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Music And The Mob: A Deadly Duo From Al Capone To Mexico's Cartels

Beto “The Lion” Quintanilla, the king of "narcocorrido" songs
Beto “The Lion” Quintanilla, the king of "narcocorrido" songs
Lorenzo Cairoli

TURIN - Music and organized crime are a duo that have gone hand-in-hand since way back when. Outlaws often see songs as a way to glorify what they do, creating legends that inspire as well as frighten the regions they come to dominate.

The Mexico we hear about today is said to be held hostage by the drug traffickers. Every morning, you wake up to newspapers reporting collective beheadings, bodies that have been mutilated and left in walk-in freezers and crazy gun fights that we thought only appeared in B-movies. The drug cartels boldly mix drug trafficking with religious fundamentalism and extreme violence with divine unction.

But what you don’t know is how they use music to turn their bosses into legendary figures, often in a Robin Hood kind-of-way. Worshiped on makeshift "altars", dances are done in their honor called Narcocorridos.

The narcocorrido songs use an accordion-based polka as a base, and the lyrics are absolute dynamite. The most famous writer of these songs, Beto “The Lion” Quintanilla, who sang about the legend of Silvia Raquenel Villanueva, the lawyer of the cartels: “Her name is Villanueva and is from Monterrey / She is an educated woman with a degree, a very brave woman / They nicknamed her the terror of the tribunals.”

Even Santiago “The Stew Maker” Meza, who dissolved more than 300 rival cartel members in vats of acid, has been celebrated with dozens of ballads. The most popular is called “The expand=1] Cook” by Fidel Rueda.

Two years ago the governor of Sinaloa, Mario López Valdez Malova decided to prohibit diffusion of these songs in all bars, canteens and pool halls in his state with the penalty of the immediate closure and confiscation of their license to sell alcohol.

But recently the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice ruled against the governor’s decision as a violation of the bars commercial rights. Ironically, before Valdez Malova was elected and went on his anti-cartel crusade, he had been a fan of the songs, as plenty of videos on YouTube and other sites show him dancing along to the narcocorrido ballads.

In the U.S, it’s enough just to remember back a few decades to some of Frank Sinatra’s dangerous friends - Lucky Luciano, Sam Guanciana or even the Gambino family. Nancy Barbato, his fist wife, was introduced to him by Willie Moretti, boss of the Genovese family and cousin of the “prime minister of the underworld” himself, Frank Costello.

One of the most infamous American gangsters was Al expand=1] Capone, whose stint in prison for tax evasion cultivated his musical career. After he transferred from a tough facility in Alabama to Alcatraz, the mob boss developed his love of music on the prison island.

As a good Italian, he loved opera and was a jazz fanatic, but also spent his time listening to the banjo and mandolin as well as trying to convince the guards to let him form a band with other detainees. He even wrote songs, among them the heartbreaking ballad “Madonna Mia.”

In the current mob stronghold around Naples, the camorra is entrenched in the neo-melodic style of the southern Italian city. It's also proven to be an extraordinary means for money laundering. And if the previous generations celebrated the racketeer establishment in more subtle ways, the new generation sings about gangsters with no hesitation, glorifying them to no end.

There is no shame or apology within these songs. “Who has known them is not able to condemn or point fingers at them” sings one. Another concludes: “You’re an informer who betrayed my husband and you’ve already been condemned by the tribunal of the street. The informer is a nobody who is scared of prison.”

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