Mexico’s school libraries are stocking a book that includes the lyrics of “narcocorridos” — folk songs that glorify drug traffickers — causing a storm of criticism in a country where the drug market and its violence have become part of life in thousands of communities.
Opposition activists are livid that the administration of President Vicente Fox, which has declared a “war on all fronts” against drug gangs, allowed tens of thousands of copies of the book “100 Corridos: The Heart of Mexican Song” to slip into grade-school libraries.
The book, printed by a private publishing company but bought in bulk by the government, contains lyrics for songs like “The Red Car Gang,” which describes Mexican cocaine smugglers shooting it out with Texas Rangers:
“They say they came from the south/In a red car/Carrying 100 kilos of cocaine/bound for Chicago ... “
Another song describes female drug traffickers who poisoned police with opium to protect a drug shipment, then praises “The Lord of the Skies,” the nickname for the deceased drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes:
“They caught him alive/but they couldn’t pin anything on him/ now they can display him dead/on trumped-up charges."
Experts say the corrido is Mexico’s national song form. Born along with the country’s independence in the 1820s, it reached its peak during the 1910-1917 Revolution. Narcocorridos didn’t start becoming popular until the 1970s and 80s.
Legislators say the books have no place in Mexican schools and have scheduled hearings.
“It’s very bad to put books like this into the hands of children because they portray drug lords as heroes,” said Salvador Martinez, who heads the education committee of the lower house of Congress.
“That’s bad, because we have a problem in this country where drug traffickers sometimes pave a town’s road, build its school or hospital, and thus have a much better reputation among some people than the police. We have to work against that.”
The U.S.-driven drug market has woven its way into the life of thousands of Mexican communities, where narcotics have been a source of otherwise scarce money and of power. Ambitious young men are drawn by the vast profits in shipping Colombian cocaine to the United States. Poor farmers often see cultivation of marijuana or opium as a step away from starvation.
In addition, Mexico has a growing domestic consumption problem — possibly aggravated by the increasing difficulty of smuggling drugs over the U.S. border — and concern about drug sales have led officials to routinely search students at some schools.
No reviewers objected
The sheer bulk of candidate books for libraries — and the fact that narcocorridos account for only a few of the corridos in the book — apparently allowed the narcotics issue to be overlooked.
Education Department officials say the volume is merely secondary reading material, purchased as part of an effort to put as many as 30 million books in school libraries across the country, while supporting Mexican publishers.
More than 13,000 titles were submitted by local book distributors as candidates for the plan. The books were vetted by three non-governmental civic groups at the national level and then were evaluated by committees of parents, teachers and local officials in Mexico’s 31 states and the capital.
All but one of those states — whose committees had access to the full text — picked “100 Corridos” as a top choice for local libraries. The other state listed it as a second choice. None rejected it.
About 80,000 copies of the book were printed, though it is not clear how many made it into schools. Officials say they have no immediate plans to withdraw it.
Just like Cucaracha?
Some education officials tried to depict the scandal as an example of overly zealous censorship of a song genre that for centuries has celebrated outlaws and the common man. They noted one of the best-known and oldest corridos, “La Cucaracha,” also contains references to drugs.
One verse runs: “La Cucaracha/ La Cucaracha/can no longer walk/Because he hasn’t got/because he ran out of/marijuana to smoke.”
Many other corridos, like the 1930s song “The Smuggler,” glorify thieves, rebels, or smugglers.
Border towns in northern Mexico — where drug vendettas have cost thousands of lives in recent years — have tried to ban local radio stations from playing narcocorridos, saying too many lives have been lost to the drug culture.
In 2002, Baja California state radio stations agreed to ban narcocorridos and decided to play only songs that promote positive messages.
“I certainly recognize that corridos are part of our cultural values,” said federal Sen. Jesus Ortega. “But they should be corridos, not these songs that glorify crime.”