Corridos that idolize bad guys banned

By John Sevigny
Special to the Express-News

Web Posted : 03/10/2003 12:00 AM

LOS RAMONES, Mexico — Crime is rare, and there no longer are any rough-and-tumble cantinas in this small town wedged between a railroad line and the twisting, green Rio Pesqueria.

But for decades, there were enough barroom brawls, shootouts and cold-blooded killings here to inspire countless musicians to write gritty songs about the mayhem they saw.

"It was a violent life," said Higinio Flores, 77, who grew up in Ramones and began belting out corridos, as the bouncing, accordion-driven ballads are known, when he was just 15.

Historians say it's tough to prove the local legend that the corrido was born here, though many masters of the form, such as Carlos y Jose and the members of the group Bagon Chicano, definitely were.

What's certain is that today's narcocorridos, ultraviolent corridos chronicling the lives of modern-day drug lords, have roots in the equally violent music written and played here for more than a century.

That's why musicians here have watched with more than passing interest as five Mexican state governments, including Nuevo Leon, where Ramones is located, have in the past two years banned the wildly popular drug songs from the airwaves.

Backers of the ban say music about bad guys only encourages bad deeds, particularly among young fans.

In the crosshairs of the government are songs by such recording artists as Beto Quintanilla, born in the nearby town of General Teran, who often sings about smugglers and who appears on the covers of his compact discs posing with high-powered firearms.

In outlawing the music, state lawmakers have referred to language in a 50-year-old federal law that bans television and radio stations from transmitting anything condoning violence or crime.

Nuevo Leon state lawmaker Ernesto Tijerina, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has led efforts in his state to rid the radio waves of narcocorridos.

He considers himself a fan of the corrido and has even written a few himself. But narcocorridos, he said, should not be played on radio stations, the majority of which depend on government advertising to stay in business.

So far, nobody has been arrested for playing narcocorridos on the air. In fact, most stations have voluntarily scratched the songs from their playlists.

Tijerina said he's ready to see the government get tough on those who continue playing the songs. He said he would support sanctions against offenders, including fines and jail time.

"Play these songs in the cantinas, in the mountains, or wherever, but not on the radio," he said recently in his office in Monterrey, a city of almost 4 million people.

In Los Ramones, about 40 miles from Monterrey, musicians have mixed views about the current state of the art form, but most agree on one thing: The law will never kill the narcocorrido.

"You can't contain a fire that's burning out of control," said Flores, who like Tijerina, laments that the art form has turned so violent.

But other musicians say a glance at the history of corridos shows violence long has been part of the genre.

Before the era of cross-border drug trafficking, unschooled ranch musicians sang about gunslinging bootleggers who smuggled tequila into the United States during Prohibition.

Before that, they sang about suicides, killings over women, and other rural or small-town tragedies.

One classic corrido, for instance, tells of a rancher who lost his money, horses and land in a gambling house. Realizing his foolishness, he walked outside and killed himself with his pistol.

Today, narco-balladeers offer romantic tales of such drug war outlaws as Juan Garcia Abrego, the former leader of the Gulf Cartel.

In such songs, the narco, or drug lord, often is cast as the hero who outsmarts, outshoots or escapes from drug enforcement officers on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Numerous corridos also have been written about Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, whom authorities say assumed leadership of the regional drug trade when Abrego was sent to a U.S. prison in 1997.

Cárdenas now is believed to be hiding somewhere in Mexico's dry, mountainous north, with a $2 million FBI reward on his head.

Ricardo Escobedo, a disc jockey at La Regiomontana, an AM station in Monterrey, plays narcocorridos in defiance of written warnings from state communications officials.

In a recent interview, he said that since corridos have always been violent, it's stupid to ban only those about drug lords.

"There's not a lot of difference between a song about drug traffickers today and a song about gunslingers from the 1940s," said Escobedo, who recently made headlines with his attempt to set a world record by playing 2,001 corridos in a row.

"That's what makes the government look so ridiculous. They're trying to ban one but allow the other."

The debate takes more subtle turns in Los Ramones, nicknamed the Crib of Great Musicians.

No amount of legislation is going to stop such a popular form of popular song, said Flores, the veteran musician. Still, he laments that corridos have gone from telling sad, sometimes violent stories, to practically encouraging violence.

Jose Candelario Cantú, another local musician, said that no matter how violent narcocorridos might be, they are part of this town's heritage.

He keeps a photo album that chronicles that history under the counter at his business, a place where people can make long-distance phone calls.

In yellowing black-and-white photos, Cantú's father can be seen dressed for a mariachi gig in the 1930s. There is Cantú's grandfather, in a long duster jacket and holding a fiddle in the 1920s, and one of Cantú himself, onstage in 1964, singing and squeezing an accordion.

The three men made their living playing corridos. Today, Cantú still sings — and still defends — the narcocorrido. It's a form that is as legitimate, he says, as the danzon, bolero and mambo songs that have risen to popularity during his lifetime.

"The government is against narcocorridos because drug trafficking is a big problem," Cantú said. "But drug trafficking is something that exists in the world, and corridos have always been about real things."