Story by Valerie Vande Panne
Narcocorridos, the graphic ballads depicting the trials and triumphs of drug lords in the border zone of the Drug War, have been banned from radio play in four Mexican states.
The state of Nuevo Leon has banned them outright, while in Sinaloa and Baja California, radio stations voluntarily eliminated the songs from the airwaves under pressure from the government. In Chihuahua, the state legislature passed a resolution supporting a similar ban, saying that as a result of the narcocorrido, “children and young people lose the familiar interest in study, work and values, to seek easy money, depravity, and vices.”
Corridos are accordion-heavy story songs, typically from the northern part of Mexico. One hundred years ago, they told of romantic conquests and gunfights; during the United States’ alcohol prohibition, they evolved into the stories of tequila smugglers. They continue to be a popular form of norteÃ±o music. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, Mexican regional music—the majority of which in the last 15 years is corridos—makes up over 50% of all Latin music sales in the US (compared with 14% for salsa), and is a $600 million a year industry in the US alone. (Since bootlegging is such a common practice in Mexico, there are no solid sales numbers available.)
Today, some corridos tell stories about 9/11 or the travails of illegal immigrants. But narcocorridos—with titles like “El Rey de las Drogas” (The King of Drugs) and “El Judicial y el Traficante” (The Fed and the Dealer) are the most popular kind. The move to ban them in Mexico has been building for years.
“It seems hypocritical that the people who created the market for narcocorridos, who popularized them, now want people to stop listening to them,” Victor Clark, director of Tijuana, Baja California’s private Binational Center for Human Rights, told the Los Angeles Times. “Prohibiting them will just turn them into the forbidden fruit…. Narcocorridos are deeply established now in the popular culture of northern Mexico.”
Grammy-award winners Los Tigres del Norte fathered the narcocorrido genre in 1972 with their album Contrabando y TraiciÃ³n (Contraband and Betrayal). Narcocorrido author Elijah Wald calls them the Rolling Stones of Mexico; they’ve been around for three generations and continue to sell out shows throughout North America, commanding $50 for tickets to a recent show in New York. The song “Contrabando y TraiciÃ³n” is considered a classic. It is the story of Camelia la Tejana (Camelia the Texan) and Emilio, smuggling marijuana from Tijuana to Los Angeles. When Emilio leaves Camelia for another woman, she kills him, takes the money from the deal, and runs.
Sonaron siete balazos, Camelia a Emilio mataba
La policÃa sÃ³lo hallÃ³ una pistola tirada
Del dinero y de Camelia nunca mÃ¡s se supo nada
(Seven shots sounded, Camelia killed Emilio
The police only found a thrown pistol
Of the money and of Camelia nothing more was known)
While Camelia is a fictional character, Jorge HernÃ¡ndez, leader of Los Tigres del Norte, told Nucleo Radio that he believes the government should worry first about the drug lords who inspire these accounts. “Our government should worry first about them and later the songs.”
“There’s not a lot of difference between a song about drug traffickers today and a song about gunslingers from the 1940s,” Monterrey DJ Ricardo Escobedo told the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News. He continues to play narcocorridos, defying the state ban.
The airplay bans have not hurt sales. According to Wald, an estimated 80% of album sales in this music genre are in the form of pirate CDs. The CDs are sold, typically for around 15 pesos (about $1.50), on the street corners of every village and town from Juarez to Monterrey.
“The real question,” Wald says, “is does anybody care?” In states where the music is banned from the airwaves, the playing field is leveled: When big record-label acts get no air play, small bands from the mountains become just as famous, and in some cases sell even more records. The only place to hear and obtain the music becomes the street, and the economic benefits from it stay in the region, rather than being funneled away into the bellies of corporate media.
Not all state legislators are taking the tough-on-narcocorridos stance. “Freedom of expression is guaranteed to all citizens,” FÃ©lix Salgado Macedonio, a member of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution from the state of Guerrero, told Nucleo Radio. Drug trafficking, he added, “is a reality in our country and in all the countries of the world.”