The Queen of Cocaine and the Queen of the Network

Paulina settles in front of her television set at 10pm on a Wednesday evening and turns on UniMás to watch her daily syndicated telenovela, La Viuda Negra.[i] The soap opera spotlights the infamous Queen of Cocaine, Griselda Blanco, and her rise to prominence in the Medellín drug cartel in the 1970s. La Viuda Negra, a spinoff from La Patrona de Pablo Escobar, written by Colombian journalist José Guarnizo, is part of a slew of telenovelas produced in recent years that focus on narco-culture. This new phenomenon, which offers an introspective look into the depiction of drugs’ impact and influence at large in society, [ii] has captured audiences all over the American continent. Narco-novelas are aired on weekdays and are readily available for online streaming.

The easy access to these novelas helps propagate the idea of leading a glamorous but violent lifestyle that only a select few experience and that novela producers dramatize. Alejandro Lozano, the director of La Viuda Negra, uses elements from the drug traffickers’ lifestyle – lavish homes, covert operations, and violent occurrences – along with the essential ingredient for a classic telenovela – a twisted, melodramatic love tale – to keep the plot moving and the audiences engaged.[iii]

These elements have captivated fans like Paulina, a 21-year-old Honduran living in Orlando, who has diligently been keeping up with Blanco’s story. “It’s addictive,” she says, her eyes glued to the screen. “I need to know what happens. Ten to 11 pm is a sacred time for me.” Many feel the same way; an estimated one million people tune in regularly from Monday to Friday to watch the soap.[iv] La Viuda Negra has tripled the ratings of other soaps aired on UniMás and topped its main time-slot competitor, another narco-novela titled Camelia La Texana,produced by Telemundo.[v]

Telenovelas, mainly targeted for an undereducated female audience, are a way to escape reality briefly;[vi] they are the most watched programing in Latin America.[vii] In an interview with BBC News, Carla Estrada, one of the leading telenovela producers in the world, explains that “for some people, the telenovela is like their own life – and this is a continuing process that creates a feeling of belonging and identity.”[viii]

This opens up the floor to debate the impact of narco-novelas on society. Research conducted by the University of San Diego in 2003 regarding how Latin American teenagers interpreted telenovelas proved that girls actively use mass media for inspirational role models.[ix] The social learning theory, therefore, provides grounds to study the possibility that teens mimic the behavior of characters with whom they relate.

In the first few episodes of La Viuda Negra, for instance, viewers learn that Blanco’s mother is forced to have sexual intercourse with various men in exchange for money when she is faced with bleak employment opportunities. Guarnizo claims that Medellín, where Blanco grew up, was established to centralize brothels in one particular location.[x] Women in Latin American countries often rely on prostitution as the very last resort to provide for themselves and their families.[xi] Given that prostitution is legal in 19 out of the 26 countries in Latin America, with varying policies regarding brothels and pimping, this is a choice many decide to pursue.[xii] Exposed to her mother’s lovers on a daily basis, Blanco herself suffers from rape at the tender age of 14.

Blanco’s mother refuses to believe her daughter, a situation that forces the young girl to seek comfort with the neighborhood’s unsavory characters. Many Latin American women are similarly left to cope with sexual violence in the absence of support and sufficient resources. Across Latin America, 20 to 40 percent of women are violated in this deplorable manner annually, and rehabilitation clinics are not even close to being adequately prepared to handle such volume.[xiii] In Blanco’s case, the associations she developed introduced her to a life of stealing, kidnapping, and brutalizing. Blanco becomes ambitious and dreams of overcoming poverty, making a name for herself, and most importantly, seeking vengeance on the man who stole her innocence.

Faced with similar struggles, women in Latin America – particularly the unemployed, domestic laborers, and prostitutes – are targeted by drug dealers. Drug trafficking can be an enticing option for impoverished women since, in many cases, it enables them to keep their traditional roles as housewives and mothers.[xiv] Women are increasingly becoming recruited to work as mules, which involves transporting illicit substances across transnational borders. There are also more extreme examples of women’s involvement in trafficking. In August of 2010, the federal Mexican police released a video confession from a gunman in Ciudad Juárez bragging about how his gang, La Linea, was recruiting young women to kill rivals.[xv]

Nonetheless, even with the increasing number of women entering the illicit business, it is still rare for a woman to achieve an important leadership position.[xvi] Using Blanco as the ultimate aspirational heroine, Lozano promotes the image of a strong woman who defends her honor and pursues her dreams. This demonstrates that in a society dominated by machismo ideology, women are gaining more power. In fact, there have been an increasing number of women in Latin America who have been elected president – Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica, and Michelle Bachelet from Chile, to name a few.[xvii]

While it is encouraging that feminine empowerment is expanding, having one role model like Griselda Blanco is not ideal for improving an already fractured society. Nicknamed la viuda negra, or the black widow, for killing three of her husbands, Blanco was also accused of ordering more than 200 homicides in Colombia, Florida, New York, and California.[xviii] She is also known for becoming the first Colombian drug lord who secured a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list when Pablo Escobar – whom she allegedly mentored [xix] – was beginning to explore the trade.[xx] In an attempt to quell this obsession with narco-novelas, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has publicly requested that television channels cease airing them. “How many millions of people watch them, boys, girls, youths? They have a huge capacity of converting killers into heroes,” he lamented in a public statement last year.[xxi] Pablo Escobar’s son, Juan Pablo, participated in the documentary Sins of My Father, where he personally apologized to families who had been terrorized by his late father.[xxii]

Nonetheless, narco-culture is depicted in numerous forms ranging from urban streets, to movie screens, to laptop screens. There are several fan pages on the social media site Facebook that serve as a forum to discuss La Viuda Negra and promote the novela. Some admirers have romanticized Griselda Blanco’s lifestyle and made it fashionable, contributing to the worrisome phenomenon of wider acceptance of narco-culture. In Narco Cultura, a documentary released in 2013, one of the Drug Enforcement Agency officers interviewed explains that people “glorify [drug lords]; that’s why narco-culture has grown so much, because these guys see narcos as their modern day Robin Hoods.”[xxiii]

This has a strong element of truth in Griselda Blanco’s case. Many are drawn to Blanco for her success; not only was she worth $2 billion at her peak ,but she was also an entrepreneur who designed an underwear brand for transporting drugs.[xxiv] Blanco has proved to be the quintessential drug lord that men and women alike seek to emulate.

Yet these narco-novelas could also be seen as possessing an educational purpose. Griselda Blanco suffers throughout her life – she is betrayed by three of her husbands, imprisoned for 19 years, and her son Michael Corleone is kidnapped and tortured while she is serving her sentence. Finally, she meets her demise when she is violently murdered in Colombia by the same method she instituted, which involves two people on a motorcycle – one drives while the other opens fire at specifically targeted individuals. Therefore, La Viuda Negra can also deter women from pursuing this lifestyle given that they see the negative consequences, and know they will suffer from a similar fate if they pursue such a lifestyle.

Unfortunately, these same characteristics are part of the reason behind narco-novelas’ booming success, and it is increasingly clear that novelas featuring powerful female drug lords are having a negative impact on women in Latin America. Narco-novela plots follow the lives of impoverished individuals who, thanks to their ingenious wit and malice, ascend through the drug business with aspirations of opulence and fearful respect. They portray the protagonist as being a ‘good’ drug lord whose actions are almost justified because of their circumstances. These fascinating lives have captivated Latin American audiences, particularly audience members from poor economic backgrounds who somehow seek to escape their own hunger-filled realities and are encouraged to abandon them when tempted with a glorious path that narco-novelas have popularized.

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[i] Lardizabal, Paulina. Interview by Ada Cruz-Torres. Personal Interview. Orlando, Florida, April 30.

[ii] Boothroyd, Dave. Culture on Drugs: Narco-cultural studies of high modernity. Manchester University Press, 2006.

[iii] Lizarzaburu, Javier. “How telenovelas conquered the world.” BBC News. (accessed June 1, 2014).

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[xi] Colimoro, Claudia. “A prostitute’s election campaign.” In Compañeras: Voices from the Latin American Women’s Movement. Edited by Gaby Keippers. Latin America Bureau; London, 1992.

[xii] George Mason University. “100 Countries and Their Prostitution Policies.” Women in World History: PRIMARY SOURCES. (accessed June 1, 2014).

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[xv] Tuckman, Jo, and Rory Carroll. “Mexico’s drugs cartels increasingly recruiting women, study finds.” The Guardian. (accessed June 2, 2014).

[xvi] Tuckman, Jo, and Rory Carroll. “Mexico’s drugs cartels increasingly recruiting women, study finds.” The Guardian. (accessed June 2, 2014).

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[xix] El Tiempo. “Últimas Noticias de Colombia y el Mundo – ELTIEMPO.COM.” (accessed June 1, 2014).

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