BOGOTÁ — I always had mixed feelings about the Netflix series Narcos. The first two seasons were based on the life and times of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the show has just released a third season. Initially, I did not want to watch a series depicting what I had watched on the news in Colombia most nights as a girl. Then, not wanting to miss out, I changed my mind, but only after first viewing Colombia's own television series on Escobar, El patrón del mal (Boss of Evil).
El patrón del mal is a series that does not work for Netflix as it was conceived as a soap opera, with daily half-hour episodes intended to keep people glued to the television for a whole year. There was no streaming in Colombia when it was first broadcast in 2012. We had to sit before a television at the appointed hour. If you missed an episode — tough luck. I remember the 1990s when parliament would take a break to watch the romantic series "Café con aroma de mujer" — Coffee With the Aroma of Woman. Times have changed, and my generation prefers to binge-watch a show — 13 straight hours of viewing. (And then they accuse millennials of being unable to focus!)
Nobody watches El patrón del mal on Netflix today. It is not sustainable. You have to be obsessed with the topic to be able to tolerate hours and hours of its plot line, which thankfully is punctuated by a catchy song by the band Systema Solar.
Yet, the series has many virtues. It is a story told respectfully because it is directed at a public that lived through it all in the 1980s, and would easily be able to spot factual inaccuracies. So while it is fiction, historical facts are important here. El patrón also paints an authentic portrait of Escobar: a portly, well-spoken and charming man who would suddenly turn into one of the biggest psychopaths Colombia has sired. Although weighed down at times by excessive, and embarrassing, melodrama, the series tells us who the heroes were in a war that pitted Colombians against one another. This is important, as it helps hold up local figures we can admire, which we rarely do in Colombia.
After a month or so of viewing El patrón, I began to watch Narcos. Certainly, it is beautifully directed. But it depicts Escobar as macho — abs and all — and the actor hasn't mastered the soft paisá accent of Medellín and its region, which makes him sound both kind and terribly dangerous. The story moves at breakneck pace, explosions abound, a U.S. Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) hero is sent down to our "third world" country, and after a few episodes, the series becomes addictive. But when I saw it eliminate the character of Guillermo Cano, the journalist who made key revelations about Escobar, and turn the presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán into a secondary character, I thought, that's enough.
We know today that in 1968, U.S. President Richard Nixon invented his "war on drugs' so he could jail blacks and hippies and undermine the influence of groups opposed to the Vietnam War. It was a profitable business, as it neutralized his enemies and helped the U.S. sell weaponry that further spread conflict in drug-producing countries. The DEA did nothing for us. The drug war is a profitable enterprise that continues to thrive on the continent today. Yet, Narcos shows Americans as our saviors. The same Americans who invented the war in the first place and have now created a series with little regard for history. They then entertain themselves seeing Colombians kill each other and, worse, make money from the spectacle.
Narcos is certainly a good series in strictly aesthetic terms: for its fast pace, great actors and all the television stuff Americans do so well. But in ethical terms, I'm annoyed at its effective negation of our heroes and heroines, and the idea of people having fun and eating potato chips while watching the violence. Nobody says there shouldn't be a fictional series on Escobar. But it really is a bit early to make the narcotics business look fashionable (while draining it of historical context), and lionize a man indirectly responsible for the deaths of millions. The families of victims are still mourning them.
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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