Early this month, the government of Chihuahua, Mexico, fined gritty corrido singer El Komander 100,000 pesos (approximately $7,746) for performing narcocorridos during a concert.
It was the largest such fine and obeyed an increasingly stringent set of measures applied by local Mexican governments in an effort to curb drug-related violence and stem any public celebration of drug culture and lifestyle. Narcocorridos, the popular, danceable, accordion-laden songs that speak about drug dealers and their exploits, fall squarely into the celebratory category.
Many artists have openly questioned the validity and effectiveness of such sanctions, but the ordinances just keep coming without inciting any major public outcry.
That’s because Mexico is in a unique sociopolitical situation when it comes to music. This is the home of the corrido-folk songs that tell real stories of struggle, heroes and anti-heroes that have been an integral part of Mexican culture since the 1800s. Today, they’re one of the most popular genres of regional Mexican music. The “narco” variation has been around at least since the early 1900s and gained mass popularity in the ’80s and ’90s with groundbreaking hits by respected acts like Los Tucanes de Tijuana and Los Tigres del Norte.
But in the last few years, narcocorridos have exploded in number, popularity and the level of their explicitness. And while violent narcocorridos have long been banned from the airwaves — a 1961 federal law prohibits “exultation of violence or crime” — YouTube and the Internet have no barriers. Add to that the monumental increase in drug trafficking in Mexico and related deaths, and you have a unique and often deadly cocktail.
In addition to the number of drug-related deaths (12,394 in 2012, according to the Mexican government) are the string of those of musicians. In January, 18 band and staff members of Kombo Kolombia were executed in Monterrey.
Not only do many acts have links to drugs and drug dealers, many others are fond of making drug dealers and their exploits the topic of their songs. And of course, there’s the issue of what happens when a drunken crowd listens to song after song about gun-touting guys with fancy cars, pretty women and no accountability.
The Chihuahua anti-corrido laws, for example, went into effect two years ago, after a gun fight erupted during a Los Tucanes de Tijuana concert. But earlier this summer, the government upped the ante by increasing fines and demanding a deposit from artists prior to performing. In Sinaloa, the birthplace of the corrido, a law prohibits narcocorridos from being played in any venue that sells alcohol. Last November, narcocorridos and alcohol were also banned from funerals. And last October, Culiacan banished narcocorridos — or any songs with violent content — from its annual cattle fair.
These may all seem like desperate measures, but for Mexicans inundated by violence, these are desperate times. The Mexican government clearly doesn’t have a handle on the drug trade or the violence, but at a minimum, it can control what is performed in public spaces.
Most political censorship is hateful and often involves the interests of a limited number of people who want to muzzle dissent or opposition. But while many corridos are thought-provoking, often incisive political satire, others tend to be, at best, blunt retellings of violent deeds, and at worse glorification of those who commit them.
Will banning such fare from public settings have a lasting effect on society? Likely not. But at the very least, these ordinances show that the community isn’t ready to wholeheartedly embrace a culture of violence.