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El Komander performs in Culiacán, Sinaloa.

El Komander performs in Culiacán, Sinaloa.

Photographer: Brett Gundlock for Bloomberg Businessweek

This Guy Made a Fortune Off Mexican Drug Ballads. Now He’s Selling Love Songs

A U.S. music label that has reaped millions of dollars chronicling the drug war confronts a new era—and dozens of deaths.

Late on a warm May night, the rain is coming down in sheets outside the Atlanta Coliseum, a sprawling nightclub in Gwinnett County, a suburban area with one of the largest Hispanic populations in Georgia. Inside, thousands of people are packed onto a dance floor watching Alfredo Ríos, aka El Komander, sashay across the stage. Ríos, a beefy 34-year-old with close-cropped hair and a penchant for oversize sunglasses, is dressed head-to-toe in black.

Midway through his set, his seven-piece band kicks into Leyenda M1, an upbeat ditty fueled by accordion lines, bursts of brass, and the throb of a tuba. The audience sings along lustily: “Se me acabo el parque dos super no alcanzan y a fuego cruzado pelee en desventaja mi cuerpo tendido por la madrugada” (roughly, “I ran out of ammunition because two super caliber pistols is not enough/I fought in a crossfire, at a disadvantage, and by the dawn my body was lying there”). The lyrics hail a “brave lion” who dies in a bloody shootout, promising that his death won’t end this “lost war.” The protagonist is Manuel Torres Félix, aka M1, a top lieutenant in the Sinaloa Cartel who was killed in a firefight with the Mexican army in 2012. Torres Félix was a brutal enforcer known for torturing and decapitating victims. He was reported in the Mexican press to have once presided over 200 murders in a single week.