Travelers passing through El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá, Colombia, are inundated with D.A.R.E.-ish signs that feature illustrations of a woman holding her stomach, people being x-rayed, and the message No Soy Mula ("Don't Be a Mule"). It's part of the Colombian government's attempt to deter people from joining the estimated thousands of drug mules who travel every year from Colombia to the United States harboring latex-wrapped pellets of cocaine in their stomachs.
Never mind that for any mule, the Bogotá airport is but one stop on a very desperate journey, and that it's unlikely that anyone who has gone so far as to swallow dozens of potentially deadly packets will be moved to repent by a billboard. A more compelling rumination on why mules do what they do to survive is Maria Full of Grace, which captures the quicksand of Colombia's socioeconomic situation and the spirit of one young woman intent on escaping her seemingly predestined fate. The film has won several prizes, including the audience award at Sundance, but for its writer/director Joshua Marston, one review stands out.
"We got a call from a 17-year-old guy in Colombia who said he was supposed to be a drug mule," says Marston. "He had agreed to do it and had accepted the advance [from the drug lords], and the [plane] ticket had been bought. Two days before he was scheduled to leave, he went to a theater in Bogotá and watched the film out of curiosity. He changed his mind, pulled out, and was calling to say, 'Thank you'--that he had seen the film three times and considered it saved his life.
"That wasn't the intention of the film; it was simply to show a complicated situation. But in doing that, it has opened a lot of people's eyes in Colombia. The film opened in Colombia in April, and we've had Colombians come up to us and say, 'I didn't know the truth about what it was to be a drug mule. I'd just read it in the newspapers, and didn't understand it from within.'"
Marston gets to the guts of the story with Maria (played by Bogotá native Catalina Sandino Moreno), an unemployed factory worker who wants more out of life than the hand she has been dealt. Through a friend, Maria hooks up with a drug lord who convinces her to swallow 62 pellets and fly to make her connection in New York, which is where Sandino Moreno herself now lives as an up-and-coming actress. And while that may sound like a success story, it is an ambivalent one for someone like Sandino Moreno, and anyone else who fully appreciates the beauty of Colombia.
"I love my country," she says. "Most of my friends don't want to leave Colombia. They are so patriotic. They want to stay there and help the country to get out [of the troubles], because everybody is leaving and studying abroad, mostly in Europe. And they don't want to come to America, because they hate America and don't want my country to be attacked by Americans: 'It's good what happened on 9/11, because now America knows how we've felt for 50 years.' They're very bitter, some of them."
Any list of Colombia's most famous citizens would have to include the painter Fernando Botero, writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, St. Louis Cardinals all-star second baseman Edgar Renteria, and pop singer Shakira. Still, the old stereotypes--terrorists, murderers, drug lords--persist, as further propagated by the current issue of National Geographic, whose cover story on Colombia blares, "Cocaine Country." Beautifully illustrated, the piece explores the complex relationship between cocaine and Colombia--much like Maria Full of Grace, which may be the first film to put a human face on a quagmire that most North Americans, coke-snorting or otherwise, would prefer to ignore.