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.


Calderon Pushes Police Reform


Modernizing the Mexican Police?


With just months to go in office President Felipe Calderon is redoubling his efforts to persuade the country’s state governors to quicken the pace on implementing  the vetting of state police forces and improving law-enforcement training in order to meet a deadline early next year.

His cajoling of Mexico’s governors to accelerate a cleanup that the President sees as crucial for lasting police reform is meeting resistance from some governors, who argue that they don’t have the necessary resources or expertise.

According to a federal government report released in February only eight percent of state police officers had completed a vetting process. The report noted also that states collectively spend just two-thirds of their total security budget allocation.

Since that report there has been some progress. According to federal officials, just under 25 percent of state police have now been vetted. But they worry that vetting will not be completed by January 2013.

President Calderon’s latest push came at meeting in February in the state of Nuevo Leon, where he met governors drawn from the northeast of the country along with local and federal security officials. He argued that rebuilding the police and security institutions will be key in defeating organized crime.

According to Nuevo Leon state public security spokesman, Jorge Domene Zambrano, Calderon urged state officials to make greater progress on the implementation of reform. “The president emphasized the importance of lifting the pace and meeting the deadline,” he says.

President Calderon has been highly aggressive in pushing for reform of the federal, state and local police and while some progress has been made he has faced obstacles and setbacks with, among others problems, legislation becalmed in Congress.

Administration officials and police experts say the mixed record on the progress of reform reflects the difficulties in carrying out effective, lasting police change quickly on the scale Calderon wants. But supporters and critics alike acknowledge that the Calderon administration has laid down a long-term strategy for an effective policing operating within the confines of the law.

“Calderon’s government has made significant and necessary progress in the face of almost overwhelming challenges,” says Martin Edwin Andersen, an expert on Latin American policing and author of the book “The Police: Past, Present and Proposals for the Future.” But he notes there’s a long way to go. “Police forces around the country lack the professional skills needed to contain violence, collect useful intelligence and carry out meaningful investigations.”

Calderon’s reform efforts seek to address those deficiencies. But speaking at a conference at the London School of Economics last month, Mexico’s ambassador in the UK, Eduardo Medina Mora, warned that police reform would take longer than a presidency.

“It will take a generation because you cannot make the changes overnight, it will take time and resources,” he said. The ambassador, a former federal Secretary of Public Safety, added that more needs to be spent on law-enforcement, noting that Mexico spends far less compared to other countries in Latin America.

Under Calderon the money spent on the military, federal, state and municipal police as well as the federal court system has doubled since 2006. But corruption, abuse and ineffectiveness still plague Mexico’s various police departments, say experts such as Andersen.

The biggest progress has been made at the federal level both in terms of numbers and quality of policing. In 2006, there were six thousand federal police officers but now there are 36,000, although Medina Mora believes that number will need to be increased to 100,000, if the size of Mexico and its population is taken into account.

At the federal level as well as the Calderon administration has been highly proactive in combating corruption and poor performance.

In September 2010, the then Federal Police Commissioner Facundo Rosas, announced that a three-month probe had resulted in 3,200 Mexican federal police officers being fired for failing to do their work properly or being linked to corruption. Of those, 465 were charged with crimes. To help ensure dismissed officers don’t try to join state or municipal police departments, their names have been logged in a new computerized public safety database, called Platform Mexico, that can be consulted b police recruiters.

The probe was mounted to kick off new federal police standards, which took effect in May 2010. The new regimen involves officers and future recruits passing lie detector tests, completing financial disclosure statements and undergoing drug testing. The government has sought also to improve the caliber of the federal police by raising salaries and requiring recruits to have college degrees.

Marisela Morales, Mexico’s attorney general, also has kept the pressure up on her department since being appointed in April last year and has fired or investigated more than 700 employees in her short time in the job. She said in a statement in April “purging is fundamental within the Attorney General’s Office,” adding “the Mexico of today requires that those of us in public office act with total commitment and responsibility of service.”

But it has been at the state and municipal level that Calderon has found the going tougher. The President is eager to consolidate Mexico’s 2,400 municipal police departments and there 165,000 officers and to merge them with the 31 state police forces and the police department of the Federal District of Mexico.

The President and his officials argue that consolidating police at the state level will make it easier to oversee professionalization and vetting of officers as well as allowing the harmonization of standards, from operating procedures to recruitment procedures and training.

Further, consolidation would likely improve intelligence sharing.

This huge institutional reform which requires a constitutional amendment, however, has stalled in Congress. State governors support the idea of consolidation, but many mayors who would lose their police departments are opposed.

But not all. Some high-profile mayors and former mayors are supportive.

The former mayor of Ciudad Juarez, one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities, has backed Calderon’s proposal, arguing that municipal police on low wages in small towns are much more vulnerable to the offer of money or lead. 
”The more a police officer knows, the more he becomes known,” Jose Reyes Ferriz told the El Paso Times. “All this makes him more susceptible to criminals.”

While some state governments have been slow on implementing the vetting of state police officers, others are pushing hard on police reform.  Nuevo León is starting to introduce a change as ambitious as Calderon’s.

In May last year, state Governor Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz  announced the plan to fashion a new state police service called “Fuerza Civil” (Civil Force) that will replace all of Nuevo León’s 51 municipal police forces. The new planned department will have 14,000 new officers, almost double the current number of local police,  who will receive twice the current salary, be eligible for bonuses and benefits such as private health care and housing in guarded communities. The new officers will be trained at police academies in Escobedo and in Guadalupe.

Over five years the new force will cost a $1 billion. Hardly surprisingly, at his February meeting in the state Calderon took the opportunity to applaud Nuevo León on the plans for the Civil Force.