Netflix’s series Narcos, based on the story of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a success. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s full of action scenes, criminal intrigues, and beautiful shots of both the Colombian landscape and naked, handsome people.
But even though the show is based in Colombia, many Colombians like me haven’t been able to get past the fact that the series doesn’t really feel Colombian.
Wagner Moura, who plays Escobar, is Brazilian, and his accent is painfully evident to all native Spanish speakers watching the show. Most of the Colombian characters, who represent actual people we remember from the news of our childhoods, are played by foreigners—including many who are not even native Spanish speakers, which just feels absurd.
If those who decided to turn off the show did so because they were looking for some authenticity, they had the right idea.
The plot that unfolds is not a story about Colombia, rather a shiny Hollywood production loosely based on a country we’ll call “Colombia.” While its inauthenticity dampen its small-screen success, it does contribute to a narrative full of tropes that—for people like me—makes it hard to stomach.
In Narcos, Colombia is portrayed as a small town in a western movie. It's a helpless, stubborn nation, unwilling and unable to defend itself. Almost every Colombian depicted is a criminal, a corrupt public officer, or a sexy woman trying to get ahead through sex. (Those who don’t fit into these categories are lucky exceptions).
And we have the villain: Pablo Escobar, the vicious leader who rules over everything and everyone. According to the series, he almost single-handedly started the cocaine craze in the U.S. No mention is made to Richard Nixon, and only a brief nod to the Reagans and their “War on Drugs.” The other cartels operating in Colombia are reduced to the roles of supporting actors.
And we have the foreign hero: a white, blond American guy working as a DEA agent. He always knows best. Agent Steve Murphy, who narrates each episode of the series in a cynical voiceover with the grace and finesse of a semi-automatic gun, was sad about the cocaine epidemic that hit Miami in the early 80’s. He figured out that cocaine was coming from Colombia, and felt a patriotic, humanistic, duty to go “down there” and save Colombians from themselves.
In Colombia, Murphy and his American partners are heroes, no matter what, even when they torture people for interrogation, steal a Colombian baby, and make problems worse. (At one point the U.S. government decides to ramp up the violence against Colombian cartels and Murphy proudly exclaims that “cocaine prices in Miami were skyrocketing!”)
By the way, in the real Colombia of the '80s, problems were manifold and by no means restricted to Pablo Escobar’s circle and corrupt politicians. That was certainly a huge issue, but it was just part of a complex network of political and economic problems.
Yet Narcos makes no attempt to understand the intricacies of the real Colombia. Instead, the series is about simplifying and merging complex historical issues to cram in more excitement. And it's not shy about it.
Murphy often repeats that “good” and “bad” are relative concepts, but the show doesn’t ever really explore nuances. When Chilean right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet orders the extrajudicial execution of people working in cocaine labs, our DEA agent opines: “sometimes bad people do good things.” Some of the first words uttered by Murphy’s narration are in reference to Escobar: “the man who would change an entire country to its foundations.”
Related: See Pablo Escobar's old narco crib
In the show, everything that happens in Colombia is either because Escobar has decided it, or because Murphy is a slightly smarter version of Forrest Gump who, along with his partner, just happens to have something to do with every landmark moment in Colombian history.
Left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and other drug cartels (such as the Cali Cartel, which apparently will be the focus of the second season) are non-existent, subordinated to Escobar, or scoffed, because, as we’re constantly reminded, the only problem is (Pablo’s) cocaine.
Narcos does warn before every episode that what we are witnessing is fiction, and from that point of view all of this makes sense. It can be seen as just a story, set in some generic Latin American country amid a power struggle in a world dominated by drugs.
But producer and director José Padilha decided to use real names of people and and places, and actual events that happened to real people. Then he mashed them all together to serve his plot, while intertwining them with actual footage of real people in real places who were living real events.
The end result is that Colombians are robbed of our own history, which becomes a mere plot device, cut down to fine, shredded pieces for American audiences to digest without having to gnaw on the bones.
All the efforts we’ve made to understand exactly what has happened to us is promptly erased. And while this is a show made for an American audience, US TV has a global reach. Aren’t we watching too?
Like many other families, mine had to suffer through the terrors of Escobar (in 1990, my grandmother was kidnapped by the kingpin; the year before, Escobar had her brother-in-law killed). I feel that our pain, the suffering of a whole country trying to get by in the midst of a pointless and misguided war, is derided and ignored.
This story doesn't belong to my family, or to the victims of Escobar, or even to Colombia. And the show is not a documentary. But these are elaborate issues that affected real people, and maybe it should have been dealt with more carefully (real footage of the murder of my grandmother’s brother-in-law is shown on screen without a proper context of how and why it happened).
To be fair, some Colombian characters in Narcos do try to tell Murphy that things are more complex than what he thinks, and let him know that he doesn't know what he’s doing. But Murphy seems unphased and his narration makes little effort to broaden his perception of what happens.
But then maybe I’m taking this from the wrong way, and Narcos is a true masterpiece on American TV cluelessness.
Pablo Medina Uribe is a writer and journalist from Colombia. He edits the blog Latin America is a Country.