Mexican singer Sergio Vega shot dead after denying his murder
At the time, it sounded either brave, or foolish. With the benefit of hindsight, it was probably both. On Saturday afternoon, Sergio Vega, a Mexican musician known as "El Shaka" gave an interview to an entertainment website announcing that rumours of his grisly murder had been greatly exaggerated.
"It's happened to me for years now," he complained. "Someone tells a radio station or a newspaper I've been killed or suffered a terrible accident. Then I have to telephone my dear mother – who suffers from heart trouble – to reassure her that in fact I am still alive."
This time, Vega sadly never got to make that call. Around 9.30pm, as he was being driven to a late-night concert in Angostura, a town near the US border in his native state of Sinaloa, a gang armed with automatic weapons drove up to his speeding vehicle in a white truck and opened fire. The 40-year-old singer's assistant Sergio Montiel, who was also in the car and miraculously survived, told reporters that after the vehicle was forced off the road, the gunmen ran up to the passenger side, where Vega had been sitting, and "finished him off" with shots to the head and chest. More than 30 bullets were found in his pockmarked corpse.
Yesterday, as fans across Mexico paid tribute to "El Shaka", the eighth star of the Grupero genre of Latin music to have been murdered in recent years, a lawyer for Vega's family blamed the killing on car thieves, saying he was a "good man" who did not have any "problems" with the sort of people who carry out organised hit jobs.
But others doubt that assessment. As both the circumstances and timing of the crime suggest, they say, Vega was almost certainly taken out because he'd become entangled in one of the many ongoing turf wars between Mexico's drug cartels. His band, Los Reyes del Norte, had in recent years become famed for their "narcocorridos", a genre of romanticised ballads set against a polka beat which recount, in glamorous detail, the lives, loves and murderous exploits of the country's most feared cocaine barons.
The life of a narcocorrido singer can be highly lucrative, since rich gangsters – who make profits estimated at 3,000 per cent on drugs smuggled from Central and South America, where they are produced, to the USA where they are largely consumed – are prepared to pay tens of thousands of dollars to be immortalised in specially- commissioned songs.
It isn't exactly a safe line of business to be in, though. A singer who writes catchy songs honouring the criminal activities of one gang immediately puts himself somewhere near the top of the hit-list of rival syndicates, who dislike seeing praise publicly heaped upon their enemies. Vega was no exception. A translation of the chorus of one of his recent hits reads: "I'm going to ask you a favour/Shaka told his people/I want to have some coca paste processed/Because that's what the customer wants/At the end if it rains and I get wet/You will get wet as well."
In gangster argot, "making it rain" means to shower bullets on a victim.
In the past three years, a string of prominent Grupero stars have been kidnapped and brutally killed, including Sergio Gomez, a Grammy-nominated singer with the band K-Paz de la Sierra, kidnapped after a concert in the western state of Michoacan in 2007 and found strangled several days later.
Although the eight dead musicians pale into insignificance when measured against the official total of 22,000 who have been killed since December 2006 – when Mexico's President Felipe Calderon announced that he was declaring "war" on the drug-smuggling business – their deaths have nonetheless provoked soul-searching.
Police chiefs last year cancelled Grupero concerts in border towns like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, amid fears that they would end in violence and a prominent politician, Oscar Martin Arce, recently proposed a law to restrict all music and film that celebrates crime. "Society sees drug ballads as nice, pleasant, inconsequential and harmless, but they are the opposite," he said.
That has only served to further glamorise the genre, though, and the aftermath of Vega's killing saw YouTube forced to remove dozens of grisly films setting footage of his bullet-ridden Cadillac to recordings of some of his most famous ballads.
The singer, famed for his white cowboy hats and thick moustache, was one of 13 brothers from a working-class family who was born in Ciudad Obregon in the northern state of Sonora in 1969. He and several siblings came to prominence in 1989 after they signed a deal with the Phoenix label Joey Records as the band Los Hermanos Vega.
In 1994, Vega fell out with several brothers and split from the group to found Los Reyes del Norte. They began recording narcocorridos roughly six years ago and, perhaps ironically, were one of the groups performed at the concert at which Sergio Gomez had been kidnapped.
Asked about that killing, along with the murder of singer Carlos Ocaranza – who was gunned down last August as he left a bar where he had given a concert in Guadalajara – Vega was philosophical.
"I navigate through heavy themes (in my songs)," he said recently. "It can be a bit frightening but you have to put your faith in God."
The lead singer of the group K-Paz de la Sierra, Gomez was abducted by a fleet of 10 Chevrolets, tortured and strangled in 2007. He had reportedly received death threats warning him not to appear in the drugs haven of Michoacan. His management team always insisted that he had no connections to the drugs trade.
Elizalde had a huge hit with his narcocorrido "To My Enemies". After an apparently mocking YouTube video was posted playing the song over images of corpses of members of the los Zetas gang, the cartel was said to be incensed. Elizalde and two friends were gunned down in front of dozens of witnesses after a concert in Texas in 2006.