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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Reggaeton, a Caribbean fusion of hip hop with Latin timbres, is wildly popular across Latin America but is raising eyebrows in conservative Mexico City.
Fans of the sexually explicit music have become Mexico's persona non grata of the moment, blamed for a string of offenses ranging from theft to drug dealing.
The whimsically dressed "reggaetoneros," as they are known, were catapulted into the public spotlight last month when police canceled a concert in the city's Zona Rosa neighborhood.
Outraged, the reggaetoneros vandalized cars and briefly occupied a local shopping mall, before police arrested more than 200 of them. In subsequent weeks, there have been more disturbances across the city, followed by more mass arrests.
"Neighbors live in fear of reggaetoneros," ran a recent headline in the broadsheet Reforma, which quoted shopkeeper Juanita, a witness to rowdy gatherings outside a subway station. "It's fair to say that they terrorize us," she told the paper.
Sociologists and human rights advocates say reggaetoneros are not violent criminals but rather the latest subculture to emerge from the ranks of Mexico's disadvantaged youth, who struggle to find gainful employment in a country where nearly every second person lives in poverty but which is also home to Carlos Slim, the world's richest man.
"The word reggaetonero has come to mean an angry youth, a drug-addict, or a delinquent, when neither the liking of that music or involvement in that scene necessarily has anything to do with the labels being assigned to them," said Luis Gonzalez, head of Mexico City's Commission on Human Rights.
Donovan Leal, a 16-year-old from Mexico City's working class Tepito neighborhood, said most fans were just into the music. "I go to dance, not to take drugs, and they say I'm a delinquent," he said, selling chicken wings from a portable fryer.
Like rockers and punks before them, adherents of reggaeton, which originated in Puerto Rico in the early 2000s, play up their outsider status, donning mohawks or hair gelled into spikes, facial piercings and make-up for both sexes.
"They are expressing themselves and expressing their rejection of a city that rejects them," said Gonzalo Camacho, an ethno-musicologist at Mexico City's UNAM university.
For straight-laced Mexico City residents, another count against the reggaetoneros is the signature dance move "perreo," involving suggestive grinding with a member of the opposite sex.
For the eccentrically clad youths streaming into a nightclub in the scruffy neighborhood of Ecatepec one recent Friday afternoon, mischief seemed to be the last thing on their minds.
"The music is really cool," said Brian Vega, accompanied by his friend, Antony Ortega. The two 17-year-olds, wearing identical outfits of slinky red trousers, black t-shirts and suspenders, caught the eyes of girls as they waited to get in. "But I think perreo is the most important thing."
Editing by Vicki Allen