Tuesday, September 15, 2015


I have just finished watching the last episode of Narcos on Netflix.  It is an excellent ten part series which deals with cocaine production and trafficking in South America and the struggle against the gangsters involved in the trade.

It is outstanding television, which is exciting, colourful and informative. I give it the highest recommendation.

While it is a drama with real-life characters - Pablo Escobar and other narcotrafficantes, and agents of the Colombian state and the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) - at the same time it has something of a documentary feel, with voice-overs from Agent Murphy, one of the DEA agents involved.  

So there is an explanation of how the cocaine business moved from Chile, after Pinochet had all the producers and traders there shot, to Colombia.  Colombia, being the northernmost state in South America, with coasts on both oceans, had a long tradition of smuggling, - marijuana and emeralds were prize commodities before cocaine.  

The series progresses from when Cucaracha (Cockroach), one of the few survivors of Pinochet's massacre, introduces small-time operators in Medellin, to the possibility of dealing cocaine.  At first they deal locally but soon realize how much money could be made shipping to the USA.   Very soon these operators realize they would be better off working together and they form a cartel under Escobar's leadership. They get very rich very quickly.   It is reckoned that at the peak the cartel was bringing in $60 million a day!  It is estimated that Escobar personally was worth 30-50 billion dollars!

There are scenes in the show where the gangsters have so much cash they don't know what to do with it.  They end up burying stashes of US banknotes in holes in the ground throughout Colombia.  

With his wealth, Escobar bought soccer teams, and gave lots of money for schools, hospitals and churches in his native Antiochia, and western Colombia.  He gave money to the door and was seen as something of a Robin Hood in Medellin, an image he was careful to cultivate.  

But wealth was not enough for him.  He had ambitions of becoming a national leader and got himself on an election ticket as a deputy to a candidate for a senate seat.  With Escobar's money the seat was easily won, and then, surprise, surprise, the candidate resigned leaving Pablo as the legally elected senator.

With some assistance from the DEA, opponents in the Senate, uncovered official details of an earlier arrest for small-time drug trafficking, and Escobar was publicly humiliated and forced to resign.

This led to a campaign of terror, in which many politicians and leading figures were murdered.  The most audacious was the shooting of a presidential candidate who supported extradition to the US for narcotrafficantes.  In fact three candidates were murdered during the same election in 1989.  

When the newly-elected president vowed to continue with the policy of extradition, Escobar heightened his war against the state.  Probably the worst crime was the bombing of an Avianca flight, on which the president was due to fly.  At the last minute he was persuaded not to. Over 100 people died following the explosion.

He later modified his tactics to include the kidnapping of prominent Colombians as well as the liberal use of bombs and bullets.

There was counter-violence as well, both from right-wing paramilitaries and death squads as well as rival gangsters, especially the Cali cartel.

The TV series stops before the end of the saga.  Escobar is still alive, having escaped from the resort-prison in which he was confined, just as the army move in to finally deal with him.  So there is more to come in Series 2.  

There are only a few months left in Escobar's life as the series ends, so I hope in Series 2 we see how the Cali cartel took over, and then when it is broken up how the centre of the trade moves to Mexico, bringing with it all of the murder and mayhem that Colombia experienced.

The show was directed by a Brazilian director Jose Padilha, and it is a Brazilian actor, Wagner Moura, who plays Escobar.  It is in both Spanish and English (subtitles in English when Hispanics are speaking, and presumably for the Latin American market in Spanish or Portuguese when gringos are speaking).

It is pleasingly non-didactic.  There are no real shoot-em-up heroes. The leading role is that of Escobar, and while his ruthless murderous nature is made all too clear by his actions, he still comes across as a human being.  Likewise the DEA agents are not portrayed uncritically. In fact I found DEA Agent Murphy, who you might, in a simpler format, call the good guy, a rather unsympathetic character.  

The production values are very high and the violent scenes are very convincing, but violence is not gratuitously shown, as say in a Quentin Tarantino film.

Personally having spent a year in Colombia, I enjoyed  hearing Colombian Spanish and seeing the country depicted on TV.  It really is a very beautiful and varied country.  Its major cities, Bogota, Medellin and Cali are all cities located in splendid mountain valleys with moderate climates - in fact Bogota at 8,800 feet can be decidedly cool, frosts being not unknown.  But Colombia also has a Caribbean coast, spectacular mountains and equatorial jungle.  

My memory, mostly of western Colombia, is of a green country, with mountains seldom far away.  This comes across in Narcos, with some lovely shots of the country.

But it is a tragic country, which has had more than its fair share of violence and civil strife.  When we were there in 1976, it was well-known for its crime and violence and one never felt entirely safe.  But in fact that period was one of the more stable ones in its history.  It was a couple of decades after la Violencia, a civil war in the 50s mainly over land, but before the later strife of the 80s and 90s introduced by cocaine and the drug cartels.  

Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Colombia and Venezuela (his sword features in Narcos) despaired of bringing peace and order to the land comparing it to "ploughing the sea".  At present Colombia seems to be enjoying a more peaceful period.  Indeed Medellin is now seen as a exemplar of modern urban planning. But with such a history I am not sure I would bet on peace, order and good government being a permanent feature of Colombia's future.

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