‘All that is left of a person is their name,’ Olivia Mostacilla told me during my month in Colombia, the first time I’d been back in two years. She wasn’t referring to the paramilitary massacres, which have stopped in the past few months because of the on-going ‘demobilisation’ of the paras organised by President Uribe’s government, but to the craze for plastic surgery, especially the variety known as lipo-escultura or ‘fat sculpture’.
Actually, it’s called aesthetic surgery, not plastic, and it’s ‘the fastest growing industry in Colombia’, she assured me, especially in Cali and Medellín. Even though there is a desperate need for health services, not least to deal with sexually transmitted illness among the young and poor, there is no shortage of breast implants, liposuction and hymen restoration costing upwards of US $400, in a society where the basic wage is around $160 a month. Of course, as with back-alley abortions, there are aesthetic surgeons who work for as little as $100 a treatment – as described in Gustavo Bolívar Moreno’s novel Sin tetas no hay paraíso (Without Tits, No Paradise). Dedicated to his mother, and now in its sixth edition, it has recently been adapted as a telenovela. Meanwhile, Uribe’s Bush-friendly government, enamoured of free-market economics, shreds the health service. ‘The Ministry of Health basically does not exist,’ a British journalist long resident in Colombia tells me as he pulls a long revolver from his coat before examining a young girl in the clinic for street children he helped set up in the slums of a major city. Why the gun? The police have a contract out on him for daring to denounce police killing of children on the streets.
‘Any defect can be eliminated,’ Olivia said. ‘Any defect whatsoever.’ She wasn’t referring to the limpieza five years ago in this town outside Cali, limpieza as in ‘cleaning’: cleansing a house of witchcraft or bad spirits; or the cleaning up of a town, by assassinating petty thieves, crack addicts and homicidal youth gangs.
Yet it was hard to resist making these connections between beauty and death, as Olivia and her neighbour went on to detail the dangers of aesthetic surgery. Olivia’s niece, a nurse in a clinic in Cali, had recently had her nose altered by a doctor there. Like many Afro-Colombian women she disliked her nariz chata, as it’s called. ‘A few days before he went on holiday the doctor accosted her, saying: “Oh! I have to fix your nose quickly before I leave!” But the operation went badly. Months later she went to another surgeon for a second operation. Now she breathes like a cat. You know how a cat breathes? You can hear her breathing several feet away.’
A friend of this niece had her breasts enlarged, but infection set in and she had to have a double mastectomy. Other women have had their eyes enlarged and now can’t close them. ‘Imagine!’ a neighbour chimed in. ‘Imagine trying to sleep!’ Fathers give liposuction as a present to their daughters on their 15th birthday. Both women and men return for multiple liposuctions. Diego Maradona came to Colombia to have eight stone removed. ‘People fly in from the USA, and Colombia now leads Brazil in this field,’ Olivia told me as she prepared lunch in her stifling concrete brick house at the end of the town, while I watched an advertisement for a ‘vibrating corset’ designed to eliminate fat through electronic massage. ‘People have died,’ she said. ‘From perforated intestines.’
Yet the demand is insatiable. ‘Beauty opens doors.’ The women in Congress, including the president of the Senate and the new minister of foreign affairs, are stunningly beautiful. And when the wonderfully progressive mayor of Medellín replaced the annual beauty queen contest with one for women of talent, they too were all stunning. One can only imagine what it takes to be a humble secretary, let alone the courtesan of a narco. ‘It was like . . . like heaven’s gate!’ a burly young American alone in first class was telling the male steward as I flew out of Bogotá. He could well have been a US helicopter pilot or one of the 500 military advisers in this country where the US is reported to have more than 2500 personnel.
‘We stayed in the north . . . can’t remember the name. And the girls!’
‘Like they popped out of a magazine,’ the steward responded.
‘Even if you end up with the worst, she’s amazing!’
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