It’s not every day that you come across a severed head. But there it was, dangling mangled against a white sheeted backdrop, held up by an anonymous hand on the unforgettable album cover for Brujeria’s 1993 debut, Matando Güeros. Those responsible for this unholy act of decapitation, by implication if not by facts, were apparently members of a Mexican narcotics gang of practicing Satanists that also happened to play heavy metal of a most extreme sort.
Long before Breaking Bad and its prequel Better Call Saul brought drug cartel brutality into the pop culture arena of prestige drama, and well ahead of Donald Trump and his GOP’s politically-motivated alarm ringing over existential threat posed by the gang MS-13, there was Brujeria. Hearing Matando Güeros back in 1993 and poring over its grisly packaging felt like stumbling onto something truly illicit, discovering the existence of an actual death cult operating south—and maybe even north—of the border separating Mexico from the United States. Using pseudonyms like "Asesino" and "Juan Brujo," and donning masks in photographs to protect their felonious identities, Brujeria’s very existence seemed criminal, their Spanish-language music frightfully inscrutable to a significant majority of American listeners.
Of course, it was all a ruse, but as founding songwriter and former Brujeria guitarist Dino Cazares explains, it was more than that. “This is not a cartoon drawing of Cannibal Corpse on an album cover,” he says. “There was a realism—real topics, real stories, and real photos.”
“All of a sudden there was this Mexican death metal band, and people were like what the fuck is this?!”
Brujeria’s origins were a more reasonable mix of convention with a touch of the macabre. In the mid-to-late 1980s, still some time before the existence of his most successful project, Fear Factory, Cazares was just another Los Angeles musician naturally networking with like-minded heavy metal players. Through Faith No More guitarist Jim Martin, he met that band’s bassist Billy Gould, who in turn introduced him to vocalist John Lepe. Hanging out around Christmastime at KXLU studios with Pat Hoed, host of the Loyola Marymount University station’s long-running hardcore punk program Final Countdown, Cazares and the guys came across a Mexican newspaper with the headline BRUJERIA emblazoned on its cover. Entirely written in Spanish, the story reported on drug lord Adolfo Constanzo and his cultish cartel that believed Satanic devotion—replete with human sacrifice to the fallen angel—would protect their illegal operations from the federales.
“When [Constanzo] was a kid, his mother practiced santeria: white magic,” Cazares explains. “As he got older he ran with the wrong crowd and said, fuck that, we’re practicing brujeria!”
Drawing fascination and immediate influence from this horrific tale, one which came violently undone with an investigation around the disappearance of American college student Mark Kilroy, Cazares (Asesino), Gould (Güero Sin Fe), Hoed (Fantasma), and Lepe (Juan Brujo) essentially founded Brujeria in that moment. All of the lurid and vile elements of an extreme metal band were there: drugs, kidnapping, ritual murder, and, above all, Satanism. Yet the group’s agenda, as Cazares describes it, naturally shifted to something bigger than exploitation for exploitation sake.
“The best way to describe it was border politics,” he says. “I know it’s all brutal and evil and hardcore, but it kinda became a positive message later on.” As evidenced on Matando Güeros, Brujeria borrowed thematically not only from the unseemly true crime on Constanzo’s Hell Ranch, but also from contemporary issues of anti-Mexican sentiment and racism, particularly in his home state.
“Here in California, every governor and mayor that we’ve had always said we need to control the borders, like what Trump is doing now,” Cazares says. He specifically cites Republican Pete Wilson, who served as Senator and Governor of the state at different times between 1983 and 1999, for inhumane anti-immigrant policies such as armed raids and forced family separations that mirror the ones currently in wide practice on the national stage. “What ICE agents are doing now, they’ve been doing that forever over here.” (Notable, Jello Biafra would later play Wilson on an opening skit for the band’s 1995 follow-up Raza Odiada.)
That environment of institutional abuse and politically-motivated fear mongering were inextricably linked to drug trafficking and human trafficking alike, which made tracks like “Cruza La Frontera” and “Leyes Narcos” all the more realistic to those who could understand them. Cazares laments the almost cannibalistic way in which degrading conditions in Mexico and further south prompted more immigration to places like California which reacted with aggression and violence to those who reached the border while filling the coffers of the smuggling cartels further. “It’s all about the fight for the fucking border,” he says of the album, a bleak portrait that brilliantly if improbably captures the essence of that fight.
Current band member La Bruja Encabronada, rumored to be Orange Is The New Black star Jessica Pimentel, may not have been a part of Brujeria during the Matando Güeros days, but she remembers the record well. “It really scared the crap outta me, honestly,” she says, having acquired a bootleg copy back in high school. “It was the first time I heard music that actually made me feel physically uncomfortable. It crossed the lines in so many ways and still does today.”
“We would laugh at black metal,” Cazares says. “This was way harder and real than any of those guys in Norway were.”
While lyrically Matando Güeros effectively excluded English speakers, literally threatening and performatively slaughtering them on opener “Pura De Venta,” visually the record appropriated from something theoretically within reach of white America but inaccessible in practice—namely, Spanish-language tabloids. One in particular called ¡Alarma! was akin to the National Enquirer, with the exception that it regularly posted gruesome scenes of death for its readers to ogle. “You’d open the paper and there would be stories, like a cop got shot,” Cazares says of its contents. “And it would show a picture of the cop with his head blown off. They don’t give a fuck!”
¡Alarma! provided Brujeria with appropriately sickening imagery to make Matando Güeros an unforgettable record. The unlucky gentleman whose contorted visage adorns the cover came straight from those pages, apparently the result of a drug deal gone bad. “They tied this guy up, put him on the train tracks, he was run over, decapitated, and his legs were cut off,” Cazares explains. The brutality of the photography prompted him to contact the magazine who responded that they’d send the pictures along for $250.
Three weeks after mailing the payment, an envelope arrived with the full set from the crime scene shoot, which Brujeria used throughout the original CD’s packaging. “The photographers would give the photos to the police to look at, but then they also sell them on the side to these newspapers,” he says. “That’s how we got the real photos.”
Considering the year 1993, with infamous Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) spokesperson Tipper Gore in the White House, the music business reacted accordingly to Matando Güeros’ nightmare-inducing art. Even though the band had Roadrunner’s support, the label had to take precautions to ensure it could get the record into retail outlets. “They had to put a black perforated cover on the front,” Cazares says.
That simple move may have eased the consciences of sellers, or otherwise tricked them, but it didn’t prevent a reaction from one part of the industry rarely if ever heard from. “Whoever was packaging the CDs must’ve been Hispanic,” he says. “In the boxes, they were writing prayers, blessing the box because they thought this was evil.”
Brujeria may have terrified their distributors, but astute metalheads who played Matando Güeros no doubt detected in it musical traces of Fear Factory, who were also signed to Roadrunner at the time and released their Soul Of A New Machine album through the label in 1992. Cazares' dual songwriting role in both projects made that more or less inevitable. Still, given the secrecy on both the band and label side, membership remained a purely speculative observation at the time. While that seemed more plausible than taking their image at face value, a certain youthful naivety and suburban Anglo ignorance reigned in the days before Google and Wikipedia. Again, this was 1993, a time when a lucky teen with a warped worldview could snag a Faces Of Death snuff film from one of the less discerning video rental stores and gawk at scenes too graphic even for late-night basic cable.
Feasibility aside, it was a lot more fun as listeners to believe the murderous fantasy, as is still the case with a great deal of rap music. On some level, we wanted to be headbanging to songs performed by self-described narcos-satanicos.
Another practical component of Brujeria’s mystique had to do with allowing for a somewhat fluid membership. “The real reason we started wearing masks was [that] over the years we had different artists that played with us, and some of them were on major labels,” Cazares says. “Warner Bros. would never let guys in Faith No More be part of Brujeria!” That contractual workaround effectively locked them into the gimmick even as rumors circulated of their identities. This also kept the band from playing live for some time, years after Raza Odiada.
La Bruja Encabronada tours as part of the latest incarnation, which still largely relies on masks and deliberately makes it unclear who exactly is onstage. She considers it an honor.
“Being someone of Latin American descent, being able to sing about your heritage or the occult in the tongue of your parents is a visceral experience,” she says. “I see that on the faces of many of the fans that are screaming, crying, singing, and punching right along with us.”
While this type of theatricality foreshadowed what later groups like Slipknot would do, Cazares clarifies that condition also faithfully paralleled notable aspects of Mexican life. In the drug war, Mexican police regularly wear masks to protect their identities. Conversely, left-wing Zapatista revolutionaries in the southernmost parts of the country did the same. “There was a guy in Chiapas named Subcomandante Marcos,” he says. ”[Zapatistas] wore masks so they wouldn’t find out who they were and kill their families.”
“From the very first moment of the very first album, Brujería always crossed the line,” says La Bruja Encabronada. “I don't think all of it should be taken literally, but perhaps the metaphors are taken to extremes so that the impact hits in a place that hurts, and pries your eyes open to the world they hide from you.”
Like so much great satire, Brujeria’s morbid humor never lost sight of the profoundly dark reality of its subject matter. By poking fun, they were simultaneously poking at a wound, exposing the ugliness around border politics, and even educating people in the process.
“Our way of dealing with it was making it fun,” Cazares says. “If you don’t laugh at it, then you’re gonna die crying.”
Gary Suarez is grinding on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.