Mexican State Bans Narco-Music

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A Mexican governor announced a prohibition on “narcocorridos,” songs celebrating drug trafficking, in public venues in his state, turning the fight against organized crime into a debate about free expression amid the rise of narco-culture.

The northwestern state of Sinaloa’s ban on narcocorridos, songs which typically hail the exploits of drug traffickers against a backdrop of old-style Mexican rhythms heavy on percussion and accordion, will be enforced through local alcohol regulations. Bars and music halls that are in violation of the new statute will have their liquor license yanked.

The move by Governor Mario Lopez Valdez earned a thumbs-up from federal authorities. Alejandro Poire, one of President Felipe Calderón’s most visible security officials, said that the songs “glorify the most perverse examples of criminal violence, capable of inhuman massacres.” After announcing his decree, Lopez Valdez later said that he’d like to see the ban replicated nationally.

Despite the flurry of approval, it is not clear how any of this will have an impact on public security in Sinaloa, the Mexican state with the deepest historical connections to the drug trade. As Lopez Valdez surely knows, the reasons that Sinaloa has long suffered high levels of violence — weak institutions, large swaths of lawless regions in the Sierra Madre mountains, terrain ideal for marijuana cultivation, among many other factors — will be entirely unaffected by his decree. Narcocorridos are merely a symptom of the above challenges, and a relatively unimportant one at that. As a result, Valdez Lopez is restricting free expression without any probable security benefit.

Nor, for that matter, is the ban on narcocorridos likely to eliminate the music. Unless the state government is prepared to send an army of undercover inspectors to cantinas, flouting the law will presumably be both frequent and easy. Even if the law is successful, narcocorridos won’t disappear; they will merely be driven underground, which may well enhance their credibility and could conceivably have the perverse affect of making them more popular.

Lopez Valdez’s gambit is not the first time that narcocorridos have been targeted by politicians. In 2009, a deputy from Calderon and Lopez Valdez’s Natinal Action Party, Oscar Marin Arce, introduced legislation to punish authors of narcocorridos with up to three years in prison. However, the law was never passed.

Some Latin American politicians have also expressed disapproval of “narconovelas,” or TV soap operas that offer occasionally sympathetic portrayals of capos. In 2010, Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli complained that the narconovelas “exalt” drug runners and corrupt values, and alluded to the possibility of restrictive new laws if broadcasters refused to self-regulate their content.

As with Lopez Valdez, those behind the Martinelli and Marin proposals must be aware that the huge profits and probability of escaping arrest are the primary drivers of organized crime in Latin America, not the relatively insignificant presence of the drug trade in popular culture. As such, their criticism of novelas and corridos are better viewed as political saber-rattling rather than a serious attempt to address insecurity.

“It is very hard to stop the drug trafficking, [but it] is very easy to get your name in the papers by attacking famous musicians.” said Elijah Wald, the author of the book “Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas,” said in response to Marin Arce’s proposal.

Nonetheless, the authors of narcocorridos are often connected to conflicts in the world of organized crime, even beyond the lyrics in their songs. In perhaps the most famous case, famous crooner Valentin Elizalde was murdered in Reynosa in 2007. While the motivation for his death has never been positively established, one popular theory said that he was killed in retaliation for singing the song “A Mis Enemigos,” or To My Enemies, a provocative insult to unnamed adversaries, on the night of his death. Under that theory, the unnamed enemies were in fact the Zetas, some of whom were in the audience and recognized the challenge.

“Jefe de Jefes” by Los Tigres del Norte is among the most famous narcocorridos in Mexico (See video below). Although many capos have adopted the moniker, the song is said to pay homage to Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who was the nation’s most notorious capo during the 1980s. Felix Gallardo, who has now been in prison more than 20 years, has said that he doesn’t like the song or the style of music.

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