- 19 Sep 16
With season two of Narcos freshly arrived in Netflix, Ed Power looks at how the series met the challenges of chronicling the larger-than-life story of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.
In Narcos, the devil wears a comedy moustache. As with many of history’s great villains – Napoleon and Hitler spring to mind – Colombian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar was in certain aspects a ridiculous figure: ‘tached, paunchy and with a marijuana habit to put Howard Marks to shame. In photographs, he does not exude Bond Villain menace. He exudes fat dude sweat and anguish.
Yet a clownish exterior could not quite mask the demons within. Escobar was also cunning, ruthless, with a streak of megalomania that led him to believe he could take on the Colombian state (and its not-very-behind-the-scenes backer, the United States) and at least come away with a score-draw. Twenty five years on, Netflix has brought his extraordinary story to the screen, with series two of Narcos having recently debuted (and with another two seasons just confirmed).
“He was a contradiction,” Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor who plays Escobar in Narcos, told me when we sat down last year. “He was a big murderer, an assassin. At the same time, he was someone who loved his kids and his wife – was very generous to the poor. Someone who dealt in cocaine but liked to smoke marijuana. He was very human – very, very complex.”
At its height, Escobar’s drugs business constituted a virtual state without a state. Centred around the provincial city of Medellin, by the mid-Eighties his operation accounted for 80 per cent of the cocaine supplied to the United States and was bringing in $60 million a day. This made Escobar the richest criminal in history, with an estimated worth of $30 billion.
But as Narcos season two begins Escobar’s fortunes have changed. The sheer outrageousness of his wealth and influence has required the Colombian government to intervene and put its most powerful citizen behind bars. However, despite being imprisoned in a pamper-palace which he part designed, Escobar has broken out and is on the run, determined to rebuild his empire (which has begun to crumble while he was away).
“To the end of his life he was like a poor kid that wanted to be accepted and loved,” said Moura when asked about the challenge of getting inside Escobar’s head. “To have the child within alive is very important to certain professions – if you are an artist, for instance.
“In Pablo’s case, his child made him very charismatic, very interesting. At the same time, it was extremely destructive. ‘You’re not going to play with me? Okay, I’m going to smash the whole place up.’ That was the kind of child Pablo had inside him.”
As Bogota turned the screws on Escobar he unleashed havoc, planting bombs across the capital and shooting police with impunity (some 300 were killed every year at the height of conflict). In Narcos season two we see the authorities respond with equal ruthlessness, unleashing death squads against the street urchins in Escobar’s employ and torturing his lieutenants (in one memorable scene two henchman are chucked from a helicopter, which happens to be flying high above Medellin).
“When you’re in a war-zone and you’re being hunted yourself, what do you call it when you retaliate?” American actor Maurice Compte, who plays the head of Colombia’s anti-narco special forces, said last year.
“When I was growing up, there were people who idolised the Pablo Escobars of the world; and all roads in Miami in the ‘80s always led back to Escobar. You could not have a conversation without mentioning him in some form. He was an incredible businessman and he was ruthless. I saw what it did to my family. I saw what it did to other people’s families. Violent is a relative term when you’re in a war.”
Colombia has long since left its narcowars behind and is now one of South America’s most dynamic economies. So when it was announced that an American streaming network was to retell the story of Escobar, with a Brazilian lead actor who did not even speak Spanish, the response was lukewarm to say the least. When playing Escobar, Moura tried to keep such concerns in mind. He felt it was essential to honour the suffering of those caught up in the war and also respect Colombia’s understandable desire to leave the past behind.
“I didn’t want to be one of those shows where the good American cops come to South America and clean up the mess,” he told me. “If that had been the concept I wouldn’t have done it. What is made clear from the start is the the normal concepts of good and bad go out the window. It is very complicated.”
“There’s no sense in seeing things in black and white. I believe the reality of our life and of this world is that there’s not just a moralistic way to approach your work,” agreed Pedro Pascal, the Chilean-American actor best known as Oberyn Martell from Game of Thrones and who in Narcos portrays a morally compromised US Drug Enforcement Administration on the trail of Escobar.
“What I like most about the series is how it visually captures the feeling of being in Colombia, in Bogota and Medellin and on the coast... It’s a world with a personality reflected in the land, in the people, that is unique, something special and very beautiful. I think Colombia is the star of the series,”
In addition to providing irrefutable evidence that truth is truly stranger than fiction, Narcos serves as indictment on the war on drugs and the devastation it wrecks on the developing world. Moura was pro legalisation going into the project; but spending two years inside Escobar’s head left him even more convinced that criminalising drug use and distribution is one of the great follies of the age.
“The drug trade – the Narcos craze – is a very, very big deal. It’s a big problem for all of us, especially for Latin people. I think it’s very important.
“I have learnt so much about it by doing Narcos and it was so important for me politically. For example, I always thought that drugs should be legalised. I see the policy towards drugs, especially in America, North America and South America, is completely wrong. It’s proved to be a flop.”
“This show is about the choice (the US made) about the war on drugs – to deal with it as if it were a problem of supply,” show-runner Jose Padilha told Variety. “So we go to Colombia and we will kill the drug dealers. But they cannot stop it as long as there is the demand. That’s why this show will never end.”
Narcos seasons one and two are on Netflix now.