Tales of the drug underworld featuring silicone-enhanced women and handsome drug kingpins are the staple of Colombia’s hit soap shows. The country cannot get enough of these so-called narco-soaps.
The series The Snitches Cartel attracted over nine million local viewers every night. And Without Tits There’s No Paradise, based on a popular book, tells the true story of a Colombian teenager who gets breast implants to overcome poverty by becoming the girlfriend of a local gangster who prefers buxom women, was also a huge success. And both shows have been sold to some 50 countries, from Finland, Angola and Macedonia to Vietnam.
Then there’s the recent hit, Mafia Dolls, and later this month viewers can look forward to Cartel II (sequel to The Snitches Cartel), which relates the rise and fall of Colombia’s drugs cartels during the 1990s.
But what has become a multi-dollar industry and one of Colombia’s bestselling cultural exports has provoked soul-searching in a country that prefers to be better known as home to Nobel Laureate, Gabriel García Márquez. Since first coming on air four years ago, narco-soaps have stirred up controversy, produced a backlash in the local press, prompted public protests and riled Colombia’s police and feminists.
Critics argue that narco-soaps glamorise the lifestyle of drug gangs. But defenders of the genre argue they serve as cautionary tales because the soap’s druglords, as in real life, either end up in jail or are gunned down.
Perhaps narco-soaps touch a nerve because they are just that bit too close to reality. In Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, drug cartels are still part of the social fabric and are a major cause of crime.
The Snitches Cartel, based on a bestseller written by real-life Colombian gangster from his US prison cell, portrays Colombian police as corrupt and on the payroll of drug barons. The show prompted a televised debate between its director and Colombia’s police chief, who said the soap “dampened the morale of the police force”.
Producers of the upcoming sequel, Cartel II, have been asked discreetly by local authorities to tone it down, while getting the show’s stars to do television commercials promoting the message that “crime doesn’t pay”.
“There was a lot of pressure to tone down the next series, make the police the heroes and show them winning the war on drugs,” says actor Juan Carlos Arango, who plays Scarface, a drug baron with a fetish for schoolgirls in Cartel II. To make sure the studios kept to their word, says Arango, a policeman was seen hanging around the set taking notes.
Still, he believes, it’s hard to see how narco-soaps can promote positive role models. “Last Halloween kids dressed up as the capos from The Snitches Cartel which was a bit scary,” says Arango. “And when I hear kids use narco slang from the shows it’s hard to see how these soaps can really be good examples for teenage boys who are naturally fascinated by the mafia and beautiful women.”