April 19, 1992

Article at Ana on Authory


The Miami Herald

April 19, 1992 Sunday


Copyright 1992 The Miami Herald All Rights Reserved

Section: TROPIC; Pg. 9

Length: 3894 words

Byline: ANA ARANA Specia; To Tropic


An explosion of hair spray and cleavage burst into the crowded, chandelier-lit lobby of the Cartagena Hilton. Decked out in diamonds and gold, their most intimate parts barely covered by aggressively slinky, dangerously low-cut gowns, the most beautiful women in the country clicked stiletto heels across the white marble and wiggled into a minibus poised to rush them to the Cartagena Naval Club, site of the Miss Colombia pageant's traditional Fantasy Ball.

Teetering precariously on the head of Miss Bolivar, Maria Jose Barraza, was a mock champagne glass of wire and beads. The rest of her costume consisted of a fishnet body stocking over the tiniest of bikinis. Officially, her outfit was "a toast" to Columbus' discovery of the Americas, but to an observer from the States it looked more like what someone might wear in a Las Vegas chorus line.

No one laughed at Miss Bolivar.

Nor was there so much as a snicker at Miss Bogota, Paola Turbay Gomez, who would win the costume competition in a tight- fitting Victorian white lace dress. The lace was transparent.

Nor was anyone laughing at several huge, steely-eyed men here and there in the crowded lobby, men with distinctive bulges under their suit coats, the sort of bulge that makes a Colombian think: "bodyguard."

This was not your average beauty pageant. But then again, Colombia is not your average country.

No Gossip Too Tasteless

After soccer, beauty pageants are the national pastime of Colombia. At least one pageant is held every 24 hours -- most of them in small towns, where young women eagerly compete for the right to be known as Miss Crocodile, Miss Coffee, Miss Coal or Miss Rice. But it is the Miss Colombia pageant that really matters. The winner there represents the country in the Miss Universe pageant, and the runner-up goes to the Miss World pageant.

Held for 34 straight years in the Atlantic Coast resort of Cartagena, the pageant -- which many young women here see as the female equivalent of the Super Bowl -- is a source of fierce national pride.

Even the press throws aside all pretense of objectivity when it comes to Miss Colombia. During a live radio interview with a Mexican contest judge during the 1991 Miss Universe pageant, Dario Arizmendi, director of Caracol radio, a top Colombian news station, tactlessly probed the sworn-to-be- impartial juror about how Miss Colombia was faring with the panel. Then he issued an order: "You will vote for her!" Arizmendi was only half kidding.

In countries like the United States, where the women's movement has become a mainstream political force, news coverage of beauty pageants -- with their intrinsically sexist emphasis on babes in bathing suits -- has been toned down over the years. Not in Colombia, where the Latin cult of machismo is very much alive, where males still largely dominate business and politics and where divorce was not legal until last year. For two weeks every November, newspapers, television and radio networks feed the obsessed populace a steady diet of finely detailed gossip about the women who would be Miss Colombia. No angle is too vague, no detail too small, no gossip too tasteless, no criticism too carping.

"The girls had a simple breakfast this morning, all to keep their perfect figures," breathlessly intoned a Caracol radio announcer at this year's pageant.

The daily El Espectador heartily congratulated "the girls" for having better bodies than ever: "We don't have the stretch marks and cellulite that have been present in other years . . ." But, the daily lamented, "the faces are not as beautiful."

Later, on another Caracol program, Susana Caldas, a former beauty queen hired to cover the pageant, freely discussed an issue that once was only whispered about -- plastic surgery. The once-taboo subject surfaced because Alo, a popular local gossip magazine, had reported that 17 of the 26 contestants had had their features sculpted by plastic surgeons.

"I don't believe plastic surgery is wrong," said Caldas indignantly. "It all depends how it is done."

The pageant seethes with overt sexuality, and the media are not shy about covering that, either. There are countless close- up shots of contestants in tiny swimsuits -- breasts and bottoms clearly defined. When the queens arrived in Cartagena, an El Espectador photographer placed himself at the bottom of the stairs as a group of women wearing tiny miniskirts deplaned. The result: pictures that appeared to look straight up under the dresses of the contestants.

The night the pageant is televised, 15 million Colombians -- half the population -- watch it. In Bogota, frenzied fans attend pageant parties designed specifically to place bets on who will win.

This national passion for a beauty pageant can be startling to outsiders. But it is understandable given Colombia's many woes. Wracked by rural poverty, random street violence, an epidemic of kidnappings and vicious turf battles among the drug lords, Colombians often feel as if the rest of the world considers their nation a bad joke. But the world does not laugh at Colombia's beauty queens. They can compete with anybody. They frequently are among the top contenders in the Miss Universe pageant. And although no Miss Colombia has won the Miss Universe pageant since 1957, Colombia's Liseth Mahecha did get as close as second runner-up just two years ago. One day soon, Colombians will tell you, a Colombian will once again be Miss Universe. It is inevitable.

"It gives something positive to this country that has undergone so much violence," said anthropologist Victoria Uribe, who also happens to be the Miss Bogota of 1968.

In a place with so much to be depressed about, the Miss Colombia pageant has become a haven from all that the country hated about itself, a fantasy world where people from this poor but proud Latin nation can pay homage to women who seem -- at least onstage -- to embody perfection, beauty without blemish, a thing of wonder, a thing to worship, and -- like soccer -- something to brag about.

Even at the height of the bloody drug war of 1989, when dozens were machine gunned in the streets, the government dispatched hundreds of police and soldiers to stand guard outside the Miss Colombia pageant and make sure that it went on as scheduled. It became a sort of home remedy for fear, a way of showing that life could go on despite the escalating violence.

On one day, El Tiempo's front page was dominated by two stories -- a picture of Miss Colombia beauty queens in bathing suits and news of the kidnapping of two more journalists by the Medellin drug cartel, recalled Florence Thomas, a professor at Bogota's National University.

Thomas, a feminist, criticizes the pageant as a reflection of the sexist nature of male-dominated Latin cultures, but concedes that her country's obsession with Miss Colombia has a good side. "The queens," she said, "were a release valve."

"For Colombians, the beauty pageants replace the violence we live every day. Especially Miss Colombia is a sacred event; no one dares to criticize," said Adriana La Rotta, 28, a local television anchorwoman.

Sometimes, the pageants even seem to possess the power to make over the violence in their own pretty image: A handsome young man who had appeared as a gang member in a documentary on youth and violence in the traditional cocaine stronghold of Medellin -- a city of 1.5 million people that had over 7,000 murders last year -- was hired by a local television station to cover Miss Colombia. The only youth featured in the documentary who is still alive today, he managed to parlay his sudden notoriety into a budding acting career. The pageant gig did nothing to slow his sudden rise.

The Monkey's Bride

But lately, there have been nasty whisperings about the Miss Colombia pageant, whisperings that threaten its image as the last bastion of unsullied fantasy in a nation known for its drug wars and official corruption.

The whispers grew to murmurs when in the midst of her reign, the 1990 Miss Colombia, Maribel Gutierrez, married Jairo Duran, a wealthy self-styled cattle rancher. His nickname: The Monkey.

Duran's cattle notwithstanding, the word on the streets was that he was a lieutenant in the international cocaine smuggling apparatus put together by the notorious Ochoa family. The lavish $500,000 wedding he threw for himself and his new bride did little to dispel the rumors. Duran spent $5,000 to install air conditioning for the 200 guests who packed the little Church of the Immaculate Conception in Barranquilla, bought his bride a wedding dress that was a copy of the one worn by Princess Diana of England a decade earlier, and kept Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey flowing liberally at a reception at the Barranquilla Country Club.

Then there were the bodyguards. Tough-looking young men. Lots of them. There had been rumors, you see: Duran had once dated a niece of drug baron Pablo Escobar, but abandoned her for Maribel. The spurned woman had threatened to toss acid on the bride.

In the following days the Colombian media ran many stories on the wedding, but not one mentioned the groom's reputed ties to the drug lords.

Nonetheless, Duran's connections threatened to become a national scandal. Before that could happen, Maribel Gutierrez did the right thing. In compliance with rules requiring that Miss Colombia remain single during her reign, she resigned the title, forfeiting her right to crown the next queen at the 1991 pageant. But in a display of stubborn pique, she kept the queen's silver crown and scepter, refusing to return them to contest organizers, as is customary.

And when the dark-haired beauty defiantly paid a visit to this year's pageant, she was accompanied by several bulky, unsmiling bodyguards.

Then on Jan. 14 of this year, what everyone had been whispering became public: Duran was indicted in Spain, accused of being a member of a huge money laundering and drug smuggling ring, moving cocaine out of Colombia and Venezuela. American trafficker Indalecio Iglesias, in jail in Spain, identified Duran as a lieutenant for drug barons Fabio, David and Jorge Luis Ochoa. The Ochoas surrendered to Colombian authorities last year as part of a government leniency program that offered shorter sentences and no extradition to the United States. As part of the deal, the Ochoas promised to give up their cocaine business. But in a phone interview with The Miami Herald last year, Iglesias said that the business was still being run by several lieutenants, including Jairo Duran.

Finally, the daily El Tiempo, Bogota's largest newspaper, published a story by a Miami-based correspondent detailing Duran's indictment and his drug-gang connections. Only then did television stations and other papers run stories about the accused drug lord and his beauty queen. As if to emphasize her new status as a soiled idol, some papers ran photographs of Maribel taken before her pre-pageant plastic surgery, photographs that showed what appeared to be a double chin that was not there during the pageant.

As her husband kept a low profile, Maribel Gutierrez faced the media. "Those are lies. It is political persecution," she complained.

A Weakness For Beauty

Pageant officials insist that the Maribel Gutierrez incident means nothing. "That is in the past," said Teresa Pizarro de Angulo, head of the pageant. "She is no longer Miss Colombia . . . When she was elected, we did not know anything about her relationship with him. It is the first time one of our candidates has been in a scandal like this one. When she was elected Miss Atlantic Province, there was no indication she was going out with Duran."

But to the chagrin of poor, embattled little Colombia, the modern-day Beauty And The Beast love story between Miss Colombia and The Monkey is not the only link between cocaine traffickers and beauty queens.

"While their influence is doing a lot of harm to the contest, it is something most reporters are not willing to write up," said one reporter, who -- like all other sources on the topic for this story -- preferred to not be identified, mindful of the more than 50 Colombian journalists assassinated over a 10-year period. But even if you don't see them in print, the stories are widely known.

For example, the late drug lord Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, alias "The Mexican," went out with a former Miss Colombia. Rodriguez Gacha, killed by police in 1989, had such a legendary lust for beautiful women that police once planned to nab him by using a beauty pageant contestant as bait. Other events intervened and the police never put their plan into action, but not because they didn't think it would work.

The powerful and wealthy have always had a weakness for desirable women, and the drug lords are no exception. As a police source in Bogota explained, "A beauty pageant is a good place to find drug traffickers. . . . Representatives from drug groups from different regions apparently show up in Cartagena and mix business and pleasure."

This year, there were rumors -- never substantiated -- that several Miss Colombia contestants had mob connections. But as with Maribel Gutierrez and Jairo Duran, the Colombian press never mentioned them.

"It is obvious which candidate is being financed by the traffickers," said a local television reporter. All you have to do, he said, is look at the clues -- such as the amount of money spent by a candidate compared with family background and personal wealth.

Still, this is the stuff of speculation. No credible police source suggests drug gangs control the pageant or that a lot of the contestants are mob-connected. But in Colombia, the corrupting power of drug money is always something to worry about.

In years past, cattlemen, farmers and businessmen were the unseen financial backers of the pageant. In a contest so competitive that women often spend $20,000 to $60,000 on dresses and voice trainers and hair stylists and beauty coaches, wealthy backers or a financial commitment from the political leaders in their home province were a necessity. Now, in some provinces, drug traffickers are the cattlemen, the farmers, the businessmen. The unspoken fear is that contestants will wind up competing on drug money. Or, worse, that traffickers with an interest in a certain young woman might try to influence a provincial contest.

"It is always a danger," said Teresa Pizarro de Angulo. "We are careful in screening all candidates . . ." Then she added: "But we welcome the candidates trusting that the provinces send good girls."

Pageant Fever

If Colombians are disturbed by the alleged connections between their beauty queens and their drug lords, they have not shown this by shunning the pageant. For this year's Miss Colombia contest, hotels in Cartagena were booked months in advance -- many of them by members of support groups accompanying each contestant. This year's biggest cheering squad belonged to Claudia Patricia Escarraga, representing the Atlantic Coast province of Guajira, a region famous for its thriving contraband industry and large coal reserves. (Smugglers slip everything from drugs to liquor to electrical appliances into the country through Guajira without paying the required taxes on foreign goods.)

Pageant fever is highly infectious. Four hundred local journalists, including writers for Spanish-language Cosmopolitan and Vanidades magazines, covered the two weeks of competition. After the first week, a curious thing happened. Many of the female reporters began wearing tight, revealing outfits and big earrings, much like those worn by the contestants. "After a while," said one television reporter, explaining this midpageant shift in personal fashion by some of her colleagues, "you start feeling ugly and fat."

The Other Side Of The Tracks

The same night the jewel-studded fantasy ball was held, a local beauty pageant was also underway in Cartagena -- the Popular Queen Beauty Pageant, part of the city's annual municipal birthday festivities. It was far removed from the goings-on at the Cartagena Naval Club.

The contestants were from the poor black neighborhoods of Cartagena, a city 40 percent black. The night of the pageant, a large crowd of black people stood in a line that snaked around the old bullfighting arena. Children hung on the skirts of their mothers, who stood in the mud, straddling puddles. It had rained all afternoon. Many had come from far-off provinces, traveling all day by boat and by bus.

Inside, the bleachers were filling with people and banners supporting one or another of the 186 candidates for the crown and the $1,700 in cash and prizes provided by local businesses. Backstage, organizers realized the bus that was to pick up most of the candidates had not arrived. For $4, another bus was quickly hired.

A fan blew hot air in the three musty rooms where contestants prepared. The floor backstage was muddy. One contestant wiped mud off her white shoes.

Fifteen-year-old Sara Quintara sat on a chair, her neighborhood hair stylist combing her curls. Sara's 34-year-old mother, Carmen Bufante, straightened the girl's costume, a simple gold lame dress, and its matching palm tree headdress. "I always wanted to enter the pageant, but my father wouldn't let me. I hope to God my daughter wins," she said. Sara's fantasy dress cost $125. The shoes cost another $10. "The pageant pays for everything; otherwise we couldn't enter," said Carmen, a sales clerk, with a toothy grin.

The contrast with the Miss Colombia pageant could not have been more stark. Miss Colombia events are held in private halls and exclusive clubs. Spectators are admitted by special invitation or after paying $25 to $50 in entry fees. In their quest for the more than $13,000 in cash and prizes and the lucrative modeling jobs that may go to Miss Colombia, pageant participants -- or, more likely, their sponsors -- spend from $10,000 to $60,000 each on dresses, shoes and other necessary accouterments. (By comparison, a Miss Universe contestant from the beauty pageant-crazy American state of Texas might spend $20,000.)

Early on, a pecking order is established. Among the ones with money are those who come from influential and aristocratic families, as well as those who have less impressive pedigrees, but who can boast the backing of wealthy communities or padrinos. Candidates with modest financial backing can have a hard time. Plastic surgery, modeling classes and weight- reduction spas cost big bucks. According to the local press, Miss Guainia, Catalina Valencia, a tall blond representing a newly incorporated province, was ridiculed by other candidates when she confessed to buying materials for her pageant outfits at wholesale stores in Bogota. Another candidate told a journalist she felt uncomfortable with her dresses, which had cost $10,000, because, when compared with candidates who spent $60,000, "I look like a pauper."

The Surgeon's Touch

In the quest for perfection, the Miss Colombia pageant no longer depends upon Mother Nature. Makeup is no longer enough. Many of the contestants take the next step, to plastic surgery.

"It is the final touch to be more beautiful. I don't see any problem that a candidate have surgery to get rid of defects," said Miguel Angel Martinucci, an Argentinian beauty stylist on this year's jury.

As pageant head Teresa Pizarro de Angulo put it: "Plastic surgery does not complicate the contest. It is natural and valid to have it done. Each girl has the right to beautify herself."

A leading plastic surgeon who refused to be identified said he knew of girls who had had breast implants and nose jobs to enter the contest. Others had fat suctioned from bottoms, and chins redone. The surgeon's guess: Four out of every five contestants have some work done.

Most denied having plastic surgery solely to win the contest. For example, Paola Turbay Gomez, Miss Bogota, who went on to became Miss Colombia 1991-1992, told reporters she had her nose fixed because it had been scarred in a childhood accident. Miss Valle, Beatriz Eugenia Martinez, had surgery to correct a deviated septum, according to a report in Alo.

The gossip magazine Alo created a brief stir by printing going prices for surgeries routinely performed on beauty contestants: breast implants -- $1,484; bottoms -- $2,300; noses -- $1,220; chins -- $1,250.

Pressure on contestants for physical perfection is extreme. They are inspected, critiqued and criticized from the tips of their carefully sculpted hairdos to the polish on their toes. The press can be downright snide.

Of Miss Atlantico, the daily El Espectador wrote: "She is nice looking, but her nose job is a bit obvious."

Miss Atlantico, Martha Abdala Pastrana, took the criticism to heart: "Before I entered the beauty pageant I was a beautiful woman; now I have everything wrong."

After her selection as a candidate, Andrea Velez Zuluaga, 21, was asked by organizers in her province to undergo surgery on her nose, but she refused. According to Mrs. Zuluaga, her daughter told them that if they did not think she was sufficiently beautiful, maybe they should select someone else.

"I think the perfection element has gotten out of hand," said Mrs. Zuluaga.

But her daughter paid dearly for her decision. During the swimsuit parade when Andrea Velez walked down the aisle, a matronly looking woman sitting by the pool muttered loud enough to be heard by the press, "She is too ugly to be in the contest." Others nodded in agreement.

Bowing To Aphrodite

The day of the swimsuit competition, every available table and space around the pool at the Hilton Hotel was occupied. A 300-yard-long ramp had been built across the pool and surrounding gardens. The 26 candidates would parade along the ramp in custom-fitted one-piece swimsuits. Firm legs, elegance and bearing would be taken into consideration, said one of the jurors, as she waited under a large shady awning for the poolside parade. The heat was unbearable, but many spectators were formally dressed with nylons and hats.

One by one, smiling to bury their nerves, the contestants began gliding along the runway on six-inch heels. Spectators sipped whiskey, dangled their hot feet in the hotel pool and cheered loudly for their favorites.

Poolside commentaries ranged from frank to obscene. "That one won't make it because she has flabby legs," commented a boy no more than 12 years old. As Miss Antioquia, 23-year-old aerobics instructor Lina Maria Garcia Londono, strolled by, a young man softly muttered of his desire to have sex with her.

Most Colombians are more reverent. Perhaps the truest test of how they feel about Miss Colombia came the next morning, when pictures from the pool parade were spread on the table of the pageant's official photographer. They were for sale.

People who had managed to get themselves into photographs with the contestants lined up to buy. One by one, men and women ooohed and aaahed, cradled their new possessions in loving arms and thanked the photographer profusely for allowing them to spend their money.

One middle-aged man lingered long and reverently, then made his selection. He held a picture of himself standing with his arm around the waist of Miss Risaralda, Lina Maria Diaz. Miss Risaralda, the eventual runner-up, stood stiffly in her one- piece swimsuit and stiletto heels, smiling from ear to ear.

"I will hang this by my bed," he said, whispering as if he were in a cathedral.