Mexico fights new battle: Corralling 'narco-ballads'

By Anne-Marie O'Connor
Los Angeles Times
Nov. 28, 2002

TIJUANA - It was supposed to be the day the music died.

The governor of Baja California gathered with guests at an elegant hotel to witness a solemn promise to purge the region's radio airwaves of "narco-ballads," those songs about drug traffickers.

This music has become a genre as popular, gory and hard to banish as gangsta rap.

"Narco-ballads set a bad example for the younger generation," said Mario Enrique Mayans Concha, president of the Baja California chapter of Mexico's Chamber of Radio and Television Industry, who has presided over the ban of past three months.

But at Avenida Revolucion, a crowded hangout, men in 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots were singing along to a narcocorrido about a death match between a drug lord and a cop.

Mexico's latest culture war is unfolding on its newest front: the cradle of the Tijuana drug cartel.

Pop-culture battle

For the establishment, the enemy is "narcocultura," the fascination with Mexico's underworld and overlords.

Officials are tired of seeing statues of the so-called "narco-saint" Jesus Malverde sold on the steps of a downtown cathedral and tired of seeing the suspected drug lord Eduardo Arellano, with his tousled good looks, smiling from a "Most Wanted" poster.

Can Mexico, a U.S.-certified partner in the war on drugs, quell a popular genre with an official scolding?

Regional music claims more than half of the $600 million a year in U.S. sales of Latin music - and Los Angeles is a major market.

Narcocorridos are a modern manifestation of a musical tradition that is as old as Mexico itself.

Around the campfires of the Mexican Revolution, troubadours rallied illiterate soldiers and peasants with songs about battlefield victories. During Prohibition, they sang of rum-runners. In modern times, they celebrated heroes such as labor leader Cesar Chavez.

Today, they sing of drug lords, with such faithful attention to headlines that one Tijuana television journalist used a narco-ballad as the mock narration for news footage of a splashy murder.

It was a particularly grisly drug killing that provided the catalyst for the movement to ban the ballads, some say.

In February 2001, masked men with automatic weapons lined up 12 boys and men and gunned them down in El Limoncito, a tiny village in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa - a massacre attributed to a drug turf war.

A few months later, at a broadcasters' convention in Sinaloa, the birthplace of Mexico's most famous traffickers, radio owners announced they would no longer play narcocorridos in the state.

"If they could do it there," Mayans reasoned, "there was no reason we couldn't do it in Baja California."

Last December, the Mexican Senate exhorted states to restrict narcocorridos, saying the songs "create a virtual justification for drug traffickers."

In January, Chihuahua legislators adopted a non-binding resolution asking radio stations not to play the songs, calling them a siren call to a life of "violence, criminality and drug trafficking" that "teenagers imitate to the detriment of society."

Consensus in Baja California jelled in July. Broadcasters gathered in a tastefully understated salon of the Hotel Lucerna and signed the pact.

"It's not an obligation or a censorship. It's voluntary," Mayans said.

But the lingering mystique of the narco-pose was all too evident on a recent night at the "Cowboy Bar" in Tijuana.

Onstage, the dashing, mustachioed Roman Coronado sang about a Mexican federal policeman who defected to work for the drug cartel.

"Give me a line of coke," Coronado sang. "I was once a federal agent, but it did me no good, because the Mafia was too numerous, and the police too few."

Thin gray line

The narcocorridos industry is rife with rumors of relationships between musicians and traffickers.

Several balladeers have stumbled over the line between art and life, becoming the victims of the violence they portray.

Rosalino Sanchez, a poor Mexican immigrant in Los Angeles, rose to fame as a narcocorrido star - "Chalino" - whose street "cred" was enhanced by the pistol he wore in his belt and the gunman who wounded him onstage near Palm Springs, Calif.

In 1992, when the 31-year-old singer returned to his home state of Sinaloa, he disappeared after a concert. His bullet-riddled body turned up later on a roadside.

A few years later, the genre exploded into the mainstream.

By 1997, the composers of some of the most memorable narco-ballads, Los Tucanes of Tijuana, had more hits on the Latin Billboard chart at the same time than any artist since Selena.

Tucanes' lead singer, Mario Quintero, said the narcocorrido radio blackout "is not the solution."

"The movie Traffic is like a corrido made into a film, but obviously you can't prohibit a movie," he said in an e-mail message from Acapulco. "Prohibiting narcocorridos will not solve the problem."

Yet radio stations have gone along with the ban. Some listeners call in to register their disappointment - but others just tune in to narcocorridos broadcast from stations north of the border.

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