When soldiers raided a drug cartel's Christmas party south of Mexico City, they found 16 automatic rifles, $280,000 in cash _ and a Latin Grammy winner.
The presence of the Texas-based norteno singer Ramon Ayala at the gathering in a wealthy, gated-community and the lavish festivities showed the audacity of Mexico's drug cartels amid a government crackdown that has sent thousands of soldiers and police to track them down.
A spokesman for the federal Attorney General's Office said Monday that Ayala was released after being questioned because authorities found no grounds for charging him with a crime.
Mexican norteno bands often sing about drug trafficking and violence and many have been rumored to perform at drug traffickers' weddings and other parties, but few have been caught.
Ayala and his norteno band, Los Bravos del Norte, were performing in a gated community of mansions outside the mountain town of Tepoztlan when sailors raided the house and a shootout ensued before dawn Friday, said the official, who was not authorized to be quoted by name.
Three gunmen were killed and 11 others suspected of working for the Beltran Leyva drug cartel were detained, and $280,000 in cash and 16 automatic rifles were seized, the navy said.
Stray bullets shattered the windows of a nearby home where Maura Cristina Lopez works as a maid. She said she was shocked at the violence in the bucolic neighborhood, where troops in trucks patroled Monday.
"It's always been quiet," she said. "This scares me."
Tepotzlan, just south of Mexico City, is popular with foreign and Mexican tourists because of its cobblestone streets and the ruins of a pre-Columbian pyramid built atop a mountain.
Ayala, a Mexican accordionist and norteno singer who lives in Hidalgo, Texas, has a large following along the Mexico-U.S. border and has won two Latin Grammys.
Each year, he hosts a Christmas festival in Hidalgo, a free event that includes music, food and the opportunity for impoverished children to line up at Ayala's home to receive a ticket for a free gift. The Hidalgo city Web site said Ayala was scheduled to host the event Wednesday.
City officials did not immediately respond to an e-mail asking if Ayala would still attend.
"Ramon Ayala has defined norteno music with signature songs and definitive instrumental styling that have made him a superstar on both sides of the El Rio Grande," his Web site says.
A woman who answered the door at Ayala's home in Hidalgo said the performer was not there and she was unsure when he would return. Outside, larger-than-life photos of Ayala and his band plastered the side of a tractor trailer next to an extravagant nativity scene. The band's tour bus stood on a side street.
The singer's representatives at Serca Music in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey declined to comment Monday.
Ayala, who favors black cowboy hats, sings romantic ballads of heartbreak and rural life in Mexico.
Over the years, several norteno musicians have been slain, including performers of the popular northern "Narcocorrido" songs that glorify drug trafficking.
Among the best known performers killed was Sergio Gomez, a singer with K-Paz de la Sierra, who went missing after a 2007 concert in the Michoacan state capital of Morelia. His tortured body was found the next day along a highway.
A year earlier, banda singer Valentin Elizalde was shot to death along with his manager and driver shortly after performing in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas. Police said his slaying was possibly linked to a grisly video posted online set to one of Elizalde's songs, "A Mis Enemigos" ("To My Enemies").
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City and Christopher Sherman in Hidalgo, Texas, contributed to this story.
On the Net:
Ramon Ayala: http://www.ramonayala.org
Hidalgo Festival of Lights: http://www.hidalgotexas.com/festivaloflights/posada.html