Last week CNN.com ran a three-part series on Colombia's drug gangs, an expose on lives ruled by violence, greed and sex. It was hardcore journalism - the kind you need a flak jacket for - delivered with the pathos of a telenovela script. Reporter Karl Penhaul's reporting could have delivered an insightful series on an imporant topic that many Americans aren't familiar with, but instead, his three stories rattle off the tired narco-narrative we've heard before: people are poor so they kill; without one big boss petty thugs run amok; behind every great drug lord is a bedazzled beauty queen.
The stories are filled with graphic photos and quotes that make Colombia look and sound like a country on the brink of implosion - a Wild West with all sorts of thugs running around guns a-blazin'. That's simply not the case. These stories could have happened anywhere, but what makes the phenomenon of cartel violence distinctly Colombian is sorely missing from the report, as is an acknowledgement of the U.S.' culpability in the drug trade - Were it not for this country's demand for coke there would be no violence in Colombia. Penhaul's indictment should be spread around but instead it's focused solely on one country.
If you want to read about guys inhaling cocaine powder out of a blender or about shoot-outs in a poor neighborhood, and a naive beauty queen who was imprisoned in a "golden cage," then please click over to CNN. But you should know this: Colombia's drug trade is the developing world's version of capitalism. In spite of the violence within and the rising tide of socialism in neighboring countries like Venezuela and Ecuador, Colombia has remained one of Latin America's most stable democracies. In short, the drug caretls are a portrait of 20th century entrepreneurialism - albeit a bloody one. The cartels blew the lid off the country's class system and created a middle class, they created opportunities for people to stay and invest in their country. Of course, this was a double-edged sword - for every opportunity to send one's children to school or learn English, or even buy a house and a car, came full-scale terrorism: planes were blown out of the sky, restaurants were shot up and market places were attacked with grenades. No one in Colombia today is unscathed by the drug trade, and it's often pointless to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys - they're both probably at the same family function.
On that last point, Penhaul leads the reader to believe that, regardless of their victimization, "Ordinary Colombians seem to have an unshakable attraction to glamorous narco-lifestyles judging by the sky-high ratings of two TV soap operas." I'll admit I'm reading these articles on the defensive, but am I the only person who remembers "Growing up Gotti," "Goodfellas" and "The Real Housewives of New Jersey"? Again, it's the singular attack on one country, when there's a whole world, our nation included, that's complicit in the crimes outlined in this series that smacks of bias and sensationalism.
We have a saying in Spanish: no se puede tapar el sol con un dedo - you can't cover the sun with your finger. In other words, I know how bad things are in Colombia. I can't write this post and not tell you that I've seen violence in Colombia and that my own family has been a victim of the kidnappings and other violence stemming from the drug trade. But I can also tell you that it's not the worst place in the world, that there is culture, civility, and legitimate enterprise down there. That this vital part of Colombia's present is not included in an article about the drug trade is plain irresponsible.