A north Mexico city’s ban on a popular musical group, famous for playing ballads about drug trafficking and violence, is only the latest controversial chapter in the history of the “narcocorrido” genre.
On March 12, Chihuahua city issued an indefinite ban on norteño group Los Tigres del Norte playing concerts in the city. The local government said the band violated a city statute which forbids songs that glamorize drug trafficking.
Chihuahua is not the first place in Mexico to temporarily prohibit “narcocorridos” — songs about drug traffickers. Last year Sinaloa state, which along with Chihuahua is one of the regions of the country worst affected by Mexico’s drug violence, issued a decree banning the genre. Any bars or clubs that played narcocorridos would lose its liquor license. In the past the city of Tijuana has tried to pass a similar ordinance. The states of Nuevo Leon and Baja California Norte have also enforced bans.
Los Tigres del Norte are no strangers to controversy. Their songs take well known figures in the underworld like Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Mexico’s most famous drug trafficker in the 1980s, and Sandra Avila Beltran, a female trafficker known as the “Queen of the Pacific,” as their subject matter. In 2009, the group was banned from playing one of their more popular songs, “La Granja,” at a music awards ceremony in Mexico. The video and lyrics are critical of the government’s fight against the drug cartels, using a farm as a metaphor for Mexico, and·animals to represent the main actors. The drug gangs are depicted as an angry Rottweiler, and a fox (an apparent jab at former President Vicente Fox) is depicted as starting all the trouble by letting the dog loose, while pigs in a barn — who may represent Mexico’s elite or the US — are described as happily feasting on corn, only caring about “profits.” Meanwhile, a giant wall is built around the farm, keeping the poor farmers from escaping, a metaphor which needs little explanation.
Is “La Granja” a political critique of Mexican drug policy, as Los Tigres del Norte insist, or is it veiled message of support for the criminal groups that are fighting the government, as the authorities have argued? Many other narcocorridos raise similar questions about the line between describing the reality of drug trafficking, and glamorizing or professing support for it.
Below are a few of the most notorious and controversial narcocorridos.
1) Angel Gonzalez, “Contrabando y Traicion”
Often described as the first narcocorrido, the song was popularized when Los Tigres del Norte recorded a version in 1974. The lyrics tell the story of a woman, Carmelia, who smuggles drugs into the US and then kills her lover. Gonzalez has said that Carmelia is fictional, which has not prevented some women from claiming to be the original inspiration. As the genre developed, many narcocorridos began paying homage to real life traffickers. (See video, below).
2) Tucanes de Tijuana, “El Mas Bravo de los Bravos”
A popular young band, the Tucanes de Tijuana recorded several songs that praised Raydel Rosalio Lopez Uriarte, alias “Muletas,” the alleged second-in-command of a faction of the Tijuana Cartel before his arrest in 2010. “El Mas Bravo de los Bravos” (The Toughest of the Tough) is just one of them. The group also wrote a song about Lopez’s boss, Teodoro Garcia Simental, which has only been released online. During a Tijuana concert in August 2010, the group’s frontman stated, “My regards to El Teo and his partner Muletas. Long live the mob!” The incident led Tijuana police chief Julian Leyzaola to ban the group from playing in the city.
3) Valentin Elizade, “A Mis Enemigos”
Elizade was killed in 2006 when gunmen ambushed him after a concert in Reynosa. A popular conspiracy theory behind his death involves “A Mis Enemigos” (To My Enemies), which some have interpreted as a challenge to the Zetas, although they are not named in the song.
4) Gerardo Ortiz, “Los Duros de Colombia”
With the rise of social networking sites like Myspace and YouTube, narcocorridos steadily gained popularity outside of Mexico’s northern border states. Ortiz’s song, an ode to Pablo Escobar of the Medellin Cartel and the Cali-based Rodriguez brothers, was one of the earliest signs that the genre had gained an international reach. Ortiz later survived an assassination attempt in 2011.
5) Oscar Ovidio, “El Corrido de Juan Ortiz”
Guatemalan singer Oscar Ovidio composed this song about the exploits of one of the country’s most notorious drug traffickers, alias “Juan Chamale.” In the late 2000s, as Mexican traffickers steadily gained a foothold in Central America, the narcocorrido was another export that appeared to follow them.