The Key Thing Missing From Narcos


Magazines about Pablo Escobar in Medellin, Colombia (Luis Benavides / AP)

The Narconnaissance? The Medellingularity? La Narconquista? Pabloverload? Call it what you will, Escobar-themed entertainment is booming.

Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria— the Colombian drug kingpin who mercilessly butchered his countrymen while cultivating a meticulously crafted public image as a family man, billionaire philanthropist, and even populist congressman—has already been the subject of hundreds of books and at least one major film, 2014’s Paradise Lost. Two more big-budget productions are slated for 2017 release: El Patron: King of Cocaine, featuring Colombian-born John Leguizamo in the title role, and Mena, rather ominously starring Tom Cruise as DEA informant Barry Seal, one of Escobar’s victims. There have likewise been several adaptations of the Escobar epic for television, including 2012’s Escobar, El Patron del Mal, a wonderfully comprehensive and at times achingly cathartic Colombian treatment, spanning nearly 50 hours of running time, and now Netflix’s Narcos—perhaps the most ambitious salvo of the current Escobarrage.

Nearly 22 years have passed since the murderous drug baron, capo di tutti capi of the feared Medellín cartel, was felled by machine-gun fire while attempting a dramatic rooftop escape from a Colombian special-ops unit set up to hunt him. Legend is often the kindlier, comelier sister to truth, and reactions to Escobar’s violent death were as varied as the figure he cut in life. To many of the poor in his native Medellin, he was a modern-day Robin Hood, standing up to a heavy-handed and distant national government, while building everything from a soccer stadium to housing for the area’s most vulnerable citizens. So while Escobar’s killers posed for celebratory photographs alongside his mangled corpse and returned home to official commendations, his funeral ranked alongside those of Hugo Chavez and Evita Peron among South America’s best-attended (despite the latter two being lavishly funded, regime-backed affairs).

And while opinions on Escobar were often polarized, for many Latin Americans it was impossible not to have one. I was not yet a teenager at the time of Escobar’s death in 1993, yet I remember playing games a la “cops and robbers” in nearby Venezuela—then a paragon of regional stability—in which our villains were the narcotraffickers and their leader Escobar.

Proximity to events renders Colombia’s reinvention of its image over the past two decades all the more remarkable. From its Escobar-era nadir, when it was essentially a failed state, the country has transformed into a tourism and investment powerhouse; last year, Colombia was Latin America’s fastest-growing major economy. But during Escobar’s ascendance, an ambitious cadre of narcotics kingpins was—through murder, kidnapping, terrorism, and the corruptive effects of nearly unchecked flows of drug money—able to undermine key national institutions such as the police, the courts, and the national penitentiary system.

In many respects, Narcos makes for an excellent primer on just how far Colombia has come. The role of the U.S., and the destabilizing regional effects of the Reagan administration’s anti-communism-cum-anti-narcotics policy, is far better fleshed out in Narcos than in any of its locally produced or Hollywood predecessors. The use of bilingual dialogue, rather than having Latin characters speak English to one another, likewise instills a sense of immersion for Anglophone viewers. Yet what may be strengths for a U.S. public can very much fall flat for Hispanic audiences—as it did for me.

For many Latin Americans, Escobar’s story isn’t a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction biopic. It’s a case study, a cautionary tale that all too often hits close to home. Mexico’s ongoing cartel problems can only be understood in the context of their Colombian predecessors, and today my own Venezuela occupies Colombia’s former role at the bottom of the international image ladder—the favored Hollywood hellhole of last resort for the truly lost (see, for example, Homeland, True Detective, and Netflix’s House of Cards).

After all, Narcos is, or should be, a Colombian story. But in many ways, Colombians are absent from it—starting with the actor playing Escobar himself. The director Jose Padilha’s choice of fellow Brazilian Wagner Moura as Escobar, and the presence of several other non-Colombian actors, rendered immersion in the Narcos world difficult for me personally, and my wife, who is also Venezuelan, just left the room halfway through the first episode, with an exasperated “no puedo mas.” Despite Moura’s formidable presence and glower, his broken Spanish (which, to his credit, he learned specifically for the role) often distracted from any danger or intrigue otherwise emanating from his character. The real Escobar’s telltale Medellin “Paisa” accent was always a characteristic aspect of a larger-than-life public persona that Latin Americans, tragically, got to know all too well. I recall noting its singsong quality while watching local news coverage as a child in Caracas, the concerned grownups around me deliberating gloomily on just how broken our western neighbor had become.

It is fitting perhaps, given his Robin Hood legacy, that Escobar should have his own Prince of Thieves, and he pretty much does with Narcos. The series shares many of the strengths of that much-maligned 1991 movie about the English outlaw, including cutting-edge action sequences and even a killer soundtrack. Unfortunately, it also shares a fundamental weakness. Much as Kevin Costner’s “Rahbin of Lahckslee” hamstrung what might otherwise have been a better film, Narcos’s smorgasbord of regional and non-native accents does much to undermine its otherwise meticulous attempts at realism—like the use of on-site locations in Colombia and archival footage of Escobar—for native Spanish-speakers.

Hispanic Latin Americans are culturally immersed in national and regional dialects to an extent that I have rarely found among English-speakers, and many even have a keen ear for distinguishing one dialect from another. Indeed, this likely has a lot to do with the preponderance of Anglophone movies and television productions that flood into the United States’s southern neighbors and are dubbed into Spanish. There are literally hundreds of dubbing studios dispersed across the region, many of which bring their own accents to bear upon their work. This means that, by early adolescence, your average Sunday watcher of Spanish cartoons will have been exposed to nearly every Latin American dialect, repeatedly, and have some sense as to where it is spoken. (When I was growing up, the Simpsons were Mexicans, the Animaniacs were Venezuelan, and the Care Bears seemed to migrate seasonally from Chile to Mexico to Argentina.) Here’s a guide for lay-people, courtesy of my dear friend the Venezuelan-American comedian Joanna Hausmann:

In a region where accents do much to mark one’s place within societies heavily stratified by class and geography, a great deal of Escobar’s social bandit appeal was inherently tied to his. For Escobar to sound more “Pele” than “Paisa” thus hollows out his very essence. To hear him say, “I am not a rich man, I am a poor man with money,” is one thing. To hear him say it in Paisa is something altogether different, something far richer.

This phonetic discordance extends beyond the series’s protagonist. Of the dozen or so principal characters, only two—Escobar’s cousin and aide-de-camp Gustavo Gaviria (Juan Pablo Raba) and Colombian President Cesar Gaviria (Raul Mendez)—sound at all Colombian. Luis Guzman, playing a Colombian drug lord allied to Escobar whose affinity for tequila and mariachis garners him the nickname “The Mexican,” sounds unabashedly Puerto Rican. It’s almost as if Netflix were working under the assumption that its viewers would simply treat the Spanish as a soundtrack to the subtitles. Many of us don’t.

This cuts to the heart of what’s wrong with Narcos: the otherness with which it seems to treat the Latin characters and, by extension, the Latin audience Netflix is ostensibly reaching out to.

The series begins with a quote reading: “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.” While effective in setting an otherworldly mood for the outlandish tale that follows, the statement is both factually incorrect and narratively problematic. Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez is widely considered a seminal magical realist author, but both the idea and the term itself actually date back to Weimar-era Germany, where it was “magischer realismus.” By the time Gabo wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude in the late ’60s, authors like Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges and Venezuela’s Arturo Uslar Pietri had already rooted magical realism deep within the region’s literary soil.

More importantly, in taking true events and presenting them through a lens of literary fiction, the series is implicitly separating the viewers from the terrible tragedy of Escobar, and from the very real lives he shattered, so as to allow the audience to better enjoy the action, character arcs, and intrigue that the series is understandably more comfortable showcasing. Crucial Colombian characters—including victims of Escobar—are either minimized (as with leading presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan and Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla), turned into composites, or else cut out entirely (as with El Espectador's chief editor Guillermo Cano Isaza). Colombian characters are introduced only to be killed off—or, in one particularly troublesome scene, gang-raped—and forgotten soon after. They’re expendable extras in their own drama.

In portraying Escobar as an anti-hero—a mustachioed Tony Soprano brought low by hubris and the herculean efforts of DEA pursuers—Narcos robs Colombians of victories that have cost them dearly. While today Colombia may be recovering from the enormous human and social consequences of Escobar’s personal war against his country, it’s ironic that such healing would come hand in hand with international fascination for all things Escobar, and an implicit disregard for those who dared oppose him. It is a trend the narcissistic narco himself would almost certainly have relished.