of several bands, nightclub owners, concert promoters and government officials.
They describe a growing dislike, even revulsion, for music that critics say celebrates the people terrorizing a community that has suffered at least 207 violent deaths this year. Attendance at narcocorrido concerts has dipped; bands say audiences request the music less and less, preferring dance and romantic tunes that take their minds off the city's troubles.
"Things are changing. . . . It's not like in the past, when people would hear corridos and shoot their guns in the air," said Mario Limon, the goateed accordion player for Los Linces Boyz, an ensemble that grew popular largely for singing narcocorridos. "Now, people would rather grab their girlfriends, squeeze close on the dance floor and kiss."
Narcocorridos are rooted in Mexico's musical story-telling tradition, which has immortalized revolutionary struggles, great romances and social movements.
Tijuana's emergence as a hotbed of narcocorrido music paralleled the rise of the local Arellano Felix drug cartel, one of Mexico's most powerful organized crime groups, during the 1990s.
Los Tucanes de Tijuana achieved stardom singing about hit men, bumbling U.S. agents and the rags-to-riches lives of the Arellano Felix family and other drug kingpins.
But the music of Los Tucanes is considered almost quaint compared with the songs of the new generation of bands that toast a new crop of gangsters, considered by many to be crueler and more indiscriminate in their crime sprees.
The harder-edged lyrics frequently name the gangsters (past songs spoke in more general terms) and sometimes carry threats. Recent narcocorridos glorify Jorge Briseño Lopez, known as El Cholo, a feared cartel lieutenant, and Raydel Lopez Uriarte, nicknamed Muletas, or Crutches, for allegedly leaving so many of his enemies with crippling injuries.
Blurring the lines between art and reality, some Tijuana musicians' lives have started resembling the lives of gangsters they sing about.
In February, the body of local singer Jesus Alfaro Pulido was found in a field, wrapped in a blanket and showing signs of torture. Last November, the lead singer of Explosion Norteña, Jose Alberto Cervantes Nieto, was arrested and charged with racketeering.
Last month, all the members of Banda Nueva Clave de Oro were arrested along with about 40 other organized crime suspects after police raided a baptism celebration where they were playing. One of their songs praises a group of Tijuana police officers fired in May, in a purge of corrupt cops.
Even outside such suspicious venues, narcocorridos can prove dangerous, bringing out the worst in crowds, band members and promoters say. The alcohol starts flowing and fights break out, especially if the narcocorridos are about gangsters from rival cartels.
But turning down requests often is not a viable option. Band members say they have been threatened and beaten for refusing to play certain songs. According to one local legend, crime boss Briseño Lopez once compelled a band to play a song six times in a row, after they refused his first request.