Ban on the Band: Los Tigres del Norte Silenced

The long-running effort to silence bands performing narcocorridos has taken a major turn with authorities in the capital of Mexico’s Chihuahua state indefinitely banning one of the most famous norteno groups, Los Tigres del Norte, from playing in the city.

The move came four days before gunmen in the western Mexican state of Sinaloa killed a member of another well-known band specializing in songs lauding the exploits of drug lords and lamenting their travails.

Chihuahua city’s ban on Los Tigres del Norte, the dominant norteno band for the last 30 years, was in response to a recent concert performed by the band during which they sang some of their most famous drug ballads, including “Queen of the Pacific,” which praises Sandra Avila Beltran, a female trafficker currently held in jail on drug charges. That song reached the number one spot in the Billboard Magazine Latin chart in 2002.

In announcing the ban on March 12, the city authorities said in a statement that by singing three drug ballads at a concert two days previously the band had violated a three-month-old city statute which forbids songs that glamorize narcotics trafficking and drug lords.

Los Tigres del Norte “will not get permits for future shows in the city limits, until such time as authorities decide otherwise,” the city said in its statement. The city government has imposed a 20,000 pesos fine on the concert organizers.

City Governance Director Javier Torres Cardona says, “we ask concert organizers and artists themselves to think about the difficult situation the country is in.”

In a Twitter posting in response to the ban, Los Tigres del Norte denied knowledge of the city statute forbidding live performances of narcocorridos. But the band, one of the most successful norteno groups that has received a slew of music awards in both Mexico and the United States and has a huge following in Central America, is no stranger to controversy — nor is it unfamiliar with bans.

In 2009, the organizers of a music awards ceremony told the group that they couldn’t perform one of their hit ballads “La Granja” or “The Farm.”  Los Tigres del Norte responded by canceling their appearance. In 2002 Los Tigres del Norte had to drop plans to release a single of a new corrido entitled, “Cronica de un Cambio,” which was critical of the administration of President Fox, because national radio chains warned they would not play the song.

Los Tigres albums sell in the millions, and Los Tigres concerts can draw upwards of 100,000 fans.

Since 2002, there have been many moves to ban narcocorridos. Mexican President Vicente Fox proposed a blanket federal ban, and the Mexican Senate looked at the possibility of a nationwide prohibition in 2001, but freedom of speech legislation blocked the possibility of such a ban.

Instead, the Senate urged individual states to curtail narcocorridos, arguing that the songs “create a virtual justification for drug traffickers.”  Several senators have continued over the years to call for a national ban.

And several states and cities have imposed live performance bans of narcocorridos, including the city of Tijuana and the states of Nuevo Leon and Baja California Norte. Mario Enrique Mayans Concha of the Baja California branch of Mexico’s Chamber of Radio and Television Industry says that “narco-ballads are an apology for violence and supports a narco-culture that influences the young.”

Last year in May, Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez issued a decree barring narcocorridos in bars, nightclubs and banquet halls. The governor argued that the songs in effect advocate and condone violence and crime. Establishments in the state that allow narcocorridos to be played risk having their liquor licenses rescinded.

Other jurisdictions have negotiated or encouraged voluntary bans. In Baja California local radio stations agreed a black-out on drug ballads.

Despite the moves to silence the music, narcocorridos remain highly popular and some music observers question whether the bans may be having a reverse effect by highlighting the drug ballads.

Narcocorridos are rooted in Mexican history and can be traced in tradition back to the 1930s when corridos that focused on drug smugglers were first written. The first non-narco corridos go back as far as the 1910 Mexican Revolution when ballads were sung in praise of revolutionary fighters.

Musician and critic Elijah Wald, the author of the book “Narcocorrido: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns and Guerrillas, is critical of the ban, arguing that it would be like banning the Rolling Stones in the U.S. or Britain. He says this ban is significant for two reasons. First because of the importance of the band. And second because these are old songs. “They have been banned for singing drug-related songs that are old and have been made into movies.”

He told Agora that the ban imposed in Tijuana in 2010 on the band Los Tucanes de Tijuana was “probably the best thing that had happened to them in PR terms in the past five years.”

But PRD politician César Flores Maldonado  believes “it is necessary to stop the growth of the genre which glorifies criminals.” He adds: “This is about Mexican national health and these songs need to be regulated.”

At times narcocorrido bands have censored themselves. In an interview with Billboard magazine, Mario Quintero, composer and lead guitarist of Los Tucanes de Tijuana, said he exercised restraint with his lyrics after the murder in November 2006 in Reynosa of the singer Valentín Elizalde, who was thought to have been killed by gunmen linked to the Gulf cartel in retaliation for songs supportive of the Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Certainly being a narcocorrido singer can be dangerous. That was emphasized again on March 16 when Rodolfo Gomez Valenzuela, a member of the band Cartel de Sinaloa group was slain while rehearsing  in a house in the town of San Pedro. His brother, drummer Roberto Clemente Gomez Valenzuela, was also hit in the attack and remains hospitalized in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, according to state police. The gunmen opened fire on everyone in the band after they burst into the house. Police found at the scene at least six .45-caliber shell casings and security forces launched an search for the killers.

This is the second time that Cartel de Sinaloa has been attacked. On September 26, 2009 band member José Antonio Sánchez Velázquez was slain, one of more than a dozen Mexican musicians  killed since 2006.

The most prominent of those murdered include Valentin Elizalde and Sergio Gomez, the singer of the band K-Paz de la Sierra. On June 26 2010 Sergio Vega was shot dead in Sinaloa state. Other music industry figures killed include Javier Morales Gómez of Los Implacables del Norte, four members of Tecno Banda Fugaz and four members of Los Padrinos de la Sierra.