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.
Pablo Escobar's mugshot — Photo: Columbian National Police
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.
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