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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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