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Narco rappers earn cred with songs of death

By Karl Penhaul, CNN
  • Rappers in Mexico sing tales of fighting the drug war against other gangs and army
  • In border town of Reynosa, Cano and Blunt have earned some fame with brutal lyrics
  • One song is homage to Gulf Cartel leader; others are mixed with machine gun soundtracks
  • In a town with few well paid legal jobs the gangs are an attractive alternative

Reynosa, Mexico (CNN) -- At first blush, there wouldn't seem much glamour in slicing up a rival into several pieces or beheading an enemy with a home-made garrote.

But that's not how two young Mexicans who go by the names of Cano and Blunt see the drug trade. They live in the border city of Reynosa, and to meet them we traveled to a poor, scruffy area near the city's airport.

Cano and Blunt are not traffickers or hit-men. They are rappers who make their living busting rhymes for the guys with the biggest guns.

Their music -- they themselves refer to it as narco-rap -- glamorizes the killings, the 'capos' and the camaraderie of fighting the drug war against the army and the "federales."

Alejandro Coronado (Cano) and Mauro Vasquez (Blunt) are both in their 20s, both shaven headed. Both used to work in a U.S.-owned assembly plant making auto parts.

But times have changed. Now they have a luxury SUV, female fans and street cred.

Cano and Blunt's first hit, "Reynosa Maldosa" (roughly translated as Reynosa the Bad Town) charted the growing levels of drug-related violence in this city of 500,000.

"Reynosa the bad town. A s***-load of bad guys, full of mafiosos. The streets are dangerous," it goes. And it's instantly catchy.

"We just sing about what we see in the streets. People identify with these songs because they listen to us and see for themselves what's going on. That's the reality," Cano said.

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Their neighborhood is controlled by the Gulf Cartel. We wouldn't have been permitted to enter without their tacit consent.

Four men in a red sedan, one clearly holding a walkie-talkie, were parked at the entrance to this neighborhood. A few minutes later a large black pick-up truck drew alongside.

Cano tells me they compose many of their songs by special request. He's careful not to reveal who requests them. Even if you're the tribute band for a drug cartel, loose talk can be dangerous.

"With some of the songs, they send me lists and they ask for a song about this and that and we do it. But I don't anything about how the narcos work," Cano grins. And he's certainly not about to tell me who "they" are.

But listen to the music and it's clear. "They" are members of the Gulf Cartel.

Since the start of this year, the Gulf Cartel has been fighting its former hit squad, the Zetas, for control of Reynosa and a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border.

There are clear signs the Gulf Cartel has now gained supremacy -- and one of those signs is that Cano and Blunt dare publicly to sing the praises of just one side.

Perhaps the most brazen track on their webpage playlist is "Metro Tres."

"He used to work for the government. Now he's a top bandit. If you try and cross him you'll end up in concrete. And with his assault rifle, he'll send you straight to hell," go some of the lines.

Metro Three, a pudgy-faced 37-year-old whose real name is Samuel Flores Borrego is a former Mexican cop who went rogue. Now according to the locals and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he's the alleged head of Gulf Cartel operations in Reynosa. The DEA has put a $5 million price tag on his head.

Studio versions of some of Cano and Blunt's songs, such as "Comandante Poli" (Commander Policeman) are mixed with the rat-a-tat of machine-gun fire or explosions.

They are aware their music stirs controversy and may be interpreted as glorifying the drug trade.

"People have criticized our music but nobody can tell you what to listen to. If critics come and offer me money not to sing then I'll stop. But if they're not offering anything then they can shut up," Blunt said.

In one of their latest compositions, as yet untitled, they sing a tribute to other local commanders of the Gulf Cartel and refer to the cartel gunmen as "guerrilla fighters."

And like it or not, despite the grisly images of Mexico's drug war, cartel gangsters are viewed as local heroes to many of the young people here. In some ways, successful drug lords or big-time gunmen seem to represent the triumph of the have-nots against the haves or against the government that they believe has largely forgotten them.

The area where Cano and Blunt live is full of shoe box-sized social housing. The only legal jobs are at the U.S.-owned assembly plants, known as "maquilas" or "maquiladoras," that dot the border making goods for the U.S. market in return for Mexican tax breaks.

There are more than 100 of these assembly plants in Reynosa, many more still in other border cities like Juarez. The jobs are poorly paid and offer little or no security. From what young men told me in Reynosa, they might earn as little as $50-$60 a week in one of the "maquilas" working long hours.

But there is an alternative -- they can stand around on a street corner and post lookout, and earn $20 a day working for the cartel.

"They put people to work for s*** money and that's no good. And if you don't want to work in a assembly plant then you have to make a living elsewhere. That's tough, but that's life," Blunt said.

One of his friends, Jose Narciso took up the theme. He has a legal job in a factory but was matter-of-fact about the lure of the drug trade.

"Many people round here prefer to work for the mafia. It's more money, less work," he said.

The money is important, but where life offers so little there's also a longing for identity - even a cause. Scratch beneath the surface, and you find underdogs searching for a champion.

On one street corner there's a huge mural depicting a masked bandit alongside Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa.

Further down the street another mural in black and white paint depicts Pancho Villa alongside his revolutionary sidekick Emiliano Zapata who fought to topple dictatorships and the established order.

In this hard-bitten neighborhood, Cano and Blunt only occasionally stray into raps about more conventional fare - "love and the girls and that kind of thing."

The one called "Mi Locura" (My Madness) includes the lines: "You're the one that inspires me. Your love makes me feel like a boy again. When I'm with you I'm happy destiny put you in my way."

But destiny has also put the cocaine trade on their doorstep. And as night falls Cano and Blunt advise us to leave the neighborhood.

"At night this place is full of truckloads of guys, all tooled up with huge guns," Blunt says. He laughs a crazed laugh when I ask him if he can make me an introduction.

The Gulf Cartel is in charge in Reynosa and there's not a lot of love going round for outsiders after dark.