Tijuana passes law banning ballads praising Mexican drug trade

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Politicians have long sought to silence the genre, but previous clampdowns have only boosted its popularity

A typical song by Peso Pluma, one of Mexico’s most popular singers, might start with a guitar and a trumpet, sounding like something for the older crowd – but then come the lyrics telling of drug shipments, stacks of cash and diamond-encrusted pistols.

Peso Pluma has produced some of the most notorious recent examples of narcocorridos – ballads celebrating the exploits of the Mexican underworld that are hugely popular not just at home but across Latin America and the US.

One of them – a paean to a foot soldier of the Sinaloa cartel – probably led to recent death threats he received in the border city of Tijuana, forcing him to cancel concerts.

This week, local politicians in the city voted to ban narcocorridos from being performed or even played in the city, in the latest attempt by politicians to censor the genre – even though previous such efforts seem to have, if anything, only boosted its popularity.

Corridos originate from northern Mexico, where they once recounted the lives and bloody deaths of notorious bandits and revolutionaries. In recent decades, however, they have focused on the country’s drug bosses with lyrics describing drug deals and brutal killings.

Famous songs include tributes to organised crime bosses like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Sometimes the artists are paid by traffickers to write and perform songs about them, portraying them as heroic outlaws.

Mexican politicians have long attempted to silence the corridos, whose lyrics, critics say, glorify violence and the drug trade. But in some cases the songs critique the realities of life for those affected by the militarised “war on drugs”, which began in 2006 and has caused violence to soar in Mexico.

“Many narcocorridos are actually critical of the status quo and narrate the collusion of local and national politicians with criminal enterprises – or offer interpretations of the war that do not coincide with the dominant ‘war on drugs’ narrative,” said Miguel Cabañas, who studies representations of drug trafficking in popular culture.

On Wednesday, the Tijuana government passed a ban on narcocorridos, saying it wanted to reduce violence by protecting children and adolescents from this kind of music.

“Because no matter how many weapons this municipality seizes or arrests we make, the most important thing is to take care of mental health, which begins with the eyes and ears,” said Montserrat Caballero Ramírez, the mayor.

Fines for breaching the ban could approach £58,000 (about $70,000) and will go towards prevention and addiction treatment programs.

The mayor added that the ban only applies to narcocorridos and artists are welcome in Tijuana.

Tijuana, which sits across the frontier from San Diego, is regularly among the most violent cities in Mexico and the world. In 2022, there were 105.1 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Various other cities and states have implemented bans in the past. Specific artists have been singled out, too, from Los Tigres del Norte to Los Tucanes de Tijuana and El Komander.

But such measures have done nothing to dent the popularity of the genre, which stands as testament to the drug trade’s influence on popular culture.

By contrast, one study found that attempts at censorship had only been a commercial boost for the artists.

“The fines and cancelled concerts only added to the image of El Komander as a rebel, and turned him into a hero in the eyes of his fans,” wrote the authors.

More fundamentally, critics of censorship say that it is simply targeting artists instead of the root causes of violence – and that it inverts the underlying causality: blaming narcocorridos for drug violence, rather than the other way around.

“Banning songs won’t change a political and justice system that creates opportunities for corruption. Also, it won’t prevent young people getting involved in narco-related activity in environments where it’s one of the few opportunities for social mobility and income,” said Cabañas. “The causes of the war are socio-economic in nature: eliminating narcocorridos from the culture would not eliminate drug production and smuggling.”

Source: The Guardian