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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The latest Spanish language soap opera sensation, "La Reina del Sur," is hitting the airwaves on Telemundo. In its debut week last month, it ranked first in the 10 o'clock time slot across all U.S. broadcast networks. It's the first Spanish soap to feature a female drug lord.

And as Genesys Sanchez reports, it's the latest in a fast-growing genre: telenovelas about Mexico's explosive drug war.

GENESYS SANCHEZ: I'm usually not a big fan of sitting down and watching TV when I get home, but the 10 o'clock hour became my sacred TV time once my friends told me about "Munecas de La Mafia" or "Mafia Dolls."

(Soundbite of TV show, "Munecas de La Mafia")

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SANCHEZ: It's about five young women getting involved with the drug dealers known as narcos in Colombia and Mexico.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Munecas de La Mafia")

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SANCHEZ: That's a drug lord grabbing one of his main girls by the hair and accusing her of being a snitch. These soap operas aren't too far from the reality of the drug war in Mexico these days, with all the same dramatic ingredients: executions, lavish lifestyles and international fame.

They're part of what I call narco cultura. Radio DJ Sergio Garcia just moved to the U.S. from Tijuana about a year ago and says many young people there idolize the drug dealers.

Mr. SERGIO GARCIA (Radio DJ): (Through Translator) It's almost as if saying I want to be a narco is in style, as is having a brand-new car, having rhinestones on your clothes, going to nightclubs, having a lot of women, having a lot of money and just being able to spend however much you want. It's mainly just about being able to feel that power.

SANCHEZ: Narco cultura broke into pop culture about five years ago with a type of music called narco corridos, Mexican drug ballads.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

SANCHEZ: The lyric is all about who the drug lords will kill next, their guns made out of gold and decorated with diamonds, and how many women they have. Narco corrido fans are usually men trying to get their macho fix. The narco novelas on TV, on the other hand, target women.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Munecas de La Mafia")

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SANCHEZ: "Munecas de La Mafia" is nothing like the typical soap operas, stories of a poor girl in love with a rich guy whose evil grandma hates on the romance. In "Mafia Dolls," the struggles are all about surviving in the drug game. The show debuted on the Univision Network last year around the same time that big name narco families were getting busted in Mexico.

Producer Dago Garcia is the vice president of production at Caracol TV in Colombia, where most of the narco novelas are produced. Garcia says, a decade ago, Colombian producers would have been too scared to portray narcos.

Mr. DAGO GARCIA (Vice President of Production, Caracol TV): (Through Translator) The narco theme had been suppressed for different reasons, mainly because it was a topic that couldn't be discussed without having your life at risk.

SANCHEZ: Now that Colombia's government claims to have won the battle with drug dealers, Colombian producers are safe to make shows about drug culture, and these novelas are being distributed all over Latin America and the U.S., influencing how Latinos in other countries view the drug war.

My friend Carmen Ramirez is surprised to find herself sympathizing with the narcos on "Munecas de la Mafia."

Ms. CARMEN RAMIREZ: For example, you'll see me commenting on a novela, and I'll just be like, oh, I feel bad for him, because his daughter gets kidnapped. But then again, I don't feel bad when they shoot an innocent person.

SANCHEZ: Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, who works with Chicano students at UC Berkeley, thinks that narco novelas glamorize the drug world.

Ms. LUPE GALLEGOS-DIAZ: (Coordinator, Chicano/Latino Student Development, UC Berkeley): Most of the time it's about a sexual objectification of women and what I considered not very healthy, sometimes, messages for our young women, particularly short skirts, you know, low cleavage, high heels.

SANCHEZ: There is more complexity being written into future narco soaps. Novela producer Dago Garcia says he's going to add another layer to the stories.

Mr. D. GARCIA: (Through Translator) The next dimension of what we're going to talk about in this subject is the dimension of the victims, because up until now, all these productions have been taking a look into the reality of narcos and their relationships.

SANCHEZ: It seems like everyone I talk to about narco cultura is also passionately following news of the drug war in Mexico. But with these new narco novelas, it's easy to lose sight of the line between the real-life war and the entertainment inspired by it.

For NPR News, I'm Genesys Sanchez.

BLOCK: Genesys Sanchez is a reporter for Turnstyle. That's an online news service from Youth Radio.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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