Betrayal, murder and the lust for quick riches, while not the stuff of national pride, make for gripping television in “Cartel de los
Sapos” (Cartel of the Snitches) about the powerful Norte del Valle drug
Tracing how the cartel supplanted the once-mighty Medellin and Cali
gangs, the series is the first to spotlight Colombia’s drug lords,
their surgically-enhanced girlfriends, violent lackeys and the dirty
politicians and police who permit the world’s biggest cocaine trade to
The No. 1-rated show is tinged with nostalgia for the early days of
cocaine trafficking and the explosion of wealth it brought Colombians
willing to use crime to escape the country’s rigid class structure and
“We identify with the story,” said Diana Ramirez, 24, a waitress
from Cali and fan of the show. “Sure it’s ugly and violent, but it also
has its charm.”
The series puts the flamboyant characters of the 1980s and 1990s
into historical context and shows how deeply the cartels have corrupted
Colombian society, a taboo subject in the popular media until now.
The show accurately points out that many of the founders of the Norte del Valle cartel were former police officers.
Names are changed and the fun for many viewers is in identifying
which characters are based on real-life criminals and their cronies,
such as a top fashion model whose trafficker husband was famously
chopped into pieces by a rival gang.
The show’s success does not mean Colombians would tolerate the same from outsiders. Moviegoers still hiss at foreign films showing the country’s cocaine trade and news accounts portraying Colombia as a nest of drug violence are angrily dismissed here.
“The idea is that we are allowed to criticize our country, but
foreigners are only allowed to observe and say nice things,”
Bogota-based TV critic Omar Rincon said.
“This idea is typical of Mafia families, not modern democracies,” he said. “We remain in an epic state of denial.”
The show premiered in June, days before the United Nations reported
that the planting of crops used to make cocaine in Colombia increased
27 percent in 2007. Exports of the drug hover at about 600 tons per
year, the United Nations says.
The country is attracting record investment as its cities and
highways grow safer under a U.S.-backed security push. But many rural
areas are still controlled by cocaine-funded groups including left-wing
rebels fighting a 44-year-old insurgency.
Focused on a middle-class Colombian named Martin tempted into the
drug business by promises of easy cash, the series touches on the story
of the country’s first cocaine king, Pablo Escobar, whose Medellin
cartel was dominant in the 1980s.
It takes viewers through the war between the Medellin and Cali
gangs, which started when a member of one group seduced the girlfriend
of a member of the other. At least one character is killed off in every
episode as Colombia’s best-known actors play its most notorious cocaine
But not everyone is a fan.
National police chief Oscar Naranjo, whose brother is in prison on
drug charges, says the series unfairly paints Colombian law enforcement
Those who want to change the channel might have trouble finding
anything more upbeat. The country’s No.2 show is about an accountant
who steals the lover of his drug-smuggler boss and enters a witness
protection program after testifying against him. (Reuters)