Since the rise of the drug cartels in the 1980’s, the representation of Colombians in U.S. film and television has left much to be desired. When a Colombian is depicted onscreen they are usually involved in drug trafficking and violent activities, and although it is true that a large majority of Colombians have been affected by the drug trade and its resulting violence, the absence of a more nuanced portrayal leads to the demonization of Colombians as an uncivilized and disorganized people.
Demonization is a form of propaganda – a term which we’ll define as the systematic spread of ideas by an interested party to elicit a specific attitude or response. This means that some interested party is repeatedly sending out a message, which is in turn intended to somehow affect a specific audience. This module will take a look at how Colombians are demonized in television and movies, by portraying them as characters which are tied to drug trafficking, loose morals, and generally violent and lawless behavior. Specifically, we will look at movies produced in the United States within the last twenty years.
In order to understand demonization, it is useful to know what motivation there might be behind it. After all, United States was and continues to be instrumental in Colombia’s fight against the international drug trade and its domestic armed conflict. Why, then, would movies produced in the U.S.A systematically demonize Colombians?
The answer relates to the United States government’s policies generally referred to as the “war on drugs”. These policies put a strong focus on taking the fight to the countries were the drugs were originating from, rather than attempting to deal with the problem by reducing the country’s internal demand for cocaine. The fact that the United States consumed most of Colombia’s cocaine was a major factor in the growth of the Colombian cartel.
In order to convince U.S. citizens that the problem was not domestic, but an international issue, Colombians are persistently linked to the drug cartels. Once this is achieved, it’s easy to perceive American citizens as victims of an international drug cartel, rather than the patrons of an illegal trade.
Examples of Demonization
The first clue to the othering of Colombians in U.S. films is that most often, when Colombian people are depicted, they are being seen through the lens of an American protagonist – even when the central story concerns a Colombian character. The 2015 Netflix series Narcos tells the story of the rise and fall of the Medellin cartel, focusing around kingpin Pablo Escobar – a figure that has become an archetype of a Colombian for American viewers.
Narcos is a perfect example of the white American protagonist serving as a judge of Colombia’s problems: the story is told from the perspective of American DEA agent Steve Murphy, who eventually helps bring down Escobar. Jimmy Johnson sums up the problematic moral dualism of Narcos when he explains, “Pablo Escobar is a bad person, and Murphy and Peña are essentially good, in spite of the bad things they occasionally have to do to kill the bad guys.”
In an article for New Republic, Steven Cohen writes, “you keep waiting for it to find something more meaningful to say about this incredibly traumatic period in Colombian history” – but how could it, since the story is not being told from a Colombian’s point of view? It’s also hardly defensible as an artistic choice, since multiple Colombian television shows such as El Patrón del Mal have made Escobar the protagonist of his own story, to great success. In an article for SALON, Sonia Saraiya echoes this point by stating that Narcos bizarrely relies on “a narrator who is trying so hard to impress upon the audience his white, American maleness that he comes off as a caricature, not a character.”
This caricaturization of Colombians is evident in the 2000 remake of Bedazzled, which at one point features a stereotypical Colombian drug lord. The bushy mustache, curly hair, tanned skin, as well as the unbuttoned shirt are all symbols which have become iconic of the american representation of Colombian criminals. By using the Colombian drug trade as nothing more than the button of a joke, Bedazzled trivializes drug trade and the resulting armed violence, as well as the pain it has brought to its victims.
Simplicity is a friend of demonization, since it tends to strip characters of their human characteristics by reducing them to easily recognizable archetypes. In his indictment of narcos, Johnson describes Narcos’ Colombia as “impossibly backwards, and most of the people who die there are anonymous, agentless, and poor—or in some other way deserving.”  This simplistic approach to the nuanced, complicated reality of Colombian violence is also seen in the 2011 film Colombiana (dir. Olivier Megaton), which tells the story of Cataleya, the titular Colombian woman who enacts her revenge upon her parent’s murderers, who are – you guessed it – generic drug traffickers.
Despite the fact that Cataleya is fighting back against the violence, her character is little more than a hyper-violent woman, and the film glosses over the intricacies of violence in Colombia, choosing to portray the murder of Cataleya’s parents as a horrific crime rather than the result of structural violence. She is herself a character memorable for little more than her impressive killing abilities.
One might be tempted to forgive Colombiana by saying that they don’t mean to make a statement about Colombia, that they are simply using Colombian violence to make an action film. But the film’s title is Colombiana, which is itself a statement on the character of Colombian women. And in the most tragic use of a symbol in the entire film, Cataleya’s name is not a common hispanic name, instead derived from Colombia’s national flower, the Cattleya Orchid. This association of national symbols to violence is the result of trying to link the complete identity of Colombians to violence, by all means possible.
Many films demonize Colombians by portraying the country as uniformly jungle-like and uncivilized. The 2005 film Mr. and Mrs. Smith portrays Bogota, a metropolis of almost 7 million citizens, as a jungle warzone. The 2001 film Miami Vice shows the Guajira region as having a mountainous, sylvatic landscape, despite the fact that the Guajira is a flat desert.
This is another example of Colombia being stereotyped as a country with nothing more than jungle and violence, reducing its national identity to that of an uncivilized people. In these movies, Colombia was not the focus, but rather a simplistic backdrop to allow for the story of a few white protagonists.
Television and movies have sadly demonized Colombia, presumably turning into a war-torn wasteland in the minds of those who trust the images onscreen. In fact, this kind propagandistic demonization can be routinely seen in any country that the United States is in some kind of conflict with. Russia, Korea, Iran and Iraq are some of the countries that have shared Colombia’s fate in Hollywood’s archetypal machine.
This is not to say that the T.V. and movie industry is part of a concerted imperialist effort to demonize Colombians and propagandize in favor of the war on drugs, but the fact is that the story told by the U.S. government has been internalized and repackaged in countless films and T.V. shows, which have in turn become propaganda products.
The inclination towards this narrative can be understood as a psychological need for absolution, since it allows for the U.S. to place the problem outside of itself, thus justifying their international military involvement and exonerating themselves from guilt. It is hard to fight against such an absolving story. It takes courage to understand that the war on drugs, both domestically and internationally, is a deeply complicated matter, and no player can be absolved from wrongdoing – least of all the U.S.A.
- Can you think of other television shows or films where the story of a different country is told through the point of view of an American, and if so, did it help the story?
- Blaming other countries or peoples for domestic problems is not a tactic unique to the United States. Can you think of other examples of countries avoiding blame by creating a scapegoat?
- Why is demonization dangerous? How can artists and publics push back against the demonization of different peoples?
- Picture a country that you do not know much about. What comes to mind? Are the images and ideas conjured in your mind’s eye things that you have seen in media or television? If so, do you think these are accurate perceptions?
For More Information:
Jimmy Johnson, For Love of Cocaine and Empire: Narcos Season 1, The Hooded Utilitarian, September 8, 2015.
Jimmy Johnson breaks down the imperialist, racist, and propagandistic elements present in Narcos in great detail.
Steven Cohen, What ‘Narcos’ Gets Wrong About the War on Drugs, New Republic, October 30, 2015.
In this article, Steven Cohen describes the general lack of depth and innovation in Narcos’ storytelling, and outlines many of the problems with its portrayals of Colombians.
Deborah Sontag, The Secret History of Colombia’s Paramilitaries and the U.S. War on Drugs, New York Times, September 10, 2016.
This New York Times review is a good overview of Colombia’s drug trade and the history of U.S. intervention in Colombian soil.
Sibylla Brodzinsky, After 30 years on the frontline, Colombia looks beyond the failed war on drugs, The Guardian, April 18, 2016.
Brodzinsky problematizes and reflects upon the international treatment on the war on drugs, focusing on how it has failed to stop drug farming in the long-term, and negatively affects citizens of the countries where the war is waged.
 Delwiche, Aaron. “Propaganda Critic: Introduction Why Think about Propaganda?” Propaganda Critic: Introduction Why Think about Propaganda? N.p., 28 Feb. 2011. Web. 30 Sept. 2016.
 Brodzinsky, Sibylla. “After 30 Years on the Frontline, Colombia Looks beyond the Failed War on Drugs.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 Apr. 2016. Web. 27 Sept. 2016.
 Restrepo, A. L., & Guizado, Á C. (2003). From Smugglers to Warlords: Twentieth Century Colombian Drug Traffickers. Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 28(55-56), 249-275. Print.
 Johnson, Jimmy. “For Love of Cocaine and Empire: Narcos Season 1.” The Hooded Utilitarian. N.p., 8 Sept. 2015. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.