Mexican broadcasters take 'narco-ballads' off the air

A massacre last month prompted a self-imposed ban on drug songs by radio stations.

Do violent lyrics in popular music foment violence? Do songs about illegal drugs glorify the drug trade and turn traffickers into heroes?

Those might sound like questions for American rapper Eminem. But they're being asked in Mexico, where a surge in drug-related killings this year has rekindled a search for solutions. One idea: banning narco-corridos or "narco-ballads."

Songs with drug themes have become increasingly common - and wildly popular - over recent years as Mexico's troubador musical groups sing of the social conditions around them.

Last week the radio and television association of Sinaloa state banned narco-ballads and other songs glorifying violence from the airwaves. The ban came days after an apparently drug-related massacre that left 12 people dead in the Sinaloan village of El Limoncito. On Valentine's Day most of El Limoncito's males of all ages were lined up by masked visitors and gunned down with automatic weapons.

Within the broadcast industry, the ban's supporters say they don't want to be associated with such violence. "Rather than let ourselves be used to send messages that glorify violence, corruption, and illegal activities," says Manuel Perez Munoz, president of the Sinaloa office of the National Chamber of the Radio and Television Industry (CIRT), "we want to send other messages: of morality, of respect for life, of caring for children."

Sinaloa's 50 radio stations will soon begin running new spots promoting community harmony and peaceful conflict resolution, Mr. Perez says. The state's three local TV stations are considering joining the campaign.

The ban most notably affects the work of musicians like Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes de Tijuana, who have huge followings and high radio exposure in Mexico's north. The groups are also quite popular in the Mexican immigrant communities in US cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

Critics of the ban say the songs are not the cause but only the reflection of a part of Mexican life. This kind of measure "is like trying to block out the sun with your thumb," says Jose Luis Marin, marketing executive of regional Mexican music at Universal, the Tucanes' record label. "Groups like the Tucanes are singing about what they see every day in newspapers and on TV, they're not making anything up."

If Mexico's ranchero balladeers are simply chronicling northern Mexican life, it was unavoidable they would sing of drug-trafficking - and of Sinaloa. The Pacific coast state is considered the birthplace of Mexico's multibillion-dollar drug trade. Successful traffickers are heroes in many of Sinaloa's poor villages.

But the drug trade has also turned Sinaloa into one of Mexico's most violent regions. Last year the state recorded more than 500 drug-related killings. But not even the 90 killings registered in December and the first two weeks of January prepared Sinaloa for the stunning sight of El Limoncito's massacre victims.

The Sinaloa CIRT's Perez emphasizes that no groups will be pulled from the radio, only songs with violent themes or lyrics that promote illegal activities. "Of course we'll still play the Tigres and Tucanes," says the owner of four Sinaloan radio stations.

Songs that will no longer be heard on Sinaloa radio include the Tigres' "Lamberto Quintero," a lamentation of the killing of one of Sinaloa's most powerful narcotraffickers, and the Tucanes' "Most Wanted Men," in which a drug trafficker brags about using his money to buy politicians and "control entire countries."

Music historians and sociologists say contemporary corrido singers are doing what Mexican balladeers have done since the beginning of the 20th century, when themes of the day were revolution, land rights, and the rise of the poor. But others say the narco-ballads have crossed the line from chronicling to promoting and glorifying. And with Sinaloa reeling from a surge in violence, that perception of glorification became intolerable.

Some record companies say they believe radio bans and other actions that reduce exposure for certain groups probably translate into lower record sales. But the nonplussed Tucanes don't seem too worried. When the Sinaloa ban was announced, the group - originally from Sinaloa - predicted fans would turn off the radio and play their tapes and CDs in their pickups.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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