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How artistic freedom is restricted in Mexico

Courtney Tenz
February 19, 2019

Government corruption, drug trafficking and extreme levels of violence in Mexico have left their mark on the arts. As DW hands out its Freedom of Speech Award, a look at the state of artistic freedom in the country.

Mexico Migrant Mural Streetart
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Blackwell

"Art and culture embody an essential and inherent piece of the identity of the Mexican people," wrote the General Director of International Affairs at the Secretariat of Culture of the Government of Mexico in a 2016 report to UNESCO. "Mexico has made an effort in setting culture as a means of transformation, unity, social inclusion and violence prevention."

Like other signatories to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Mexico has enshrined the right to freedom of expression and freedom of writing in its constitution. Yet the Latin American nation ranks as "the deadliest country not at war" for journalists and writers, with nine killed in 2018 and many more choosing to self-censor or leave the country due to threats.

Book cover  Anabel Hernandez, A Massacre in Mexico.
Journalist Anabel Hernandez is living in exile since her latest book was publishedImage: Verso Books

One of those currently living in exile is Anabel Hernandez, the recipient of the DW Freedom of Speech Award 2019 and an investigative journalist and author of the books Narcoland and A Massacre in Mexico. After winning the Golden Pen of Freedom Award in 2012, Hernandez warned of the ways that freedom of expression was being stifled in the country.

"In Mexico today there is a 'perfect criminal dictatorship'. … To think this, say this or write this is more dangerous in Mexico than being a drug-trafficker or working for them," she said in her acceptance speech.

"This is the power that obstructs freedom of expression, the power that has executed 82 journalists over the course of a decade, has caused more than 16 to disappear and threatened hundreds, such as myself."

Read more: 'There is no free press': Freedom of speech in Mexico

Alarming situation for artists

In their report, "The State of Artistic Freedom," the independent international organization Free Muse highlighted Mexico as a country of concern due to "alarming developments in how they treat artists and their freedom of artistic expression."  

In the report, Free Muse writes that the arts were under fire in the country not only due to violence but also as a result of government restrictions. "In 2017, states across Mexico imposed significant legal restrictions on the music genre narcocorrido, a form of folk music that tends to celebrate drug criminality that is popular among those involved in the narcotics trade, in an attempt to combat the drug-related violence associated with the genre, which promotes the lifestyle and crimes of Mexican drug kingpins."

Five men in suits
Narcocorrido band Los Tigres del NorteImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A crackdown on drug ballads

Narcocorrido, also known as a drug ballad in English, is a subgenre of traditional folk music that originated in northern Mexico. Although the genre dates back decades, in recent years, the narcocorrido has been compared to gangster rap, as the lyrics appear to glorify violence and drug trafficking. Several musicians have been shot or killed by cartel members, making the lyrics a reality.

At the same time, localities around the country have taken measures to limit the ability of these bands to perform or fining them as a means of limiting the influence of narcoculture. "The way things are now with insecurity, we can't permit drug traffickers to be venerated in songs," said the mayor of Chihuahua Maria Eugenia Campos Glavan after implementing penalties on narcocorridos.

A special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression

These musicians are caught in a double bind, tied between the violence of the cartels and government attempts at regulation. Yet they are not the only artists in the country whose freedom of expression has become more limited due to the violence.

Writers frequently have to toe the line in publishing non-fiction works to avoid being caught in the crosshairs. After the 2017 release of his book, Narcoreporting, focusing on the dangers journalists reporting on drug trafficking face, award-winning writer Javier Valdez was gunned down.

Javier Valdez looks out a window
Valdez was shot in Culiacan, Sinaloa stateImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Brito

The drug trade has likewise become an issue for filmmakers working in Mexico. A location scout for the Netflix series Narcos was murdered near San Bartolo Actopan in 2017.

The following year, three film students were kidnapped and murdered  in Jalisco — a crime so gruesome that actor Gael Garcia Bernal and Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro voiced their outrage and protests sprung up around the country under the banner #NoSomosTresSomosTodxs (It's not three, it's all of us).

While the government of Mexico continues to fund the arts in various ways through its Secretariat of Culture, the violence has spurred the government to appoint a special prosecutor for the investigation of crimes against freedom of expression.