Maria Full of Grace is the story of a young Colombian woman with limited options facing her at home, as she embarks on a journey smuggling cocaine into the United States as a mule. In one broad sweep, the film is a glimpse of globalization, an exposé on the drug trade, a brash statement on development, an immigrants' story, and a film embedded with religious visual messages, all excellent fodder for classroom geographic exploration into the Colombian imaginary and beyond.
From its most obvious starting point, the film can be used in discussions on development, globalization, U.S. aid, and drug trade. Maria is a worker in the rose industry, one of the non-traditional export industries promoted by U.S. Aid agencies as a development solution to coca production. The mundane repetitious work conditions under which Maria works can serve as a springboard for further discussion on divisions of labor, working conditions, agrochemical exposures, gender, and globalization of the floriculture industries.
Currently, Colombia ranks second behind Holland in world production of cut flowers. The industry employs upwards of 75,000 individuals cultivating roses, carnations and 50+ other cut flower varieties. According to the Colombian cut flower trade association Asocolflores, exports in 2004 were valued at $704 million (ASOCOLFLORES, 2005). Colombia's development success has prompted floriculture enterprises across the developing world including in Kenya, Malaysia, Ecuador, Zimbabwe, India, Mexico and China. The global shifts in industries and labor markets, along with local impacts can all be discussed from the context of this film.
Yet, despite the seeming economic success of non-traditional export development in Colombia in reality, Maria of the film is obviously dissatisfied with her job, its regime, and lack of opportunities. She quits and impulsively looks to the risks, but potential advantages of drug trafficking to the United States. Upon arrival in New York, in her first night out, she ironically passes a street vender selling roses from a gallon bucket: beckoning the question, are non-traditional exports the answer to development woes in Latin America?
Meanwhile, the United States' anti drug campaign, Plan Colombia, forges on with an estimated $1.6 billion aid package and substantial bipartisan support, a few hundred U.S. military and civilian advisors in Colombia, dozens of Black Hawk and Super Huey helicopters, coca eradicating crop dusters, and a focus on supporting Colombian police and military efforts that are increasingly intertwined with right wing paramilitary efforts and one of South America's most trenchant leftist guerilla movements. Colombia is the United States' third largest recipient of foreign aid and only about 1% of this aid is allocated to economic reconstruction. An estimated 90% of cocaine and 70% of heroine consumed in the U.S. is believed to come from Colombia. An estimated 3,000 Colombians are in New York prisons under charges of drug trafficking and many die annually in the trip north as drug pellets break down and drugs leak into their carrier bodies' systems. [End Page 120] Opportunities for discussion over how to tackle this problem amidst the challenges of economic development and the repercussions of U.S. imperialism, are ample.
Along the way, the film recounts a segment of the commodity chain surrounding the drug trade which can easily be used to exemplify the economic geographies within illegal activities. There is Franklin, a young man sent out to small towns to recruit mules among the most desperate or dissatisfied. There is the introduction of future mules to a seemingly benevolent King Pin who entices them with immediate pocket money, as well as, arranges airline tickets, passports, transportation, hotel, and over all instructions. Then, there is the actual process of making rubber pellets of cocaine, often out of condoms or latex gloves, and the mule's practice of swallowing grapes in an effort to master the art of pellet ingestion. The journey north follows quickly: first with hours spent behind closed doors where mules ingest 60-100 pellets; next, with the tense plane ride from Colombia where at times an many passengers are mules, some of whom may even be leaked to the INS as a distraction...