Paramilitary Soap Opera Stirs Dispute in Colombia


BOGOTA, Colombia - Cutting through the shadows of moonlight, three brothers climb out of a truck and trudge slowly, silently toward a dark hill. There, wrapped in a blanket, they find the body of their father.

At the burial shortly afterward, amid tears and embraces, the brothers vow vengeance against the leftist rebels who kidnapped and killed him.

It's a crucial moment in a Colombian paramilitary soap opera that has stirred unprecedented controversy by dramatizing - and some say romanticizing - the career of the Castano brothers, central figures in the creation of the country's murderous far-right militias.

While founded to fight leftist guerrillas, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia evolved into criminal gangs, enriched by drug trafficking, that killed thousands and stole land from tens of thousands more, colluding with scores of prominent politicians.

The soap opera is called "Three Cains," an allusion to the Biblical story of Cain slaying his brother Abel, in part because Vicente Castano had his brother Carlos murdered in 2004.

A grassroots campaign against the show, which runs on the Mundo Fox cable channel in the United States and RCN in Colombia, also has raised questions about a whole genre of Colombian TV series that focuses on the country's top drug traffickers. Some say such shows glorify killers while minimizing victims.

"It's clear that those topics have to be dealt with. The question is, why treat them from the point of view of Cain and not Abel?" said Daniel Naranjo, who with three friends launched a Facebook campaign promoting an advertising boycott against the series that has gained thousands of supporters.

Instead of focusing on the Castano brothers, or the late drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, he asked, why not instead focus on their victims?

"Three Cains" portrays the brothers in their loves as well as their conflicts - aspects of their lives that were sometimes entangled, at least on the screen, as they sent killers after romantic rivals or those who betrayed them. The first few weeks also have traced the Castanos' secret alliance with police and soldiers to attack Escobar and his allies.

Less detail so far has been given to incidents such as the January 1990 Pueblo Bello massacre, in which the brothers' gang kidnapped 43 peasants, loaded them into trucks, hauled them away to a family ranch and killed them, according to the Inter-American Human Rights Court. The Castanos allegedly believed at least some of the villagers had aided rebels who had stolen cattle from them.

Among the dead was Wilson Fuentes, a 45-year-old banana farmer and rancher. For his daughter Katy, who was 14 when her father was seized, the series is an affront.

"It makes me relive that moment," she said. "What it does is re-victimize us ... It's a lack of respect for the victims."

Her father's body, like most of those slain, was never found, and the possible explanations say much about the Castanos' reputation. "There are many versions," Fuentes said. "Supposedly they had an oven; they tossed them in the oven and they were incinerated. Other versions say they had some lions and they gave them to the lions to eat. Others say they threw them into the Sinu River."

"The truth, nobody knows," said Fuentes. "Or if they know, they do not want to say."

The fate of two of the Castanos themselves is a mystery as well. While Carlos was killed in 2004, just as the paramilitaries were disbanding as part of a peace deal with the government, Fidel and Vicente both disappeared under murky circumstances. Carlos had long maintained that Fidel died in combat in the 1990s but no corpse was ever recovered. Vicente's fate is unknown.

While some earlier TV series generated protests, the campaign against "Three Cains" is the first to prompt sponsors such as the Falabella chain of stores and Nivea cosmetics to pull backing from a show, local media analysts say.

Even so, the show is winning viewers. It has been among the top five most-viewed programs on Colombian television during its run.

RCN Television, which produced the show and is the target of the protests, refused to comment on the complaints when contacted by The Associated Press. A screenwriter for the series, Gustavo Bolivar, rejected the campaign against it as "bordering on censorship" and denied glorifying the criminals.

"We are showing how these drug traffickers became paramilitaries and these paramilitaries attacked the civilian population," he said.

A chapter of Colombia's history "is being told, for good or ill," Bolivar said. "Those who want, watch it. Those who don't have the remote control in their hands and can watch another program."

Still, the societal trauma from Colombia's seemingly interminable conflict - the paramilitary phenomenon is just one offshoot of a nearly half-century-old guerrilla conflict - is so deep that many are offended by an attempt to earn television ratings by dramatizing it.

"The issue is that paramilitarism is still a relatively recent topic, so sectors of the population still have an open wound," said Jeronimo Rivera, head of the audiovisual department at the University of La Sabana in Bogota.

For sociologist Miguel Angel Hernandez of the University of the Atlantic, the show's depiction of huge houses, luxurious cars and numerous bodyguards leaves the message "that evil pays."

"Evil pays for 95 percent of the series and in the 5 percent at the end it says that evil does not pay. Why"? So it can be, let's say, presentable before public opinion."

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