The New Drug War Cinema: On Netflix’s “Narcos”

By Christopher LooftSeptember 16, 2015

The New Drug War Cinema: On Netflix’s “Narcos”

WHEN HISTORY yields a real-life story worth retelling in fiction, any adaptation past the first is subject to diminishing returns. The life of Pablo Escobar has yielded plenty since the Colombian cocaine kingpin was shot to death by police in 1993, barefoot on a rooftop in his native Medellín. “It would seem safe to assume that almost everything has already been said about Escobar,” writes Aldona Pobutsky, an Oakland University professor who studies Colombian narco-culture and literature, in an academic overview of Escobar literature. But Escobar’s moment continues, most recently with the release of the Netflix series Narcos. This is the latest example of the network’s aim to produce politically charged television courting critical acclaim, but what can be said about Escobar that hasn’t been said already?

On a search for Escobar’s name currently fetches 687 results in books, among them a handful of tell-alls by former Escobar confidantes. Much of this literature, as Pobutsky notes, is polemical, because Escobar’s legacy is still up for grabs. His brother Roberto wrote two books, highlighting his brother’s philanthropic works and the adoration he inspired among Medellín’s poor. Sister Alba sought to contextualize Escobar as a product of a corrupt, violent culture. One of Escobar's last surviving hitmen (out of more than 500), a man nicknamed “Popeye,” in his own autobiography assessed Escobar as fearless, magnetic, a consummate leader. Colombian TV reporter and Escobar’s ex-lover Virginia Vallejo recounts in her book falling in love with the hypermasculine Escobar, whose charisma and charm eventually gave way to rage and abuse.

To the thick stack of literature on Escobar, add an equally robust Hollywood library; 1994’s Clear and Present Danger, filmed when Escobar was still alive, features a Colombian cartel chief suspiciously like him. New Zealander Cliff Curtis played Escobar in 2001’s Blow, substituting Escobar’s Spanish for absurd, heavily accented English. Benicio del Toro appeared as the kingpin in 2014’s Escobar: Paradise Lost, the story of an American surfer who falls in love with the drug lord’s daughter. An adaptation of Mark Bowden’s 2001 book Killing Pablo is in development hell, and a Tom Cruise feature, Mena, is filming right now in Colombia. The tide of Escobar works does not relent. 

Narcos, a 10-episode series starring the Brazilian Wagner Moura as Escobar, aims to trace his rise from small-time smuggler to the world’s most powerful drug lord, who plunged Colombia into chaos with a campaign of assassinations, terror bombings, and kidnappings while amassing a fortune of some $30 billion perfecting the business of exporting cocaine to the United States. As Escobar ascends, two DEA agents, Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy and Pedro Pascal’s Javier Peña, work to capture him. Narcos is more than a police procedural; so much background information is presented here that Murphy, in narration, tells viewers more than once to “pay attention” as he rattles off ample statistics — kilograms, currency, body counts — and trivia, like the fact that DEA agents are relatively safe in Colombia thanks to Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, an agent whose 1985 death in Mexico at the hands of traffickers invited US retribution so brutal as to deter anyone from hurting another agent. The DEA agents’ jargon — “paste processing plants,” “production capability,” “transshipment” — feeds the impression of realism, and that this show is Good TV: not just entertaining, not just educational, but important. 

The series builds even more verisimilitude through the constant presence of real-life media artifacts. When Moura’s Escobar is arrested, the flash of a police photographer’s camera produces real Escobar’s iconic mugshot. When one of his colleagues, the eclectic Colombian–German Nazi sympathizer Carlos Lehder, is arrested, images commingle: both a real and reproduced raid on a jungle hideout, real and reproduced images of the smuggler in custody. President Luis Carlos Galán is represented by both an actor and by real-world footage; when the fictional Galán steps out of a car and is assassinated off-screen, a real crowd (captured on news cameras at the time) reacts to his death.

But for as often as the media artifacts of real history appear in the show, Narcos’s timeline is not welded to our world’s sequence of events. Real-life figures have been renamed, pressed into composites, shuffled around in time and space. In the show, narrator Murphy spends most of the 1980s hunting Escobar in Colombia; the real Murphy arrived in Bogotá in 1991, days before Escobar turned himself in to prison. Despite the blended depiction of Lehder’s arrest, he wasn’t arrested at the jungle raid shown in archive footage. The incongruity between real events and the narrative streamlines the plot, and the average viewer will not likely notice that so much license has been taken with the facts, given the presence of so much evidence, so much data — not to mention that Murphy’s narration feels like a lecture.

Even if they overlook the discontinuities between Narcos’s plot and Colombia’s history, viewers probably know at least that Pablo Escobar is dead, and that when Murphy is kidnapped, he is all but guaranteed to survive. Less certain are the fates of the minor Colombian characters, like a sex worker outed as a DEA informant whose gang rape by cartel enforcers is all the more nauseating because it is so plainly a means of exposition: she survives, is avenged, is never heard from again. The abundant violence on display leaves little trace evidence; as bodies pile up, little is done to convey their weight beyond the far-too-frequent interruption of the musical score. So many characters are introduced only to suffer or die — corrupt cops, cartel lookouts, a pretty maid — that death comes to resemble Murphy’s body count statistics, polemically useful and emotionally inert. This numbing effect may well be intentional.

Its mission clear — to inform, to argue — Narcos plots a best-fit line down the center of hundreds of Escobar accounts; here he is brilliant, determined, a loving father, charismatic, brutal, unstable. He personally escorts a mother and child out of a park filled with the smell of the deaths he ordered; he throttles his TV star mistress Vallejo when she says his wife’s name; he tests the loyalty of his best friend by holding a lit stick of dynamite between them. He constantly smokes marijuana and his jaw is always clenched; he contains multitudes. Central to the narrative is the placement of Escobar’s political ambitions as the root of his downfall, situating him in a tradition of morally ambiguous figures of Latin American history. Show-Escobar says he wants to be president of Colombia, that he wants to liberate its poor, but uses heinous means to pursue his dream. When he enters Congress after giving away millions in drug money, he is forced to step down after a colleague accuses him of trafficking. He embarks on a terror campaign of revenge against the elites who rejected him so brutal that even those once cowed by his bribes and threats are convinced to bring him to justice.

He is framed here in the same vein as the fallen Latin American idols he admired: Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, Simón Bolívar. Narcos even renders as fact the legend, never proven, that Escobar was gifted by guerrillas with Bolívar’s stolen sword. The eerie presence of the sword in Narcos recalls Colombia’s literary tradition of magical realism, as do occasional asides like Escobar's son’s admission to his father that he wants his infant sister to die, or Escobar’s rage at the refusal of the imported egrets he had trained for $1 million (birds the color of pure cocaine, of course) to stay in their designated tree. Most interesting is the Medellín cartel’s practically Biblical origin story: the group is founded when a Chilean trafficker (who insists on going by the nickname “Cockroach”) survives a Pinochet execution squad by playing dead among bullet-riddled corpses, and flees to Colombia and meets Escobar. 

Adding to the series’s Latin American bona fides is the creative voice of Brazilian co-creator José Padilha, who directed the first two episodes. Padilha also directed 2007’s Tropa de Elite, a brutal cops-and-dealers story with the notable accomplishment of having infuriated commentators on both Brazil’s right and its left. Tropa de Elite pulled off a brilliant moral ambiguity: its Capt. Nascimento (also played by Moura) commits horrific abuses in hunting drug traffickers who are themselves monstrously violent. Narcos, like Tropa de Elite, makes clear the stakes of the police work it took to apprehend Escobar: witnesses and informants are routinely tortured or killed, and several criminal suspects are gunned down extrajudicially. Padilha also slyly emulates one of the most memorable shots from his career: the iconic final image of Tropa de Elite, where an officer points a shotgun directly into the camera (representing a wounded trafficker’s point of view) before the screen flashes white with the sound of the blast. In Narcos, when police mow down traffickers and bystanders alike in a nightclub, the carnage is shown from the perspective opposite the police, giving the impression the audience is on the receiving end of the gunfire.

The inclusion of these distinctly Latin American elements in a production as well publicized as Narcos may announce the maturity of a new film and television subgenre: the Hollywood drug war story. Of course, drug cartels have long been fodder for crime drama, and Mexican narco-cinema dates back to the 1970s, but until recently Hollywood has depicted the narcotics trade so superficially as to invite ridicule (the Colombian characters’ absurd accents in Blow indict the field pretty well). Among the new, more evolved drug war works are FX’s The Bridge (2013–14), Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012), and the upcoming Sicario, which stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent tracking a Mexican drug lord. Each, like Narcos, aims at authenticity: the heroes of Savages don Mexican luchador masks before going to war with Salma Hayek’s cartel; Sicario’s promotional website has Spanish as the default language; The Bridge enlisted celebrated Mexican director Gerardo Naranjo to helm its pilot. (Savages and Sicario earn bonus points for the involvement of drug war workhorse Benicio del Toro, also of 2000’s drug war cinema prototype Traffic.) The new drug war cinema’s aesthetic constancy is both asset and liability; genre totems like painted skulls, stacked kilos, and the cursed portal of the US–Mexico border are a shortcut to menace and pathos, and audiences know by now what to expect. The unending violence of the real-life drug war has exhausted entire electorates; why should its cinema have any other effect?

As they engage with topics of intense controversy — drug policy, policing, illegal immigration — these stories have important political implications. Many of them have been viewed as advocating reform of the US-led “war on drugs.” Narcos, according to Padilha, is meant as a critique of US policy objectives, which for 40 years have focused on interrupting the supply of drugs rather than treating addicts; for going after Pablo Escobar instead of working to reduce the demand for cocaine at home. And while Narcos implies that Escobar’s downfall did nothing to stop the northward flow of drugs, the series nonetheless speaks the language of war. As in most other new drug war works, the protagonists of the series are Americans (even though the inclusion of blond-haired, blue-eyed Murphy requires a considerable mangling of the facts) pitted against drug cartel leaders. For all the background information on display, the series’s plot is propelled chiefly by the agents’ investigation. The ostensible futility of their efforts might not seem so clear to some viewers; after all, Escobar is here presented as an exceptionally violent figure, of the type that actually might be worth going after. This framework recalls one of the most contentious features of the modern war on drugs, the so-called “kingpin strategy” employed by Mexico and supported by the United States, which, as its name suggests, calls for taking down cartel leaders. 

Padilha, the only Latin American among Narcoss creators, says he became a filmmaker after quitting his lucrative job in finance in order to do work with a meaningful social impact. After writing and directing a few acclaimed, subversive Brazilian films, he moved to Hollywood; his 2014 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical 1987 blockbuster RoboCop updated some of the original’s satire, but convincing the film’s backers to allow anything like the social commentary that marked his earlier efforts was “hell” for the director. “I have never suffered so much,” he reportedly told a fellow Brazilian director. The realities of mainstream US filmmaking appear to have made their mark on Narcos as well; the series’s anti-drug war critique is muted by its adherence to cop show and war movie conventions.

Pobutsky notes that many important works of Colombian literature since the mid-1990s have focused not on drug lords and DEA agents but instead on the minor characters of the drug trade: Fernando Vallejo’s La virgen de los sicarios, for instance, and Jorge Franco Ramos’s Rosario Tijeras. For these authors and others like Arturo Álape and Óscar Collazos, the novela sicaresca (hitman novel) genre allowed an exploration of the drug trade’s effect on society from the view of its foot soldiers rather than its kingpins. Both La virgen de los sicarios and Rosario Tijeras were adapted into successful Colombian films, alongside other excellent ground-level drug war stories like the gripping PVC-1, the story of a middle-class woman’s extortion, told with a single take. It should be no surprise that the focus on minor players, victims and killers alike, has been so fruitful; after all, this is where the vast majority of the region’s drug trade drama plays out. If the artistic aims of political filmmakers like Stone and Padilha are to be fully realized, Hollywood’s new cinema of the drug war has some catching up to do.


Christopher Looft is a graduate student in journalism and Latin American studies at New York University.

LARB Contributor

Christopher Looft is a graduate student in journalism and Latin American studies at New York University.


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