Mexico takes aim at narcocorridos

Proposed legislation would add warning to genre's products

MIAMI -- When the Mexican Navy gunned down notorious Mexican drug cartel chief Arturo Beltran Leyva in December, tribute videos started popping up on YouTube almost immediately. They showed pictures of Beltran Leyva, aka "el Jefe de Jefes" (the Chief of Chiefs), with stacks of money, guns and bags of cocaine as the backdrop to catchy corridos (narrative ballads) exalting his life and times.

Such exhibitions of adulation, coupled with the staggering social and human toll the drug trade has taken on Mexico, prompted the country's ruling National Action Party to propose legislation in January to regulate narcocorridos, the danceable songs that recount tales of drug dealers and their exploits.

Surprisingly, many in the music industry are privately hailing the action, even as they acknowledge that narcocorridos have never been as massively popular as today.

"As a label executive, I'm against any type of censure," said one record executive who, like everyone else interviewed for this piece, asked to remain anonymous, due in large part to security concerns. "But as a Mexican I totally agree with this proposal. It's reprehensible that music -- which is a means of communication -- is used to praise this lifestyle."

It has been widely misreported that the proposal could punish artists and media executives with up to three years in prison for producing and airing narcocorridos. Instead, the proposed legislation, introduced January 20 by Congress member Oscar Martin Arce, seeks to regulate the mass diffusion of narcocorridos or other related material -- like videos or film -- by requiring that they be labeled with a warning, akin to what's required for tobacco, alcohol or ads for age-restricted movies. The warning label would be required only on content that calls for the commission of a crime.

"We aren't limiting liberty of expression," Martin Arce says. "We're referring exclusively to when there's a call to commit a specific crime."

This isn't the first time the Mexican government tried to put a lid on explicit narcocorridos. Since 2001, 71 Mexican radio stations have been sanctioned for airing the music, citing a 1961 federal law that prohibits "exaltation of violence or crime."

And yet, narcocorridos have grown increasingly explicit in their praise for specific drug lords and in their adulation for the narco lifestyle. And, they've become more popular, in part due to exposure on YouTube, which doesn't censor or criticize the content.

Moreover, drug-related violence in Mexico has risen, claiming the lives of popular musicians like Valentin Elizalde, who was gunned down in 2007, and Sergio Gomez, who was kidnapped, tortured and shot the same year.

And while the government's motion might not curb the violence or reduce narcocorrido production, it could heighten awareness that there's real-life violence behind material that is treated as mere entertainment.

"Look at the message: 'I was no one until I got into the business,'" one concert promoter says, citing the lyrics of many a narcocorrido. "There are a lot of poor people out there. But they know that someone with a gun can take anyone who is rich and educated and make them get on their knees."