TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - The more Mexican authorities try to stamp out violent drug ballads celebrating the joys of narcotics trafficking, the more their fame spreads like wildfire, fanned by the Internet.
The accordion and brass-driven “narcocorridos” that glamorize the shady underworld of smugglers has been forced underground in the border state of Baja California, which since 2001 has pressured radio stations, music stores and bars into a kind of self-censorship that stops short of an outright ban.
Now politicians are emulating Baja California to impose curbs in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, cradle of Mexico’s drug trade, and the violent state of Chihuahua, worried they are adding fuel to the flames of the nation’s brutal drug war.
“They are evil,” said Hector Murguia, the mayor of Mexico’s deadliest city Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua’s biggest. “They are a breeding ground and it serves no one that they reach our youngsters and poison their souls,” he told Reuters in support of Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte’s bid to ban them.
Drug-related violence has claimed some 40,000 lives in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon launched his war on drug cartels in late 2006. Yet prohibition of narcocorridos risks making the music even more exciting to rebellious teenagers.
“We haven’t seen a fall in sales because of the ban,” said Tijuana pirate music seller Ramiro Gonzalez. “On the contrary, more and more people want the music and are singing it.”
Downtown in the border city, a group of Mexican school children crowd around a computer, entranced by a popular song glorifying drug-fuelled riches, armoured cars and automatic weapons from one of the genre’s biggest stars, El Komander.
Nodding to the brassy beat while glued to images of U.S. dollars emblazoned with El Komander’s mustachioed face, the kids are among some 2 million viewers to have seen “Just For Being A Sinaloan” on Internet video-sharing site YouTube.
“I tell my friends we shouldn’t be doing this, but they love it,” said 11-year-old Tijuana schoolgirl Alma Campista as one of her pals loaded the song onto her Facebook page.
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While any legal ban would contravene Mexico’s freedom of expression laws, Duarte and Sinaloa Governor Mario Lopez both said last month they will withdraw licenses from any bar, radio or store that plays drug ballads. Both want a ban on concerts.
A telephone poll by Mexican daily Excelsior on May 30 found that 64 percent of respondents supported Lopez.
However, YouTube’s emergence as the place to hear the songs and the growing popularity of the genre in the United States suggests Mexico has no hope of pulling the plug on the music.
In January, a lawmaker in Calderon’s National Action Party tried unsuccessfully to make performing or producing drug ballads punishable with up to three years in prison.
“SICKENING YOUR CITY”
The songs, akin to gangster rap in the United States, mix traditional Norteno music to venerate the drug trade, and they have long been part of the macho, cowboy-hat image of Mexican smugglers. Cartel capos have been known to commission songs and often pay bands fortunes to play at their parties.
The most famous drug ballad “Jefe de Jefes” (Boss of Bosses) by Los Tigres del Norte is a homage to jailed kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, a pioneer of Mexican smuggling.
As a new breed of young drug bosses have swapped cowboy boots for designer clothing, drug ballads have also evolved.
El Komander, whose real name is Alfredo Rios, switches from a cowboy hat to trendy streetwear in his videos. He is part of the Movimiento Alterado (Altered Movement) that is playing U.S. cities this summer with its “Sickening Your City” tour.
“The Movimiento Alterado is taking old fashion-sounding music and turning it into something that is inspiring teenagers in L.A. to form corrido bands,” said U.S. music writer Elijah Wald, who has authored a book on drug ballads.
Los Tigres del Norte recorded a live MTV Unplugged in Los Angeles in February, opening their set with “Jefe de Jefes”.
Mexicans who dislike the music had hoped it would become too dangerous to play. Singer Valentin Elizalde was murdered in Reynosa in 2006 for favoring the Sinaloa cartel with his song “To My Enemies,” seen as a message to the rival Zetas cartel.
But many Mexicans see prohibition as misguided.
“I thought it was a joke when I first heard about it,” said Eber Rivas, a student in Ciudad Juarez. “I listen to the music in my car and at home and no one can stop me.”
Additional reporting by Herika Martinez-Prado in Ciudad Juarez and Robin Emmott in Monterrey; editing by Dave Graham