July 9, 2008 / 2:41 PM / 11 years ago

Bernd Debusmann: In Mexico's drug wars, bullets and ballads

(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

By Bernd Debusmann

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - It was a scene that spoke volumes about Mexico’s drug wars, which have killed more than 4,200 people in the past 18 months and persuaded the U.S. to pledge $1.4 billion to arm, equip and train Mexican forces.

Outside the police headquarters in this bustling border city, a dozen police officers in black uniforms and body armor, with M-16 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, assemble for their afternoon shift. A white saloon rolls up and stops in front of them. The windows are lowered. The sound of the car’s stereo is turned up, way up.

The music that blasts out of the car at deafening volume is a narcocorrido, a ballad glorifying the brutal world of the drug cartels that are fighting each other and the Mexican state. Playing that music in front of the cops is the equivalent of making very rude gestures. The officers pretend not to notice. The car slowly pulls away.

In a city where more than 250 people have been killed and 115 kidnapped since the beginning of the year, this is a minor provocation. But it highlights a mindset that has turned many drug barons into Robin Hood-like folk heroes whose exploits are immortalized with catchy lyrics sung to a polka rhythm, often accompanied by an accordion.

Under rules that went into effect this week, Tijuana bus and taxi drivers are banned from playing narcocorridos for their passengers. The fine: ten times the minimum daily wage, which is $ 4.60. Repeat offenders face the loss of their license.

There has been a string of attempts at local and national level to ban narcocorridos from the airwaves, including a 2002 agreement between the 78 local radio and TV stations in the state of Baja California, of which Tijuana is the biggest city, and the state government. Such moves, decried as censorship by critics, have had limited effect.

Spanish-language radio stations across the iron wall that separates Tijuana from the U.S. continued broadcasting the music and CDs are freely on sale. Los Tigres del Norte, the band credited with making narcocorridos hugely popular with a 1971 hit (Contraband and Treason) about a drug-running couple, rose to fame and fortune as did other drug balladeers.

In an ironic twist, some of the musicians themselves have fallen victim of the underworld that inspires their ballads. At least a dozen have been assassinated over the past year, some because they incurred the displeasure of gang leaders.

Elijah Wald, author of a book on narcocorridos, has described attempts to suppress the music as a way for politicians “to gain publicity as defenders of public morals and safety without doing any of the difficult things that would be necessary to genuinely deal with the problem.”


Such as changing the social and economic conditions which make it easy for drug cartels to bribe poorly-paid officials, hire and train assassins, recruit drug runners and pay peasants to grow drug crops. In the past three decades, a string of Mexican government pledges of economic, judicial and educational reforms have fallen short of bringing fundamental change.

Assistance from the United States, the destination for cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin smuggled across the border, has been heavy on equipment and geared more towards tactical victories in suppressing the cultivation and flow of drugs than long-term reforms.

Last month, President George W. Bush signed into law the “Merida Initiative,” an aid package that includes American helicopters, scanning equipment, sniffer dogs, and computer software. Mexican President Felipe Calderon hailed it as “a sign of both countries’ commitment to combating organized crime as well as the depth of cooperation” between the U.S. and Mexico.

Bush praised Calderon’s determination in fighting organized crime and said the U.S. assistance would boost security on both sides of the border. The language sounded familiar: in 1989 another President Bush, George W.’s father, lauded the “strong public stance against drugs” of a Mexican president who had just taken office, Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Mexicans consider his administration one of the most corrupt in the country’s history. The drug trade boomed. De Gortari’s successor, Ernesto Zedillo, suffered a major embarrassment when his top anti-narcotics fighter, General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, was arrested, tried and jailed for being in the pay of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, then the boss of the Juarez drug cartel and one of the world’s most powerful traffickers.

Composers of narcocorridos never had to strain for new material. Mexico’s importance as a transshipment country for Colombian cocaine increased when the U.S. throttled traditional routes through Florida. In 1990, just over half the cocaine imported into the U.S. came from Mexico. By last year, that had risen to more than 90 percent, according to U.S. State Department estimates.

Plenty of profit to fight over, plenty of stories to sing about.

(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)

Editing by Sean Maguire

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