Latin soap takes on U.S. drug war Reversal: A Mexican soap opera takes a different spin on the drug war. The villain is Don Johnson, a corrupt DEA agent whose name was borrowed from the actor who played the hero in "Miami Vice."

Sun Journal

December 02, 1997|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY -- It's only a supporting role on a soap opera. But the character Don Johnson -- a corrupt DEA agent in a new prime-time soap opera on Mexican television -- promises to be a lightning rod for the deep anger toward the United States that the drug issue has created in Mexico and Latin America.

The character is in the cast of a controversial telenovela -- or soap opera -- called "Demasiado Corazon" (Too Much Heart), a love story set against the world of drug trafficking. It debuted this autumn on the Television Azteca network.

Alberto Barrera, the show's writer, wants the program to present a different view -- a Latin view -- of the drug problem and the region's relations with the United States regarding the illegal narcotics trade.

"We've always gotten the theme of drug trafficking from the U.S. point of view, from U.S. [television] productions,` Barrera says. "The dealers are always named Martinez or Perez. Even though the U.S. is the country that consumes more drugs than any other, there's almost nothing touching on that. No one's talking about the Smiths, the Robinsons, the Williamses."

Every year the U.S. Congress certifies whether drug producing countries, such as Colombia and Mexico, are doing enough to combat the illegal trade. Failure to be certified could mean a loss of U.S. aid.

And every year the process causes an uproar in these countries, where people see themselves being hypocritically judged by the consumer of more than half of the world's illegal drugs.

"This is a way of presenting a version different from that of 'Miami Vice' or even Hollywood films. We have a problem with drugs, but so do Americans," Barrera says. "We don't decertify anyone. The U.S. does certify people. It judges. We'd like to see what type of judgment it has over its own reality."

So Barrera named his character Don Johnson after the actor in "Miami Vice."

"I did it as a joke, to kind of say, 'Hey, that's your version. Here's ours,' " he says. Another nefarious character in "Demasiado Corazon" is a Washington lobbyist who is actually fronting for narcotics money-launderers.

The show tells the story of Detective Alfonso Carbajal, played by Demian Bechir, one of Mexico's best young actors. Carbajal is asked to rescue the daughter of the attorney general, his former teacher, who has been kidnapped by the Juarez drug cartel.

The program borrows liberally from the headlines. The drug trafficker is named Armando Castillo -- a thinly disguised version of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez cartel who died in July during a plastic-surgery operation. In the program, Castillo fakes his own death and lives on.

Another character is corrupt Gen. Jimenez Arroyo -- a takeoff on Gen. Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, arrested in February and suspected of being in Carrillo's pay -- making "Demasiado Corazon" the first telenovela to deal critically with Mexico's modern military.

New York salsa star Willie Colon plays an honest Drug Enforcement Administration agent. "Willie told me that the only parts he's ever offered are of killers or drug dealers, because he's Latino," Barrera says.

The story will be spiced with dramatized tales of real drug-addicted street children. Barrera is writing "Demasiado Corazon" in bits and pieces, paying attention to what breaks in the news so that he can splice it into the plot line.

"Demasiado Corazon" is one of a new generation of telenovelas that deal honestly with reality and eagerly explore themes that until recently were not permitted on Mexico's airwaves. It is a change related to the dramatic political and social transformation taking place in the country.

Mexico is slowly emerging from almost seven decades of one-party rule, with more political competition and pluralism than ever before. For years, television, like politics, was dominated by one network: Televisa, whose size as the largest entertainment conglomerate in Latin America was based on its production of telenovelas and its cozy relationship with the government.

In 1993 the government sold two of its stations, leading to the creation of the independent Television Azteca network, which brought competition to Mexican TV broadcasting for the first time.

And that, in turn, has forced the telenovela -- Mexico's most important product of popular culture -- to change.

For years Televisa spun out the teary tale of a maid who falls in love with the head of the household. They endure many problems before society allows them to live happily ever after.

In the past two years, however, telenovelas have come to deal with issues that were once taboo: homosexuality, corruption, illegal immigration, abandoned street children, condoms, bulimia and now drug trafficking.

Characters now drink, they work, they speak a more slangy and sometimes vulgar Spanish. Heroines are frequently strong, well-educated, middle-class women, unwilling to suffer unremittingly for their men.

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