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Drug Ballads Hit Sour Notes

Music: Officials are trying to ban the Mexican equivalent of gangsta rap, saying it is a bad influence.


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

In an elegant hotel salon, the governor of Baja California gathered with guests of honor to witness a solemn promise to purge the state's radio airwaves of "narco-ballads"--songs about narcotics traffickers--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, the sober, suited president of the Baja California chapter of Mexico's Chamber of Radio and Television Industry, who has presided over the 2-month-old ban.

But on a recent night at a crowded Avenida Revolucion hangout, men in 10-gallon hats, leather dusters and cowboy boots were stamping their feet and singing along to a narcocorrido about a death match between a drug lord and a cop.

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

For the establishment, the enemy is narcocultura, the pop culture fascination with Mexico's gangster underworld and its overlords.

Officials are tired of seeing reliquaries of the so-called narco-saint, Jesus Malverde, sold on the steps of the downtown cathedral. They're tired of seeing the accused Tijuana drug lord Eduardo Arellano, as photogenic with his tousled good looks as a jeans model, smiling jauntily back at them from a "Most Wanted" poster at the U.S. border crossing.

They're irritated that a growing number of young people seem to know by heart the lyrics of a tune that boasts that "the little Colombian rock is making me famous."

But can Mexico, a U.S.-certified partner in the war on drugs, quell a popular regional musical genre with an official scolding? When senior clergymen called for a government ban this summer on a Mexican movie about a carnally passionate priest, the film became a runaway hit.

Mexican regional music, which includes narcocorridos, already claims slightly more than half of the $600 million a year in U.S. sales of Latin music--and Los Angeles is a major market.

"Ballads are a tradition in Mexican music, it's true--but ballads about the heroics of the Mexican Revolution, and other historic moments," said Mayans, of the radio trade association. "The narco-ballad is not a tradition."

But 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 like 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."

Influence on Teens

In January, Chihuahua legislators adopted a nonbinding 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.

Programmers agreed to support Mexican traditions, and "the narcocorrido is not a Mexican tradition," he said. "The narcocorrido is an apology for violence."

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

When four glowering young men swept into the bar, patrons got out of their way. Waiters tripped over themselves to provide the sullen quartet with Remy Martin. Women whispered: Who are they?

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