Drug Trafficking in Latin America and The Danger of a Single Story

A few days ago I had an interesting conversation with one of my work colleagues who passed by my classroom and noticed the map of Spanish speaking countries that I have behind my desk desk.

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We soon found ourselves exchanging opinions on some of the pressing development issues that affect countries across the world. But having a Latin American map as a witness to our conversation, at some point we decided to focus our discussion in that part of the planet, where I originally come from.

We spoke about some of the social and political conflicts that have affected Central and South America and on the influence and involvement of great powers, such as the United States and Russia, in shaping the recent history of those countries.

At some point my colleague started to take particular interest in tackling the issue of drugs. He expressed his concern about how dangerous Latin America has become because of the illegal drug trade.

By no means I tried to underestimate the fact that drug trafficking is an indisputable problem. Unfortunately for the reputation of us, Latinos, it’s also one of the reasons why we are still globally known for.

The fact that we currently have TV series that are great hits mainly because their plots are about the lives of the most notorious Latino drug kingpins doesn’t help either. Narcos, La Reina del Sur and El Patrón del Mal are three of the current well-known TV and Netflix hits. Even my students talk about them in class.

In September, as we started this academic year, I asked the students who had never learned Spanish before what they knew so far about Spain and Latin America. « El Chapo! » and « Narcos! » were some of the most common shouted-out answers. They were able to narrate with surprising passion the plot of Narcos. They knew the names of the Medellín Cartel members and other details about Pedro Escobar’s private life.

I also asked them what words they could tell me in Spanish and, of course, puto and puta (two very common swear words) were among their favourite ones.

So, going back to my colleague, I wasn’t surprised that he would take interest in the link between Latin American countries and illegal drug trade. He also mentioned Colombia, Panama, Central America as a whole and Mexico as big DO-NOT-GO places. He even asked me whether I personally knew anyone involved in drug trafficking and if any of my friends had been killed in a drug fight.

I tried to explain to him that the actual “cartel fights” did not happen everywhere or all over Latin America. And that if he ever decided to visit those Spanish speaking countries he would probably have the time of his life. In fact, chances were that he would unlikely see cocaine, crack or marijuana during his trip (unless of course he wanted to – as in any part of the world).

I then mentioned some of the things for which our countries are known for and that have nothing to do with drugs. I mentioned the emeralds in Colombia and the fact that the Mayas still make up for the majority of the Guatemalan population. I told him a bit about the Dominican Republic and their endless love for baseball, just like in Nicaragua, my homeland. I told my colleague about the amazing wine produced in Chile and Argentina and how popular Costa Rica has become as a destination for ecotourism. In fact, I took him through a five-minute tour of Latin America all the way from my small Spanish classroom in Nairobi (the photo for this post shows the pictures I’ve put up in my classroom with a bit of information for my students -written in basic Spanish- about the Hispanic countries).

After we said good-bye to each other I couldn’t help thinking about how we all sometimes fall into the danger of believing in a single story. In fact the idea of “the danger of a single story” comes from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a well-known Nigerian writer, who I first came to know through her amazing TED talk in 2009.

I’d say Chimamanda’s presentation is a tremendous invocation for respect towards people’s origins and towards those countries which are hidden behind the bad news we hear from them. If you have some minutes, I’d recommend you to listen to her talk which is nothing else but an attempt for the recovery of the dignity of peoples. Her presentation, delivered in quite an ironic tone, is full of intelligent rhetorical questions which aim at making us reflect on what happens to reality when it’s taken from a different perspective.

I myself had my own misconceptions about Kenya before I moved here. Although I knew something general about the country, I mainly referred to it for the safaris, the Westgate terrorist attacks in 2012, the political fights in 2007 and for the poor people living in slums like the ones we have in Nicaragua. Yes, poverty, terrorism and the political struggle of this and other countries are real stories. Stories that cannot be denied and that, to the extent possible, we need to do something about.

But now that I live in Kenya, I’ve come to discover another story, a beautiful story about this country and its people. My new story differs a lot from the Kenya I knew prior to living here. I’ve come to learn how positively proud Kenya is as a country. In fact, Kenyans don’t like foreigners to think of them as poor people. They prefer that we mention them for their achievements. And this place has achieved a lot, “I’m telling you”, as they often say.

Last but not least, at the end of the day, it’s not just my work colleague who has misconceptions about people and their countries. We all have them. Yet, in the words of Chimamanda Adichie:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”.

So let me close this post by asking you to reflect on a different story of a particular person, people or country you mostly know negative or stereotypical things about. And remember to watch Chimamanda’s talk. 🙂

Until next time….

In Nairobi, 4 November 2016

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