Pablo Escobar was elected to Colombia’s Congress in 1982 – at about the same time he was shipping an estimated 70 to 80 tons of cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. every month. The Netflix original series “Narcos” follows the rise and fall of Escobar and his life as a notorious and extremely evasive drug trafficker with a political agenda. The series documents the massive manhunt for Escobar, using events and details loosely based off and validated by collaboration with Steve Murphey and Javier Pena, the DEA partners who eventually helped Colombian police end Escobar’s terrorism in 1993.
Directed by José Padilha, “Narcos” takes its audience to the peaks, forests and colorful cities of Colombia for a dark but riveting drama about the manhunt for drug kingpin Escobar. Narrated over by the voice of Boyd Holbrook, the actor who portrays DEA agent Steve Murphey, “Narcos” is filmed almost entirely in colloquial Latin American Spanish and requires a decent amount of subtitle reading, perhaps the main reason the series has been called “full-immersion TV.”
While season two has been confirmed for October, critics are finding fault with the show’s “un-binge watchable” nature and surrealistic qualities. That binge watching has evidently been accepted and now encouraged is a story in itself but that “Narcos” calls for the watcher’s full attention is reflective of the series’ attempt to document such a convoluted time in Colombia’s history.
The first episode of “Narcos” begins with a definition of magical realism and a disclaimer stating, “There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.” The elements of surrealism in the plot of “Narcos” is no coincidence, it is an echo of the world Colombia lived in under the peak of Escobar’s influence.
“This is not the show about good American cops who go to a third world country to save the poor people from a bad guy,” executive producer José Padilha said in an interview with theWrap. “Nobody’s good in this show. Everybody’s gray. Escobar – one of the things he did was, he put a bomb on a plane to kill one person – he brought the whole plane down. He’s obviously an evil person, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a soft side, for his family.”
Escobar began as a small but prominent drug dealer. In 1975, he began his own cocaine operation with Miami as the main target. By the mid-1980s, the Medellin Cartel, formed by Escobar, was controlling 80 percent of the global cocaine market. Escobar had become the 10th richest man in the world, a fact widely published by Forbes magazine.
At one point, Escobar had such an overwhelming amount of money that he had it buried in multiple locations. At the time, he was developing a “Robin Hood” image. One of his strategies to keeping his excess money in check was to give it away in large stacks to the poor. This is certainly why many people financially aided by Escobar in Medellin mourned his death and perhaps why around 25,000 people attended his burial. In his lifetime, Escobar had many hospitals, schools and churches constructed throughout western Colombia. It is no question why the people of Medellin fell in love with this drug dealer so easily.
One of the interesting techniques used throughout “Narcos” is the use of real news footage and photographs. The series often flashes to black and white recordings of the war against Colombian cartels at the time. Other footage includes Reagan’s famous “Just Say No” campaign, photos of the real Escobar and clips of a plane blown up by Escobar.
It was around the time of the plane explosion that Escobar’s Robin Hood image began to fade and the Search Bloc, a group of “incorruptible” officers and agents formed just for the purpose of tracking Escobar, became particularly effective. It was the beginning of Colombia’s war on drugs, a war single-handedly set in motion by Escobar.
“There were 10 to 15 car bombs on a daily basis,” Javier Pena said in an interview with the Observer. “The Search Bloc was made up of the uniform guys who did the operations and the intelligence people in plain clothes. I lost some good friends that he had killed. It was personal. And then you look at the history of Escobar, he had killed attorney generals. He killed judges. He killed a presidential candidate.”
Between the rich Colombian landscape and culture, the exquisite purchases of Escobar and his practically effortless strategy of paying off cops at the beginning of the series, the question of whether the drug trafficking life of Escobar has been romanticized in “Narcos” has come up. Perhaps it has been to some degree. However, two of the reasons for the extent of Escobar’s influence in Colombia were his extravagant lifestyle and his initially respectful nature toward the public. He played both the character of the power-hungry king and that of Robin Hood.
Escobar’s life was certainly not comparable to the life of just any drug dealer and “Narcos” doesn’t let that detail go under the radar. His shift from potential president to mass-murdering madman is certainly not overlooked in the series either. So, if a historical fiction series based off the life of Pablo Escobar sounds captivating, “Narcos” may just be the show for you. Just make sure to mind the subtitles.