Narcocorridos—songs that celebrate drug dealers as folk heroes—have been a part of Mexican culture for as long as the illicit activity has existed in the country. Attempts to censor them from reaching radio airwaves have triggered debates over freedom of speech, as well as outcries from the more liberal media.
But as a recent concert in Morelia, the capital city of Michoacán, shows, there is a fine line between painting a pretty picture of criminality and actually engaging in direct support for organized crime groups that have brought parts of Mexico to unmanageable levels of violence.
The state of Michoacán has been in the spotlight for almost a year now, due to a complete degradation of the rule of law. A clashing arena for a number of criminal organizations including the Familia Michoacana, the Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación, the Zetas and the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), Michoacán is a case study where criminality has grown larger than the state itself.
Given the dire situation, self-defense groups have taken up arms in rural areas throughout the state, claiming they are ready to do the job the government won’t in order to protect their families and communities. José Manuel Mireles, one of the leaders of the Consejo Ciudadano de Autodefensa (Citizen Council of Self Defense Groups), famously said that the self-defense movement “[…] started when the narcos started abusing our women and daughters.”
However, organized crime is so embedded in Michoacán life that on February 2, one of the capital city’s main entertainment venues hosted a Narcocorrido lineup whose outright and explicit support for the Knights Templar would chill any law-abiding citizen. The concert was approved by the state authorities and state police officials were on hand to ensure that the event ran smoothly.
The headliner group, “Los de la A,” started their concert by yelling out to an audience of nearly six thousand: “If they chop off my head, I won’t care. Knights Templar all the way!” receiving cheers and jeers from the riled-up crowd.
“Los de la A” originate from Apatzingán, Michoacán, one of the towns currently controlled by the self-defense groups. After a couple of songs, the lead singer known as “El Komander” addressed the crowd, encouraging them to support the Knights Templar in reclaiming control of that town: “We’re recruiting people to go to Apatzingán and kick some a** over there!”
Half-way into the show, envelopes filled with cocaine started making their way through the crowd. Concert-goers snorted the drug right in front of police officers, who did nothing to stop them, even after the lead singer of the band cheered, “Bring out all the drugs! Let’s all get crazy tonight!”
Granted, the violence and drug problem in Michoacán and the country will not disappear by censoring narcocorridos, in the same way that inner-city violence has not disappeared since they stamped those “Warning: Explicit Lyrics” stickers on gangsta rap CDs in the U.S., but when a person is allowed to take the stage in a state-owned forum and motivate his fans to take up arms and shoot civilian groups to support a drug trafficking organization, the issue is larger than freedom of speech.
Mireles says that self-defense groups will “put their weapons away once rule of law is re-established in Michoacán.” The essential ingredient for this to happen is the generalized adoption of—or at least, sympathy for—a culture of lawfulness in the communities.
As long as there are people who are convinced that the narco way is best, there will be no peace in Michoacán. Unfortunately, those who would support the re-establishment of order and harmony in the state don’t have folk musicians to hold concerts at their beck and call.