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What Narcos Still Gets Wrong About the War on Drugs

The Netflix series prides itself on telling hard truths. But it really doesn't have a clue.


One time in Medellin, I got my hair cut by a woman who swore that Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian drug lord, was still alive. She had spotted him a few years back, reading a newspaper in his childhood stomping grounds of Envigado. How could she be sure it was him? Escobar, his sicarios, and their female escorts used to frequent her old salon in Laureles, the neighborhood where Escobar was killed (or not) in 1993—by the Colombian National Police, or U.S. Delta Force snipers, or rival drug lords, or himself, depending on which version you lend credence to. She was there as they lowered the body of a shoeless, bearded vagabond off the ceramic-tiled roof, his cratered face caked in blood. Don Pablo wouldn’t have gone out like that, she assured me. Even before she had seen the real Escobar in Envigado, corpulent as always, sitting back and reading a newspaper, she knew it couldn’t have been him on that stretcher.

After giving it a lot of thought, I’ve decided that the second-worst thing about the hit Netflix original series Narcos is that Steve Murphy, its DEA agent narrator, would have used that anecdote to make some hackneyed pronouncement on the essential nature of the Colombian condition. Like Thomas Friedman on a deadline, his commentary is a bottomless fountain of self-assured banality, the sole discernible purpose of which is to reinforce the mystery of life in the Global South. (Granted, in a Friedman column, the barber would have been a cab driver.) Only in Colombia, Murphy would say: “A place where the bizarre shakes hands with the inexplicable on a daily basis.”

That’s an actual line that someone wrote and numerous other people declined to cut before Season 2 was released last Friday. Murphy, played with jaded tough-guy sincerity by Boyd Holbrook, shares a similar insight in Season 1, about how Colombia is a “country where dreams and reality are conflated.” A generous viewer might dismiss this reductive condescension as meta-commentary on the irredeemable whiteness of his character. But Narcos goes out of its way to endorse Murphy’s sneering gringo sensibilities as its own.

The show debuted last summer with a plagiarized epigraph on magical realism that never gets justified in the storytelling. And in the final episode of Season 2, Murphy once again scours the depths of Gabriel García Márquez’s Wikipedia page in search of a literary pretense for the show’s compulsive stereotyping. Colombia, Murphy says, is “where magical realism began” (it isn’t), and “anyone who’s spent real time here knows why.” Earlier, Murphy puts it another way: “Weird shit” just kind of happens in Colombia.

After 20 hours of pseudo-documentary exploration, that seems to be all Narcos has to say about the life and death of Pablo Escobar. The worst thing about Narcos, though, is that it believes it is saying much more.

From a narrative standpoint, Season 2 is a noted improvement. The “true events” that inspire the season take place over 18 months instead of 15 years, so the show no longer feels like it’s been getting high on its own supply. Steadier pacing also ups the ante on the manhunt to catch, and later simply to kill, Escobar. That more players get in on the action only adds to the mounting sense of claustrophobia. The outcome may be predetermined, but Narcos will make you sweat out each ambush, raid, and labyrinthine chase through the Medellin comunas.

There’s an effort, half-hearted and eventually abandoned, to coax some emotional resonance out of the chain-smoking genre cliches that are Murphy and Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), his partner in mustachioed crime-fighting. (This includes a scene in which Murphy whines about being left out of an extrajudicial execution because he’s white.) But the show appears to have finally realized it’s called Narcos and not Narcs for a reason. Mauricio Cújar, the full-throated voz of Colombia’s television network Canal RCN, is fabulous as Don Berna, the streetwise bodyguard who—in real life and, probably, future seasons—went on to reassemble the shattered pieces of Escobar’s network the Oficina de Envigado. Wagner Moura put on 40 pounds to play Escobar, and the sheer physicality he brings to the role helps make up for the fact that his paisa accent still comes out flatter than a stale arepa. His is a brooding, almost feral Escobar, cornered, vulnerable, and all the more terrible for it.

But while the show is smart for giving priority to the narcos, it doesn’t fix all its problematic issues with representation. Colombia’s drug war has profound racial dimensions, but the sole black character of note on Season 2 is a hitman literally named “Blackie” (Julián Díaz). The extent of his backstory is a pregnant girlfriend who appears in two scenes before being murdered. (I’d say spoiler alert, but the show doesn’t think there’s much to spoil.) Narcos tries to correct for the misogynistic circus of Season 1 with female characters who aren’t just there to be fucked and/or killed. But despite admirable performances from the actresses themselves, the new roles are shallow in their conception and secondary in their importance.

Ball-busting DEA boss Claudia Messina (Florencia Lozano) gets stuck babysitting Murphy and Peña, who take turns reminding her how little she knows about what it’s really like on the ground in Colombia, a place where ... oh, you get the idea. Judy Moncada (Christina Umaña) learned the drug business beside her husband—whom Escobar had his sicarios dismember and cremate at the end of Season 1—but not well enough to see she’s being outmaneuvered by the big boys she enlists to exact her revenge. Martina García plays a hapless, working-class single-mom dragged into a spiral of successive abuses and betrayals. Murphy’s wife Connie (Joanna Christie) takes the orphan girl they stole from a murder scene in Season 1 and flies back to Miami. Her departure inspires Murphy to assault a stranger and drink, and the rest of us to wonder what she was doing on the show in the first place.

Paulina Gaitán alone finds space to explore her character, Maria Victoria Escobar, even as the physical space in which she’s confined gets tighter with each passing episode. The real Maria Victoria was married at 15—it’s perhaps revealing that, for showrunners José Padilha and Eric Newman, “humanizing” Escobar meant avoiding any reference to his prodigious appetite for teenage virgins—but Gaitan’s “Tata” has chosen this life, for better or, increasingly, for worse. Subtly menacing in her own right, she takes issue with Escobar’s tactics, not with his methods.

But as the circle closes in around them, the show sacrifices the power she holds in their relationship to move the plot. Tata sees that Escobar’s megalomania has surpassed the point where he can remain devoted to his family. But instead of forcing a confrontation between the two, the show has her argue with Escobar’s mom (Paulina Garcia) about how best to support her hombre.

Critics have confused Narcos’s overt cynicism for a deeper rejection of the U.S.’s war on drugs. They hear Murphy opine about the relativity of good and evil and discover that Wagner Moura supports legalization, and they assume that the show—heralded as “an unflinching look at one of the War on Drugs’ single most violent conflicts”—must embody these politics in its substance. To be fair, they’re partly right. Narcos is a good dramatization of the standard liberal critique, which holds that the “drug policy we have in the United States hasn’t worked,” as José Padilha once put it. The problem is that Narcos relies on doctored history to arrive at that conclusion.

Season 2 centers around the formation of a deadly shadow alliance between Escobar’s many enemies: the U.S. government, the Colombian government, his rivals in the Cali Cartel, disaffected elements of the Medellin Cartel, and a right-wing death squad led by brothers Fidel and Carlos Castaño. Such an alliance did in fact coalesce, and it’s difficult to overstate just how devastating the consequences have been for Colombia. Enconsed in a web of official protection, the Castaños’ United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) would absorb much of the country’s narco-infrastructure and penetrate the highest echelons of formal power. The wave of terrorist violence it unleashed—in collusion with the state security apparatuses—would dwarf the most heinous excesses of Escobar’s vainglorious “war” against the government. (Fidel, the U.S. State Department acknowledged in a classified intelligence briefing shortly after Escobar’s death, is “more ferocious than Escobar, has more military capability, and can count on fellow antiguerrillas in the Colombian Army and Colombian National Police.”) To this day, the AUC’s direct successors remain the greatest threat to the implementation of a pending peace agreement with Colombia’s largest and oldest leftist rebel group.

Narcos has made a genuine attempt to reckon with the moral emptiness of defeating Escobar on those terms. In a world of self-serious drug warriors, Eric Lance brings a gleeful, knowing wickedness to his role as “CIA Bill,” the puppetmaster pulling the strings of Los Pepes, as the Escobar kill team took to calling itself. The season’s final moments depict the new lords of the Colombian drug trade toasting to their continued success, while a bemused committee of DEA bigwigs wonders how cocaine production could have gone up if Escobar’s empire was crumbling. By the time they finally catch Escobar, even Murphy has to admit that “the devil is a real letdown.”

But Narcos is invested in the myth of Pablo Escobar, which means it has also bought into the premise that the decision to unleash hell on Colombia was a natural response to a singular, extraordinary danger. It pretends the CIA’s involvement began after Escobar escaped from La Catedral, when the agency, which had a massive presence in Colombia, was already overseeing the creation of military intelligence “killer networks” in 1991, the year Escobar surrendered to the government. It pretends the upstarts from Cali did not rise to preeminence until after the “King of Coke” had fallen, when the Cali organization had been a pioneer in the drug trade since Escobar was still stealing cars and running small-time pot shipments in the 1970s. And it pretends that exposure to the big city criminal underworld was what lured the “the right-wing psychopathic commie-killing” Castaño brothers over to the dark side of drug money, when the brothers were effective against Escobar’s operation precisely because they had intimate, firsthand knowledge of its inner workings—Fidel as a card-carrying member of the Medellin Cartel, and Carlos as one of its trained sicarios.

The cumulative effect of these and countless other revisions is to rationalize Los Pepes as an aberration borne of specific conditions, the misguided but well-intentioned byproduct of a misguided but well-intentioned drug war. Viewers are meant to conclude, as The New York Times’s Scott Tobias does, that the U.S. and Colombian governments erred primarily in the “single-minded purpose of their mission.” But the doggedness of the pursuit proves nothing about its underlying motives. At a time when the containment of communism had faded as a logic for U.S. intervention, bringing down the world’s most notorious criminal was a pretense, not a unique obsession.

There is overwhelming evidence that George H.W. Bush in the 1980s had helped harness Colombian cocaine profits to fund the Nicaraguan contras—a saga on which Narcos is criminally silent, given the near certainty of Escobar’s participation. (One high-level informant told a U.S. assistant attorney Escobar had once fumed that “Bush is a traitor who used to deal with us, but now he is tough.”) Tasked with administering the Reagan administration’s hyperbolic anti-drug policy, Bush had crafted the national security framework he would later expand as president by invading Panama, whose dictator, General Manuel Noriega, had been suspected of drug trafficking when Bush personally put him on the CIA payroll in the 1970s.

Seven years after Escobar’s death, the United States launched the $10 billion Plan Colombia, the largest anti-drug initiative in history. Seven years after that, it launched the $2.5 billion Merida Initiative in Mexico. Both programs aligned United States narcotics policy with the dominant trafficking elements in the target countries—the AUC in Colombia and Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico. And it’s impossible to understand why unless you recognize that the United States had been partnering with drug lords—from the Corsican syndicates in southern France to the Hmong rebels in Laos—long before Escobar so much as moved his first brick, to serve its own various interests. “The best way to make a bad story go away is to come up with a better story and sell it hard,” says Steve Murphy of U.S. foreign policy. The problem with Narcos is that it thinks it’s telling the bad one.