In the early hours of January 16, a gunman opened fire at Playa Del Carmen club Blue Parrot, a venue hosting the closing party of electronic music festival BPM. Five people died in the shooting, while 15 others were injured. The local police chief initially reported that the shooting happened because of a disagreement, yet unconfirmed reports suggest that a drug cartel was responsible for the tragedy after a message spray painted on a blanket was found on site.
Following the shooting, Playa del Carmen mayor Cristina Torres Gomez issued a ban on electronic music festivals, vowing not to let BPM return next year and ordering the immediate cancellation of an upcoming festival. The ban has sparked a debate about the scapegoating of festival culture and live music at large.
But even a casual review of the case offers little proof that the music or festival was the root cause of the shooting. The Drug War – which so far has an estimated death toll of more than 160,000 – has generated deep-rooted fear, trauma, and bloodshed. Sadly, violence has become a part of everyday life in Mexico, and in recent months, has taken a stranglehold of the Riviera Maya. A tourist destination that welcomes 6 million visitors a year, the region has seen an increase in crime thanks to turf wars waged by the Sinaloa, Gulf, Zetas, and Jalisco New Generation cartels. Since the 90s, the territory has functioned as a key entry for drugs coming from South America, and boasts an inside market catering to tourists.
There has also been significant population growth – mainly young men struggling to make ends meet, who become easy targets for cartel recruitment. State police have ineffectively combatted organized crime; last year, 17 percent of the force was deemed unsuitable for service. What’s more, violence and organized crime are not exclusive to the Riviera Maya. On Wednesday, January 18, another shooting took place in Monterrey; this time a middle school student opened fire on his teacher and classmates.
This is not the first time that bans have been imposed in response to violence. Live music has been targeted by Mexican politicians since at least 1959, when the Elvis Presley movie King Creole was first released. At a screening, a crowd bum-rushed the door of Las Américas theater. Local officials scorned rock fans and began vigilant surveillance of local shows. According to La Jornada, anti-rock legislation and sentiment subsided until 1971, when the hippie gathering Festival de Rock y Ruedas in Avándaro, Estado de México, resulted in a massive marijuana-fueled, free love melee. While never outlawed, live music was severely attacked by authorities for the rest of the 70s and 80s. Permits for major concerts or international artists required exhaustive and bureaucratic administrative processes, and they were often denied at the last minute. Local bands were forced to play “hoyos funkys,” or rundown venues (usually in abandoned warehouses) in low-income neighborhoods on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Those days are long gone, and concerts and festivals are an integral part of the entertainment landscape in Mexico. OCESA is the third largest promoter worldwide; according to Pollstar, the branch of Grupo CIE sold around 3.7 million tickets in 2016. Festivals run the gamut from local events featuring underground acts and held at warehouses, art spaces, or rented spaces, such as those organized by collectives like Lxs Grises, Aquí No Hubo Escena, and Violencia River, to bigger events with international headliners like Corona Capital, Vive Latino, and EXA. When it comes to electronic music, Mexico hosts franchise events of international festivals like EDC, Ultra Music, and Tomorrowland, all boasting thousands of attendees and generating massive profits. In addition to these commercial events, the underground music community has established a healthy infrastructure for electronic music, with local efforts from collectives like NAAFI or ENSAMBLE drawing big crowds.
Still, authorities insist that bans are acceptable ways of dealing with violence, yet the only people affected by such measures are struggling artists, audiences, and independent promoters who provide diversity to the cultural landscape. BPM is not affiliated with any of the major promoters in the country; the festival was founded and run by Canadians Phillip Anthony Pulitano and Craig Pettigrew. BPM welcomes Mexican audiences, though their promotional efforts concentrate on attracting festivalgoers from abroad, and with acts like Maceo Plex and Seth Troxler, the lineup remains largely international. Still, it’s held on Mexican soil, and if authorities succeed in their crackdown, other local governments could follow suit. Even if festivals aren’t prohibited outright, officials could create significant legal and bureaucratic obstacles for organizers, leading to fewer events and inflated ticket prices. It could widen the gap between audiences who can afford to attend live events abroad and those who cannot, limiting the festival landscape at large.
We reached out to organizers in Mexico to get their perspectives on the future of festival culture in Mexico. Moni Saldaña of NRMAL reflected on the origins of the Monterrey-born fest: “Festival NRMAL began exactly at a time when violence in Monterrey was at its worst moment. Nobody wanted to go to Monterrey, and locals were afraid to leave their houses. Embassies had issued warnings not to travel to Monterrey. But for us, it was very important to generate safe spaces and platforms for expression, regardless of the situation we were living in at the time. It was our own way to fight back, to generate such spaces where people from many different countries with different tastes can find common ground and connect with each other. That’s very important.”
Festival Marvin’s Ceci Velasco also questions the value of the ban. “Prohibiting festivals would kill nightlife, entertainment, and culture in general. I think that, instead of seeking prohibition, we should seek communication between the authorities and those who organize festivals. In terms of violence, these tragedies not only happen in Mexico; it would be a good idea to investigate how other countries deal with such events and try to implement solutions.”
Violence is a problem that will not disappear by dismantling the infrastructure for music or entertainment. There’s no doubt people are dying every day from the Drug War, a conflict that unfortunately doesn’t have an easy solution. We can hold local, state, and federal authorities accountable for their failures at the same time that we can support festival culture, a necessary space of survival (and escape) for so many. In times when death seems to creep ever closer, the spaces festivals create provide a chance to live life without worries, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.