Matador: Colombia’s most popular political cartoonist

BOGOTA, Colombia — When political cartoonist Matador draws Alvaro Uribe, the pious, right-wing Colombian president comes across as a middle-aged version of Milhouse, Bart Simpson’s nerdy friend.

Like the characters on "The Simpsons," Matador’s cartoon figures strike poses of bemused innocence as they get into mischief — which in Colombia often involves killing, kidnapping, stealing elections and engaging in acts of brazen political corruption.

Matador’s outrage drives his art.

“Politics is a swamp of shit,” he said as he drank a glass of Jack Daniel’s during a recent interview in Bogota. “Anyone who gets involved gets dirty.”

As a result, Matador — the pseudonym of 40-year-old Julio Cesar Gonzalez — has no shortage of subjects.

He usually draws more than 100 cartoons a month. His prolific output and finely honed sense of humor have turned him into Colombia’s most popular political cartoonist.

The past year has proved especially inspiring for Matador, whose cartoons appear on the editorial pages of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most influential newspaper.

Though Uribe remains hugely popular, he has been engulfed in scandals — ranging from the secret police spying on his political opponents, to million-dollar farm subsidies going to his political allies, to sweetheart land deals favoring his two sons.

But what really infuriates Matador is Uribe’s insistence on seeking a third term in the 2010 elections even though the Constitution currently prohibits presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms.

The pro-Uribe Congress recently approved an amendment to the Magna Carta to allow another term for the president but the measure has yet to receive the green light from the Constitutional Court.

“We have to sharpen our pens so we can serve as a counterbalance” to government power, said Matador, which means “killer” in Spanish.

In one of Matador’s most stinging cartoons, he linked Uribe’s “addiction” to power with the president’s support for a bill to outlaw the use of small amounts of marijuana and other recreational drugs — a measure known as the “personal dose” law.

In the panel titled “His own personal dose,” a glassy-eyed Uribe wears a goofy smile and holds an immense joint emblazoned with the word “re-election.”

For the cartoon, Matador was honored this year with the Simon Bolivar Prize, Colombia’s highest honor for journalists.

Another cartoon, titled “Raped and pregnant,” links Uribe’s drive for a third term to his support for outlawing abortion even in the case of rape. In the panel, a sad and ragged looking woman represents the Colombian Constitution. She already has two little boys who look like Uribe and is pregnant with a third — who looks like Uribe.

Matador grew up in a rough barrio in Pereira, a city located in the coffee-covered mountains of central Colombia. His father was a shoemaker and, at the age of 5, Matador began drawing cartoons on the discarded pieces of leather in his father’s shop. His subjects were always figures of power — like his parents, the local priest and neighborhood gangsters.

Among his early inspirations were the Bill Watterson comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" as well as the works of Roberto Fontanarrosa, an Argentine cartoonist who often made fun of his country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

An avid reader, Matador devours the morning papers from Bogota, Medellin and Cali, takes a post-lunch nap, then draws in the afternoon. He uses a felt-tip pen and thick white paper and finishes most of cartoons within five minutes before emailing them to El Tiempo. He never corrects his flubs in an effort to maintain a childlike aura as he works.

“When I draw, I feel like a kid,” Matador said.

Because he still lives in Pereira, Matador rarely rubs elbows with Bogota politicians which makes it easier for him to skewer them in his drawings.

Though Uribe is his most frequent target, Matador also goes after left-wing politicians and the country’s Marxist guerrillas, who are often depicted as skeletal Grim Reapers. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has threatened to wage war with Colombia, is sometimes drawn in a suit of armor made of Russian tanks and missiles.

Matador also makes fun of U.S. politicians. When the Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October, just as the U.S. government was about to dispatch another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, Matador drew a teacher grilling a student about literature.

“Who wrote 'War and Peace?'" she asks, referring to the Leo Tolstoy novel.

The perplexed student replies: “Obama?”