Pubdate: Mon, 10 Mar 2003
Source: San Antonio Express-News (TX)
Copyright: 2003 San Antonio Express-News
Author: John Sevigny, Special to the Express-News


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 

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 Cardenas Guillen, whom 
authorities say assumed leadership of the regional drug trade when Abrego 
was sent to a U.S. prison in 1997.

Cardenas 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 Cantu, 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, Cantu's father can be seen dressed for 
a mariachi gig in the 1930s. There is Cantu's grandfather, in a long duster 
jacket and holding a fiddle in the 1920s, and one of Cantu himself, onstage 
in 1964, singing and squeezing an accordion.

The three men made their living playing corridos. Today, Cantu 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," Cantu said. "But drug trafficking is something that exists in the 
world, and corridos have always been about real things." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake