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Will Colombia Honor A Beloved Musician Who Was Also A Convicted Killer?

After the funeral in 2013 for popular folk music star Diomedes Diaz, fellow musicians including accordionist Andres Gil performed in homage to him. Now Colombia's Congress is considering a bill to honor Diaz.
After the funeral in 2013 for popular folk music star Diomedes Diaz, fellow musicians including accordionist Andres Gil performed in homage to him. Now Colombia's Congress is considering a bill to honor Diaz.

The music of Diomedes Diaz blasts from a cantina in La Junta, a village of dirt streets and cactus on the edge of a desert where the late singer grew up. His songs celebrate country living, all-night partying and falling in love.

This style of music is called vallenato. Diaz was Colombia's vallenato king, and his fans still flock to La Junta. Many, like retired oil worker Hector Suarez, come to see the people and places depicted in Diaz's songs.

"This is our second visit. Diomedes was our idol," says Suarez, who spent two days driving here with his family.

But offstage, Diaz was a heavy drinker and cocaine user, and relatives say he fathered at least 28 children.

Diomedes Diaz's widow, Luz Consuelo Martinez (top left), mourns over the performer's coffin after he died of a heart attack in 2013. Diaz had been convicted of killing a girlfriend in 1997, but he served only two years in prison and then made a spectacular comeback.
Adamis Guerra / AP
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Diomedes Diaz's widow, Luz Consuelo Martinez (top left), mourns over the performer's coffin after he died of a heart attack in 2013. Diaz had been convicted of killing a girlfriend in 1997, but he served only two years in prison and then made a spectacular comeback.

In 1997, a drunken Diaz got into a fight with his 24-year-old girlfriend, Doris Adriana Niño. He strangled Niño, and his bodyguards dumped her body in a cow pasture.

Diaz then fled to the mountains and found refuge with paramilitary drug traffickers. He finally turned himself in and was convicted of manslaughter in 2001. But owing to Colombia's lenient penal code, he spent just two years behind bars.

In 2005, Diaz enjoyed a successful comeback and all seemed forgiven.

When he died of a heart attack two years ago, thousands attended his funeral. President Juan Manuel Santos called Diaz a musical genius.

So why is it that Colombians are so willing to overlook Diaz's criminal past?

"The problem isn't just Diomedes," says Yalile Giordanelli, the producer of a top-rated Colombian TV series about the life and death of Diaz. In a macho society like Colombia, violence against women is common, even accepted, she says. As a result, the killing of his girlfriend is widely viewed as a minor blemish on Diaz's career.

"No one is perfect," says Alvaro Lopez, who played accordion in Diaz's band.

Fans of Diomedes Diaz crowded around a fire truck carrying the beloved performer's coffin in 2013.
Adamis Guerra / AP
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Fans of Diomedes Diaz crowded around a fire truck carrying the beloved performer's coffin in 2013.

The Colombian Congress seems to agree. It is now considering a bill to honor Diaz for his contributions to Colombian folklore.

Opponents say the bill makes no sense. Just a few months ago, these same legislators passed a law that imposes tougher punishments on those who murder women and girls.

During a fierce debate over the bill honoring Diaz, lawmaker Angela Maria Robledo said: "I will not stand to let this Congress pay tribute to a man who mistreated and was violent towards women."

But the bill is expected to pass. Other lawmakers are fans of the singer.

As for Diaz, he never said much about his manslaughter conviction. But before he died, he spelled out his feelings in a song called "Forgiveness."

"You have thousands of reasons to scold me. But I deserve another chance," Diaz sings. "I've also done good deeds. So, everyone should forgive me."

An earlier version of this story appeared on time.com.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.