BOGOTA -- In the hit American television series ''Desperate Housewives," suburban soap-opera characters get tied in knots about everything from children's swim meets to illicit affairs. But even with a neighbor's murder thrown in, their problems seem small-fry compared with the tribulations of Colombia's favorite TV housewife.
In ''La Viuda de la Mafia," or ''Widow of the Mob," Diana Montes thinks she's going on a rustic second honeymoon, but her family is pursued into the jungle by authorities, who kill her husband in a dramatic shoot-out.
Initially convinced he was an innocent victim, the glamorous mother of two, with the help of an amorous detective, gradually comes to realize that her husband was using his respectable aviation and construction business as a front to transport drugs and launder money.
Since its debut last fall, the nightly soap has taken Colombian prime-time audiences by storm. Its producers recently sold Miami-based Univision the rights to broadcast the program to Spanish-speaking audiences across the United States.
It is not a reality show, but might as well be. The show's popularity in Colombia speaks to a society hungry for insight into an illicit industry that has fueled decades of violence, and into the workings of authorities trying to decapitate drug cartels by targeting their finances.
Some 80 percent of the cocaine sold in the United States and Europe is produced in Colombia. Since the notorious hunt for Pablo Escobar and the demise of his Medellin cartel more than a decade ago, high-profile drug kingpins have largely faded from the scene. Taking their place and creating a new challenge for law enforcement are mostly anonymous managers, a number of whom hail from the ranks of the educated upper class, authorities say.
Like Montes's TV husband, the new drug bosses maintain the appearance of respectable businesses and pay taxes, and their laundering activities may be undetectable to investigators or relatives. ''Escobar and his contemporaries were drug producers and transporters," said Sergio Osorio, the show's 40-year-old director. ''Today, it's a business for people who are bilingual, who studied finance in important US universities, who launder money. It's a new generation and profile of the narco-mafia."
Worldwide, the illegal drug trade generates between $250 billion and $500 billion a year, according to estimates by the Colombian and US governments and the United Nations. In Colombia alone, some $5 billion in dirty money lubricates the economy, much of it laundered through construction, finance, and other legitimate industries, according to the country's attorney general's office.
New creative laundering schemes emerge faster than authorities can anticipate them. A ring of wealthy university students was recently busted moving money for cartels through their bank accounts, as was a prominent businessman who laundered money for a trafficker by selling him a farm. Last year, a celebrity TV host was named as a member of a laundering scheme, and authorities seized a national drugstore chain owned by the former chiefs of the Cali cartel, who are awaiting trial in a US jail after being extradited.
Against this unpleasant reality that permeates so many aspects of Colombian life, a producer and two scriptwriters decided last year to take on a subject that has long been taboo in entertainment here.
Catalina Bridge, executive producer of entertainment programming at
''It would've been dangerous for me, my family, and everyone involved," she said. The program was never produced.
Enough time had passed since the high-profile war between the government and the drug cartels of the late 1980s and early 1990s that Bridge felt comfortable taking on the ''Widow of the Mob" script.
It is not the first time that scriptwriters Gilma Elena Pena and Nubia Barreto have addressed controversial topics. Their previous soap operas include ''Por Que Diablos" (''What the Hell"), about the exploitation of street children, youth gangs, and political corruption. Another, ''Tiempos Dificiles" (''Hard Times"), followed a group of sheltered urban college students doing internships in the countryside, where they encountered left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, soldiers, and local officials caught up in the country's 40-year conflict.
''In every story we've written, we've debated how people should act legally and ethically, something that doesn't often happen in this society," said Barreto, 41.
The pair sought advice from prosecutors, financial investigators, judicial police, and real-life widows of drug bosses to make their script true to life. In addition to Montes, the protagonists include the widow of a detective and undercover policemen, and the show reveals how investigators track white-collar criminals through accounting, wiretapping, and surveillance.
In the hit movies ''The Godfather," ''Goodfellas," and ''Married to the Mob," the wives of Mafiosi knew what their men were up to. But Pena and Barreto say they know several women who had no idea their husbands were involved in the drug business, and later found themselves and their children become pariahs or accused of complicity. ''We wanted to show the consequences for an innocent family -- it's hell," Pena said.
In one nail-biting plot twist, a drug trafficker who lost money in a deal gone bad with Montes's husband attempts to kidnap her children from school. In another, after authorities posthumously accuse Montes's husband of having been a trafficker, a private school tries to expel the children.
At the RCN studios in an industrial part of Bogota, Carolina Gomez, 29, a former Miss Colombia who plays Montes, took a break to chat in her television living-room set. She admitted that her parents worried about her getting involved in the project, but said she took the role eagerly.
''In Latin America, people don't watch movies or read papers as much as they watch soap operas. So it's great to be able to touch a theme that has such importance. And it's not a typical soap with a far-fetched plot . . . but a story that really affects people in Colombia."
Director Osorio said the show undoubtedly carries a moral message. ''Here is an apparently respectable family, but if you look below, it's full of monsters. Narco-trafficking is a phenomenon that has poisoned our society, but we show it's also being combated by people like our heroine and state agencies like the judicial police."
A narcotics adviser to the attorney general's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, praised the show. ''Many Colombians don't want to know about this harsh reality; they prefer to look the other way," he said.
''RCN took a risk to strip the country naked," said Angela Suarez, television critic for El Espectador newspaper. ''This is reality, and it's good that we don't forget it. People thought the Mafia was, past-tense, but the Mafia is more alive than ever."