I don’t usually sit down and watch TV when I get home, but 10 p.m. became my sacred TV time after my friends told me about Munecas de La Mafia, or Mafia Dolls. The show is about five young women who get involved with the drug dealers known as “narcos” in Colombia and Mexico. It’s just one of a new genre of telenovelas about Mexico’s explosive drug war.
The latest Spanish language soap opera sensation, La Reina del Sur, debuted on Telemundo in March. One night in its premiere week, it ranked No. 1 in the 10 o’clock time slot, across all U.S. broadcast networks. It’s the first to feature a female drug lord.
These soap operas share some dramatic ingredients with the actual drug war in Mexico: executions, lavish lifestyles and international fame. They’re part of what I call “narco cultura,” and it feeds into the way a lot of young people in Mexico idolize drug dealers.
“It’s almost as if saying ‘I want to be a narco!’ is in style,” says radio DJ Sergio Garcia, who moved to the U.S. from Tijuana about a year ago. “It’s about fantasizing about having a brand new car, having rhinestones on your clothes, going to nightclubs, having a lot of women, having a lot of money and just being able to spend however much you want. It’s mainly just being able to feel that power.”
Narco cultura broke into pop culture about five years ago with a type of music called “narco corridos” — Mexican drug ballads. The lyrics are all about who the drug lords will kill next, their guns made out of gold and decorated with diamonds, their drugs, and how many women they have. Narco corrido fans are usually men, trying to get their macho fix. The narconovelas on TV, on the other hand, target women.
Typical telenovelas usually tell the story of a poor girl in love with a rich guy whose evil grandma doesn’t approve of their romance. But in Mafia Dolls, as in all of the narconovelas, the struggles are all about surviving the drug game. The show debuted on the Univision network last year around the same time that big name narco families were getting busted in Mexico.
Most of the big name shows are not produced in Mexico; they come from Colombia. A decade ago, when the drug war there was at its height, Colombian producers would’ve been too scared to portray narcos. “The theme had been suppressed for different reasons, mainly because it was a topic that couldn’t be discussed without having your life at risk,” says Dago Garcia, the vice-president of production at Caracol TV in Colombia.
But now, Colombia’s government claims to have won the battle with drug dealers, and Colombian producers feel safe enough to make shows about drug culture. These novelas are being distributed all over Latin America and the U.S. They influence how Latinos in other countries view the drug war — but not necessarily in a positive way.
“Most of the time it’s about a sexual objectification of women,” says Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, who works with Mexican-American students at UC Berkeley. “They are — what I consider — not very healthy messages for our young women: particularly short skirts and low cleavage and high heels.”
Novela enthusiast Carmen Ramirez says she is surprised to find herself sympathizing with the narcos when she watches Munecas de la Mafia. Novela producer Dago Garcia says he plans to add another layer to the plots. “The next dimension of what we’re going to talk about … is the dimension of the victims,” Garcia explains. “Up until now, all these productions have been taking a look into the reality of narcos and their relationships.” The added focus on victims, he hopes, will add more complexity to his shows.
It seems like everyone I talk to about narco cultura is also passionately following news of the drug war in Mexico. But with these new narconovelas, it’s easy to lose sight of the line between the real life war and the entertainment inspired by it.