Seven months later, the cartel employed a similar tactic against Peso Pluma, who had an upcoming show in Tijuana. In September, four banners appeared simultaneously in different parts of the city, warning the singer that Oct. 14 would be his last performance if he dared to venture into Tijuana. Later that month, another band, Fuerza Regida, canceled its Oct. 6 concert after yet another menacing banner was found.
The threats to the artists — who all have dabbled into narcocorridos, a hugely popular subgenre that glorifies drug kingpins and their exploits — were the last straw for Tijuana’s leaders. On Nov. 8, the city council unanimously voted to ban drug ballads from being performed or even played in Tijuana’s public spaces.
Under the new law, any artist who “transmits, exhibits, sings or reproduces music, videos, images or any other similar thing that promotes the culture of violence or makes apologies for crime or for the authors of illegal acts in a live performance” can be subject to fines of up to 1,244,880 Mexican pesos — or about $72,000. That money would be directed to municipal programs for the prevention, treatment and control of drug abuse.
“What cannot be part of Mexican folklore, nor represent us, is the narcocorrido and the apology of crime,” Tijuana Mayor Montserrat Caballero said in announcing the law.
The ban comes amid the global rise of Mexican regional music, a catchall term for the different folksy genres typical of northern Mexico, including norteño, banda and corridos. According to Spotify, Mexican regional music in the past five years has seen 430 percent growth on the platform, where the globally most-streamed song this summer was “Ella Baila Sola” by Eslabon Armado and Peso Pluma, which was also the first regional Mexican Top 10 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
This year, Mexican regional singers have stepped onto some of the music world’s most iconic stages, from Coachella to the MTV Video Music Awards. But their astronomic ascent has come alongside the intensifying controversy surrounding narcocorridos, which are sometimes commissioned by the cartels themselves.
Narcocorridos are an evolution of Mexico’s typical corridos, tales of bandits and folk heroes, traitors and patriots, iconic revolutionaries and lowly recruits, told to the rhythm of accordions, brass instruments and guitar. In the ’70s, musicians who belonged to the genre began mythologizing the cartels that were quickly gaining influence across Mexico, said Rafael Acosta Morales, a professor of Latin American literature and culture at the University of Kansas.
The songs that emerged during the ensuing decades are thematically like Robin Hood meets “Breaking Bad,” with gritty and braggadocious lyrics that speak to life in rural, poverty-stricken areas where violence, crime and drugs are an everyday reality, Acosta said.
But in a country that has been deeply affected by the drug trade’s bloodshed, narcocorridos have struck a nerve — and become the subject of a divisive culture war, Acosta added.
Take the rise of Peso Pluma — a moniker that translates to featherweight. His rise to fame began with his February 2022 release of “El Belicón,” which went viral on TikTok and has been certified platinum eight times. The music video features Peso Pluma wearing a bulletproof vest and wielding a weapon while crooning about war with a rival gang. Another single, “Siempre Pendientes,” is told from the point of view of a henchman for the notorious drug lord “El Chapo.”
Critics in Mexico have decried the songs as the glorification of a criminal lifestyle amid the country’s ongoing crisis of violence. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador accused Peso Pluma of “painting a rosy picture” of the drug world through his music.
A representative for Peso Pluma didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post this week. But in an interview with the “Soy Grupero” television show, the 24-year-old singer said that he grew up listening to narcocorridos and that his lyrics represent the day-to-day life in those communities.
“It’s bad to say that it’s normal — we all know that,” Peso Pluma said last year. “But it’s the reality. What we say and what we sing and what’s lived and what’s heard isn’t a lie.”
That hasn’t stopped politicians from targeting narcocorridos. Tijuana in 2010 banned the popular band Los Tucanes de Tijuana from playing in the city. A year later, the northern state of Sinaloa prohibited narcocorridos from being played in bars and nightclubs, though the ban was later decreed unconstitutional by Mexico’s Supreme Court. In 2015, the state of Chihuahua threatened anyone who performed a narcocorrido with up to 36 hours of jail time and $20,000 in fines. The Grammy-winning group Los Tigres del Norte was fined in 2017 for performing “Contrabando y Traición,” a ballad about drug smugglers, in the city of Chihuahua.
For Acosta, the University of Kansas professor, the bans are nothing short of “a cosmetic measure” — and a way of scapegoating artists.
“It’s like if someone has uncontrolled diabetes and their feet are getting gangrene,” he said. “And instead of worrying about controlling their blood sugar, we’re worried about putting on better-looking socks so their gangrenous feet don’t show.”
Narcocorridos can’t be blamed for drug violence, he said: “Think about ‘Top Gun: Maverick.’ Millions of people around the world went to see a movie that glorifies dropping bombs on a country. Do we blame the movie for causing violence? I have never read a critique of ‘Top Gun’ where they say that it’s an apology of violence.”
The real problem in Mexico, he said, is the drug violence that is to blame for the rise of narcocorridos.
“Narcocorridos tell us that we have been failing egregiously to provide a better life for most of our people,” said Acosta, who is Mexican. “Because if most of our people had a more equal chance of living a decent life through honest means, we would not be making a fuss about them.”
“They would just be catchy songs that young people listen to for fun,” he added.