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By Chris Hawley, USA TODAY
MEXICO CITY MEXICO CITY — Experts worry the music romanticizes leaders of cartels, desensitizes fans and undermines the fight against crime
When the song The Farm hit Mexico‘s airwaves this fall, it quickly became a sensation in a country increasingly frustrated by a 3-year-old war against drug cartels.
In seven stanzas stuffed with symbolism, the song tells the story of a fierce dog, perhaps representing drug traffickers, that causes no trouble until a fox — the Mexican president — provokes it, unleashing a wave of bloodshed. The music ends with a plea to tie up the dog.
The song by Los Tigres del Norte, along with “drug ballads” by other musicians and the investigation of a Grammy-winning singer for possible drug ties, has stirred a debate over the role of popular music as Mexico, helped by some $830 million so far in U.S. aid, tries to break the cartels. About 13,000 people have died in drug-related violence since the crackdown began in 2006.
Drug ballads, known as narcocorridos in Spanish, have long been a part of Mexico’s norteño music, which is driven by accordions and a polka-like beat. As the body count climbs, though, some experts worry that such hits are undermining the government’s efforts.
“It’s possible that this kind of music desensitizes Mexicans to what’s going on,” says Rubén Tinajero Medina, a musicologist at the University of Chihuahua.
Decoding the message
The controversy over the music echoes similar debates over “cop killer” rap music in the United States during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
Greg Etter, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Missouri who has studied narcocorridos, likens the most explicit of them to neo-Nazi death metal and says they could fuel a backlash against authorities.
“Music is a motivator,” Etter says. “Depending on how it is received, it can be very dangerous.”
In Mexican dance halls and record shops, smuggler music is hot: Sixteen Drug Ballads, by singer Larry Hernández, is one of the best-selling albums of the year. Another new album, El Tigrillo Palma, recounts the exploits of fugitive kingpin Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán in songs such as The Power of Chapo. El Compa Chuy is nominated for a Grammy for an album featuring smuggler ballads, El Niño de Oro.
“It’s a way of describing what our people are going through, the suffering of the Mexican people,” says Jorge Hernández, lead singer of Los Tigres del Norte.
Singing about drug traffickers also carries risks. Since 2006, at least 10 norteño musicians have been killed in apparent hits by drug gangs, and on Dec. 11, police detained three bands, including Grammy-winning singer Ramón Ayala, during a shootout at a Christmas party attended by alleged members of the Beltrán Leyva gang.
Ayala was released on Wednesday but remains under investigation for possible organized crime offenses, the office of Mexico’s attorney general says.
Arturo Beltrán Leyva, the leader of the drug gang, was killed Dec. 17 in a shootout with authorities.
In the past year, no song has created more controversy than The Farm (La Granja in Spanish). The song is inspired by Animal Farm, George Orwell‘s 1945 allegorical book assailing communism.
The song is written to make it onto radio stations that normally would not air narcocorridos, says Juan Carlos Ramírez-Pimienta, a Mexican music expert at San Diego State University.
Listeners pore over the lyrics and the song’s video, looking for meaning in the animal characters and decoding them on fan websites.
Many seem easy to interpret: The fox is former president Vicente Fox, who began purging the federal police of corrupt elements and extradited dozens of drug kingpins to the United States during his 2000-06 term.
The crash of a “sparrow hawk” refers to the mysterious crash of a Learjet carrying Mexico’s Interior minister on Nov. 4, 2008.
Open to interpretation: Does the dog represent drug traffickers or the Mexican police? And is the finale urging Mexicans to unite against drug traffickers or let them be? The band won’t say.
“Everybody can interpret it as they want,” Hernández says. “We’re just storytellers.”
In defense of free speech
In October, the organizers of the Lunas Entertainment Awards asked the band not to play the song during the awards show at the government-owned National Auditorium. Los Tigres boycotted the show in protest. At a news conference, they accused the Mexican Interior Ministry of pressuring the Lunas organizers and some radio stations to keep the song off the air.
The Interior Ministry issued a written statement denying the accusation.
The Farm reflects a recent change in the themes of narcocorridos, Ramírez-Pimienta says.
Before the latest crackdown on cartels, such songs focused on cars, women, clothes and other luxuries enjoyed by Mexican drug traffickers — “party corridos,” Ramírez-Pimienta calls them.
“Now we’re seeing a return to the ‘epic’ corrido, with more emphasis on the battles involved,” Ramírez-Pimienta says.
Other songs romanticize newly emerging cartel leaders. A new Los Tigres del Norte song, Queen of Queens, likens alleged trafficker Sandra Ávila Beltrán to Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba.
“Two beauties of the ages, but nothing compared to Sandra,” the song says.
Fans deny that music is undermining the fight against crime.
“People take it too seriously,” says Elizabeth Monroig, a member of the Boss of Bosses, a Los Tigres del Norte fan club in suburban Mexico City.
“Yes, these groups talk about things that are going on in the country, but they also sing about love and other things. It’s just music.”
Hawley is Latin America correspondent for USA TODAY and The Arizona Republic. Contributing: Dan Nowicki of The Arizona Republic.