What Do Young Women In Colombia Actually Think About Narcos?
The Debrief: Would you watch a TV show that dramatized one of the most traumatic periods of your life, and your country’s history in technicolour?
Illustration by Sophie Lou
Narcos, Netflix’s highly acclaimed series about how notorious cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar tore the country apart in the 1980s and early 1990s in his deluded quest for power, was a hit beyond Colombia. You might have enjoyed the complex plot lines, the heart thumping and adrenaline-rush inducing battle scenes. But would you watch a TV show that dramatized one of the most traumatic periods of your life, and your country’s history in technicolour?
For Colombian women , now in their 20s and 30s, it’s something to consider before watching the show. Because, for them the bloodshed, rampant corruption, and endemic machismo are not just memories, they reverberate through their day-to-day lives.
Drug barons and their teenage henchmen, known as sicarios, were just one thread in Colombia’s web of violence. Narcos might only have given them a nod, but far-right paramilitary groups and left-wing guerrillas warring against one another as well as with the state have caused the deaths of more than 220,000 people and displaced 6.3 million in a war that has lasted over half a century.
This came into global focus recently when Colombia held a referendum on a proposed peace treaty between the country’s FARC guerrilla group and its government. The treaty was narrowly rejected by 50.21 percent to 49.78, a difference of 53,894 votes.
With discussions about how and when Colombia will finally find peace still happening, what do women in their 20s think of the Netflix series and how it presented their country to the rest of the world?
Erika, who grew up in Bogota in the 1990s and now lives in the Spanish capital Madrid decided against watching the bloody exploits of the Medellin cartel in Narcos.
‘I know that it is well made and everything, but I’m not interested in a fiction of a reality that I have lived through myself,’ she says.
For her the War on Drugs, the joint U.S. ‘all-out offensive’ against narcotics which began in the 1970s when gringos developed a penchant for the blow coming from Colombia, crippled her society in a way that it has yet to recover from.
‘You can see the footprints of the War on Drugs in the way that much of our society is just used to drug trafficking, easy money, violence, smuggling, corruption of the institutions, an economy infected by the plague of drugs and an international image of the country that has only recently started to get back on track,’ she says.
According to Erika, women have borne the brunt all facets of violence in Colombia. In fact, according to a joint report from a group of NGOs, the rape of women as a conflict tactic by every single armed group, from guerrilla to state, has been ‘an habitual, extensive, systematic and invisible practice.’
For example, in the first nine years after 2000, the year when the U.S. launched its next failed anti-narcotics mission Plan Colombia, six women were raped each hour in Colombia. The country also has the tenth highest femicide rate in the world.
‘Many women are victims of the conflict and used as sex slaves, for example,’ says Erika. ‘It’s the widows who stay home caring from their children and keeping their families afloat, it’s them who become mothers at a young age, which multiplies their problems. Women in Colombia face so much violence.’
‘Of course I remember the bombs of Pablo Escobar, the fear of going into a shopping centre. It still gives me goose bumps,’ says Lorena, a 29-year-old bid manager from Bogota, who now lives in Hamburg, Germany.
For Lorena, this climate of fear has created a claustrophobic feeling of restriction, and is one of the reasons why she decided to leave Colombia for Germany.
‘You can’t explore your own country as you would like to,’ she says. ‘The news traumatizes you and you feel like your hands are tied because there’s not much you can do to improve the situation.’
Lorena was a small child when the feuds between drug cartels, paramilitaries, guerrilla groups and the armed forces reached fever pitch and thousands of civilians were caught in the crossfire. Like almost every family in Colombia, hers was touched by the violence, first when one of her relatives managed to escape the siege of the Palace of Justice in 1985 (an event touched on in Narcos’ first series), when left-wing rebels M-19 held the country’s Supreme Court hostage, hours later resulting in the death of 25 Supreme Court Justices as the military bungled the rescue operation.
‘The presentation of Colombia [in Narcos] is absolutely true. It was just like that,’ says Lorena. ‘It’s really sad that a child (which I was at that time) has to live with that memory.’
Lorena thinks that despite the recent rejection of the peace deal between the government and armed guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after the referendum, the negotiations themselves are a positive step towards healing Colombia’s wounds.
‘Maybe Netflix can make a series about this successful process and my children and grandchildren will ask me one day: “Mama! Grandma! Tell us about that”,’ she says.
‘Women face violence from all angles,’ says Milena, 34. ‘Those that are in the war zones, the orphans, the victims of machista preconceptions, used as objects of pleasure, the housewife that serves as an “informant” for money, the widow who is left with the pain and the responsibility for the home.’
Milena, from the coastal city Barranquilla, agrees that Colombians have become used to living in fear, which makes finding solutions for peace more elusive. ‘Violence generates more violence,’ she says.
While she vaguely remembers the murder of one uncle, and the mistaken kidnapping of another in the 1990s, her clearest memory of violence was in 2001, during the last vestiges of the most public days of the drug conflict. When Milena was studying in Medellin, she was speaking to her mother on the phone from her balcony when she heard a strange noise.
‘I saw a mushroom cloud of smoke somewhere in the distance. All communication lines were cut off, everyone panicked - I’ve never seen anything like it - and on the news we saw it was another bomb at the radio station, with deaths and people injured. You couldn’t imagine anything like that until you feel it so close,’ she remembers.
According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the car bomb of August 2001 targeted the Caracol Radio leaving seven dead at 35 injured.
For 29-year-old Maria Jose, her strongest memories of growing up in Corozal, a town in the north of Colombia, was of dealing with left-wing guerrilla groups. Each time she would travel from her home to the Caribbean city of Cartagena, instead of taking the short journey three hours by car, her family would fly. ‘It was because of the “miraculous catches,” as they were called, when the guerrilla would stop vehicles and kidnap members of a family so they could demand money for their rescue,’ she says.
‘I would also hear my parents talk about the “vaccination”: the money that they had to pay the guerrilla so that they wouldn’t come into the farm and damage it, or help themselves to the animals of the farm,’ she adds.
A fan of Narcos, Maria Jose says that while the gritty show was not easy to watch, it was an accurate portrayal of Colombia at that time.
‘I believe that it really was the story of our country, and beyond a good or bad representation it was reality. There really were so many bloodthirsty people, and of course they are not the best example that Colombia can give of itself,’ she says.
But Maria Jose says that she can feel a change happening in Colombia, and that people are crying out for peace.
‘Today we are going through a change trying to improve the situation with the guerrilla and to end drug trafficking, but corruption continues to reign,’ she says. “No” won by a tiny margin which shows how divided our country is. People who voted no should be quick to resolve their disagreements so that we can finally achieve the peace we so badly want.’
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