BOGOTA, Colombia – In an upcoming episode of Colombia's favorite soap opera, a former prostitute determined to better the world strides into a spacious office to discuss the fight against human trafficking with U.N. officials. "You have our full support to battle this crime," a gray-suited Frenchman, Thierry Rostan, tells her. Rostan sounds just like a diplomat — because in real life that's exactly what he is.
In "Everybody Loves Marilyn," U.N. officials are cast as themselves and scenes are filmed in their well-guarded Bogota offices. The United Nations (search) itself approached the show's producers with the idea, to bring their message to as many Colombians as possible and prevent girls from being tricked into becoming sex slaves abroad.
"What better vehicle to reach out to people than through a soap opera that has seven million viewers," said Sandro Calvani, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (search) in Colombia (search). "We could have sent out a communique or something, but it wouldn't have the same impact."
Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo, who leads the U.N. program against human trafficking here, was watching "Everybody Loves Marilyn" one night when she hatched the plan.
Human trafficking is a big problem in Colombia. The secret police estimate that up to 50,000 Colombians, including many underage girls and boys, are being lured abroad and sexually exploited, mainly in Japan, Spain and Holland.
Most of the victims come from the impoverished countryside but move to Colombia's cities in search of wealth and fame. They make easy targets for traffickers who offer promises of a modeling career, travel and a chance to make their dreams come true.
"Trafficking in women is one of the worst abuses of human dignity, when somebody's life has been bought," Calvani said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) personally approved Ruiz-Restrepo's novel plan to highlight the problem. She then telephoned RCN television, which produces the show, and got an enthusiastic response.
"It fit perfectly with our aim to discuss social issues in the soap opera," said Adriana Suarez, the executive producer of the soap opera, which is also broadcast elsewhere in Latin America, including Mexico and Chile.
Together they worked on the plot, which tells the story of Catalina, a pretty and ambitious 24-year-old who is duped by a man posing as a fashion designer telling her she will become a model if she travels to a foreign country. She is drugged at the airport before the flight to ensure she doesn't back out, and winds up working in a brothel against her will.
"It's easy for Colombian girls to relate to the character and say to themselves: 'This could have happened to me,'" Ruiz-Restrepo said.
The United Nations reserved the right to delete or modify proposed scenes. For example, Ruiz-Restrepo said, the script at one point erroneously said the United Nations has law enforcement powers.
There have been few occasions when the United Nations opened its doors to film crews.
Last year Annan allowed "The Interpreter" to be filmed inside the U.N. General Assembly in New York. The movie stars Nicole Kidman as a U.N. translator who overhears a conversation that could cost her life. No U.N. personnel had acting roles.
Rostan said it was fun being an actor — though daunting at first. "It wasn't easy, but it's something that enabled us to become a part of peoples' lives, showing them in a down-to-earth way how we can help with issues that affect them directly."
The episodes are scheduled to air in the next few weeks.