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Mexico's controversial gangster ballads

As elections near, politicos tighten the squeeze on country’s popular odes to narcos.

Mexico tigres del norte 4 4 2012Enlarge
Award-winning norteña music band Los Tigres del Norte recently ran afoul of prohibitions in Chihuahua for singing a song considered a "narcocorrido," or narco ballad. (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

SILAO, Mexico — The name of Aaron Lopez’s band Los Astros del Cristo Rey — meaning the Stars of Christ the King — drew inspiration from a towering statue of Christ here in Mexico's conservative Catholic heartland northwest of the liberal capital city.

By day, the name fits: the trio sings "corridos," or ballads, about the region and the Christ statue for visitors arriving at the hilltop site.

After hours, the group moonlights in local bars and cantinas, singing about less Godly topics: drug-cartel kingpins and their illegal exploits.

It’s a genre of music known as the "narcocorrido" — and something government officials the length of the country have denounced and attempted to outlaw.

Many in Mexico prefer the narcocorridos to more wholesome tunes these days. That’s causing discomfort for the authorities, who blame the genre for glorifying crime and luring young people astray.

The music is growing in popularity even though Mexico’s ongoing federal crackdown on cartels has claimed more than 47,000 lives over the past five years.

The ballads particularly seem to irk politicos during election season. Mexico is set to pick a new president, congress and hundreds of state and local officials on July 1.

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Lopez makes no excuses for the activities his songs describe or for the people glorified in the lyrics. "The majority of people, when drinking, want to hear narcocorridos,” he says.

"If they want us to sing about the church, we do that. If they want us to sing about 'narcos,' we do that, too."

Some local governments have banned public performances of narcocorridos and airing them on the radio — efforts that have done little to dent the genre's popularity, or diminish violence.

The prohibitions reflect "desperation on the part of the authorities to do something," said Elijah Wald, author of the book “Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas.”

"It looks as if you're doing something, but you're not having any impact on the drug business."

Norteña music legends Los Tigres del Norte ran afoul of prohibitions in Chihuahua city for singing a single hit deemed inappropriate at a cattle exposition in early March.

Civic authorities fined the concert promoter 20,000 pesos (roughly $1,550) because Los Tigres performed "La Reina del Sur" (The Queen of the South). The song summed up a novel on the girlfriend of a slain trafficker's rise through the drug business. It later became a soap opera.

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Manuel Valenzuela, expert on narcocorridos at the College of the Northern Border in Tijuana, calls the bans "censorship" at a time cultural expressions — movies such as "Miss Bala" and "El Infierno" — draw on strife from the ongoing drug war.

He cites self-interest among a nervous business and political class for the ban, rather than public-safety concerns.

"It isn't [the] fear ... young people are going to become drug dealers," Valenzuela said. "It's when characters appear [in a song] who have one foot in the drug business and another in business or politics or the military."

Bans have been common since the genre's emergence, especially in the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa — home to the powerful cartel of the same name.

The federal government, meanwhile, has branded the ballads distasteful and dangerous.

"It's a matter of legality and of putting an end to the growth of a culture of indifference and violence," Mexico's then-government spokesman and current Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire wrote on a government blog.

"We cannot permit as a government and society that delinquents also invade the cultural sphere to normalize crimes."

The reactions hark back to backlashes in the United States to songs such as Ice T's "Cop Killer." Another controversial group, 2 Live Crew, recorded a rap song about getting banned.

Some experts describe corridos as unvarnished oral history lessons set to music, mainly waltzes and polkas.

Early 20th-century Mexican revolutionaries such as Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata had corridos written to boast of their accomplishments, which was important during a time the population was mostly rural and illiterate.

Narco traffickers often commission songs to “legitimize” their standings in local populations, says Ilan Semo, political historian at the Ibero-American University.

But some recent corridos glorify enemies of the drug world, instead.

One song praises Alejo Garza, a Monterrey lumber baron and hunting enthusiast who, at age 77, gathered his guns and killed four narcos, going out in a blaze of glory rather than surrender his ranch.

The corrido, "Don Alejo's final hunt," was released online within days of his death.

"With any story about a brave Mexican with a gun, you'll have a corrido," says Wald, the book author.

Such is the nature of the corrido. It’s about something in the news — and Mexico’s drug war grabs plenty of headlines, says Wald, adding, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/mexico/120404/narco-drug-war-ballads-crackdown