Eccentric tales of shady drug bosses and glamorous women assassins are the staple of Mexican and Colombian primetime television. But the latest “narco-soaps” about the countries’ drug gangs have sparked a debate about just how much of that dark reality should be broadcast into living rooms night after night.
The latest narco-show to air is Rosario Tijeras, a TV adaptation of a novel by the same name about a sexy hitwoman at the service of the drug mafia. The show’s initial slogan, “It’s harder to love than to kill”, sparked so many protests in the city of Medellin, where the story is set, that advertising posters were taken down.
Medellin’s main newspaper, El Columbiano, said that the show was a “gulp of absurdity, vulgarity, bad manners and a big dose of narco-culture.” Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, is best known for the cartel of the same name led in the 1980s and 90s by Pablo Escobar.
Murder, betrayal, fast money and beautiful, buxom women may be vulgar but, according to fans of the show, it makes for riveting television and Rosario has been among the country’s top-rated programs since it began last month.
Over the past two years Colombians have seen The Cartel, about the powerful Norte del Valle Cartel and The Capo, which paints a crafty drug boss as a sensitive anti-hero. The main complaint is that such series glamorize the life of criminals and incite young people to emulate that lifestyle. The argument over the narco-soaps has even reached neighbouring Panama, whose president Ricardo Martinelli complained about the Colombian shows that air on local television there. “They exalt drug trafficking, theft, muggings,” he said, adding that the shows do “damage to our country” and corrupt “moral values”.
German Yances, a media expert at Bogotá’s Javeriana University, said that some Colombians “don’t like to see their problems reflected on fictional television because the daily drama of the country is on every night on the news.” But the high ratings suggest many viewers either see their lives reflected in or are fascinated by the shows, said Yances.
Despite the ratings, a powerful group of companies in Medellin has reportedly decided it would not advertise on the show and at least one cable operator is considering blocking it.
“If we don’t like the programmes then we should debate that, but we should not try to censor them,” added Yances. “What is painful is the reality they reflect and that’s what we should think about.”
Last year, the drug war really made its big break into the mainstream American media market with the release of the Oscar-nominated movie Sicario, the Netflix series Narcos and the best-selling novel The Cartel by Don Winslow. All have been commercial and critical hits, despite protests by the mayor of Juárez against Sicario for portraying his city in a bad light. The success of Narcos, which paints a largely true picture of the Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, paved the way for Netflix to work on production of the El Chapo series.
increasingly, the line between life and art is blurring
Mexican politicians slam narco culture for glamorizing, and even feeding, the blood-soaked trade. Writers, producers and singers retort that they are merely documenting reality. But increasingly, the line between life and art is blurring.
Take the odyssey of La Reina del Sur (“Queen of the South”). It began as a 2002 novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, about a beautiful queen-pin in Mexico whom he called Teresa Mendoza. In 2007 Mexican detectives arrested a money launderer named Sandra Ávila Beltrán, who they said was known as the “Queen of the Pacific,” a name most likely inspired by Mr. Pérez-Reverte’s novel. Then, in 2011, the broadcaster Telemundo released a telenovela based on La Reina del Sur, starring the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. It became a phenomenal hit, including among drug cartel soldiers themselves. Mexican politicians and political activists argue that shows such as this – a story of a fictional female kingpin – glorify crime at a time when the country is increasingly overwhelmed by drug-war violence.
The line between fact and fiction may have disappeared entirely when pundits speculated that Ms. del Castillo had become consumed by her role on La Reina del Sur, or that Mr. Guzmán had fallen in love with her telenovela character. It was also revealed that Mr. Guzmán had promised the exclusive film rights of his story to Ms. del Castillo, raising further questions about Netflix’s effort.
It’s easy to see why everyone wants to tell his tale. According to indictments, Mr. Guzmán smuggled billions of dollars in drugs aboard jet airliners, fishing boats and submarines into the United States. He escaped from two top-security prisons, the second one in a mile-long tunnel with lights and a rail for a motorcycle. And when Mexican marines caught him in January, he almost escaped yet again by fleeing into a sewer system.
But just because it makes for a good story, is it one that Netflix should be telling? There’s certainly a risk of glorifying narco life; several gang members themselves often say they watch narco soaps and movies. But it’s harder to say whether narco fiction contributes to the violence in Mexico — millions of people watch these same films and don’t go around decapitating victims on video.
Still, producers of narco fiction do struggle with this question. In a joint statement reported by The Guardian last week, the presidents of the radio, TV and cinema commissions of the senate and chamber of deputies said that authorities should not allow television stations to “promote apologies for violence and make narco-trafficking and its activities appear aspirational as a lifestyle.”
Even if it inspires only a handful of people to follow Guzmán’s lead, is that worth the ratings?
Zoé Robledo and Lía Limón accused the so-called narconovelas of weakening Mexico’s social fabric “by promoting false values and aggressive social behavior, which provides regrettable feedback to organized crime”.
The call for a ban of these types of shows comes as Mexico approaches the 10th anniversary of the launch of a militarised crackdown on organised crime, a campaign that has cost an estimated 150,000 lives, left more than 25,000 missing, but has failed to impose the rule of law or slow down the drugs trade.
It’s a question that Netflix (and Univision) need to ask themselves over the coming year. Assuming Mr. Guzmán is extradited to the United States, he could also go on trial or make a deal, a real-life drama that could play out while the series airs. With so much in flux, Mr. Guzmán could well come out a celebrity, a modern-day Al Capone or John Dillinger. Even if it inspires only a handful of people to follow his lead, is that worth the ratings?
Every sniff you take…
Exeposé Features takes a look at drug laws across the globe
- In 2013, Uruguay became the ﬁrst country in the world to legalise marijuana
- Japan has the toughest drug laws in the world, meaning very few addicts seek help
- In Washington D.C., licences to sell marijuana are issued by the state control board
- Drug possession for personal use in China is punished with a 15 day administrative detention
- Denmark has followed the example of the Netherlands and Germany and opened “ﬁx rooms” for drug addicts where they can safely consume and inject drugs in a supervised environment
- Drug trafﬁcking and possession in Singapore are punished with the death penalty