BOGOTA (Reuters) - Colombians do not like outsiders portraying their country as a cocaine nation, but that's not keeping many from watching a smash local soap opera about their multibillion-dollar narcotics trade.
Betrayal, murder and the lust for quick riches, while not the stuff of national pride, make for gripping television in "Cartel de los Sapos" (Cartel of the Snitches) about the powerful Norte del Valle drug smuggling organization.
Tracing how the cartel supplanted the once-mighty Medellin and Cali gangs, the series is the first to spotlight Colombia's drug lords, their surgically-enhanced girlfriends, violent lackeys and the dirty politicians and police who permit the world's biggest cocaine trade to flourish.
The No. 1-rated show is tinged with nostalgia for the early days of cocaine trafficking and the explosion of wealth it brought Colombians willing to use crime to escape the country's rigid class structure and dead-end economy.
"We identify with the story," said Diana Ramirez, 24, a waitress from Cali and fan of the show. "Sure it's ugly and violent, but it also has its charm."
The series puts the flamboyant characters of the 1980s and 1990s into historical context and shows how deeply the cartels have corrupted Colombian society, a taboo subject in the popular media until now.
The show accurately points out that many of the founders of the Norte del Valle cartel were former police officers.
Names are changed and the fun for many viewers is in identifying which characters are based on real-life criminals and their cronies, such as a top fashion model whose trafficker husband was famously chopped into pieces by a rival gang.
The show's success does not mean Colombians would tolerate the same from outsiders. Moviegoers still hiss at foreign films showing the country's cocaine trade and news accounts portraying Colombia as a nest of drug violence are angrily dismissed here.
"The idea is that we are allowed to criticize our country, but foreigners are only allowed to observe and say nice things," Bogota-based TV critic Omar Rincon said.
"This idea is typical of Mafia families, not modern democracies," he said. "We remain in an epic state of denial."
The show premiered in June, days before the United Nations reported that the planting of crops used to make cocaine in Colombia increased 27 percent in 2007. Exports of the drug hover at about 600 tons per year, the United Nations says.
The country is attracting record investment as its cities and highways grow safer under a U.S.-backed security push. But many rural areas are still controlled by cocaine-funded groups including left-wing rebels fighting a 44-year-old insurgency.
Focused on a middle-class Colombian named Martin tempted into the drug business by promises of easy cash, the series touches on the story of the country's first cocaine king, Pablo Escobar, whose Medellin cartel was dominant in the 1980s.
It takes viewers through the war between the Medellin and Cali gangs, which started when a member of one group seduced the girlfriend of a member of the other. At least one character is killed off in every episode as Colombia's best-known actors play its most notorious cocaine personalities.
But not everyone is a fan.
National police chief Oscar Naranjo, whose brother is in prison on drug charges, says the series unfairly paints Colombian law enforcement as corrupt.
Those who want to change the channel might have trouble finding anything more upbeat. The country's No.2 show is about an accountant who steals the lover of his drug-smuggler boss and enters a witness protection program after testifying against him.
Editing by Patricia Zengerle