What We Don’t Get About ‘Narcos’—and Why We’re Living Out an Alternative Narrative in Real Life


Pablo Escobar is not a heroic figure. When you kill enough people to become known as “The Patron of Evil,” you are in fact the very definition of a heel. He’s not exactly a tragic one, either.

When the narco-trafficante’s maxim “plata o pomo”translated as, “Would you like to take a bribe, or would you like for me to kill you? Either way, I own your ass”—is attributed to you, and you predictably die exactly as you lived (and as you’ve made others die), there’s some hubris involved, but you’re ultimately more of a parable than anything else.

Or at least you should be.

Instead, in our world, you become a figure of near obsession.

Dead for almost 25 years, the infamous Colombian cocaine kingpin has seized the public’s fascination in a way no honest man ever could, and to a degree home-grown mobsters, real or otherwise, could only dream of.

Escobar is the subject of Netflix’s wildly successful series Narcos, the third season of which recently began streaming.

Partly because of the new attention, celebrities and nobodies alike have come to worship at Escobar’s altar—in at least one instance, literally. Earlier this year, rapper and marijuana aficionado Wiz Khalifa paid a regrettable pilgrimage to the narco-terrorist’s grave in Medellin. (What does cannabis legalization have to do with blood-soaked cocaine, exactly? Wiz has yet to sort that one out.) Enough Escobar fascination is afoot to float a “me too!” Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz vehicle, the ultraviolent Loving Pablo which features a lengthy montage of policemen and adolescents receiving bullets to the head.

Our boner for outlaws is nothing new.

And wanting to be like a drug lord, the “Michael Jordan” of narcos, shouldn’t entirely surprise either—this is a society convinced Scarface’s Tony Montana was both a real person and a businessman whose methods and work ethic should be emulated—but as veteran journalist Ed Vulliamy points out, the current “on trend and clearly lucrative” Escobarmania is also built on a foundation of fiction.

And not in the sense of “creative license,” with minutiae omitted for the sake of a TV audience—clearly we don’t need hyper-realism, seeing Escobar performing his daily ablutions or walking his dog—or, as Escobar’s own son has alleged, taking wild liberties with points of the plot. No, instead, fundamental points about how Escobar and his still with-us descendants operated within our larger, above-ground society are dispensed with in favor of a black hat vs. white hat, “cops and robbers thriller.”

“The idea that there is some kind of line between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ or the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ economies, is a fantasy and a lie,” writes Vulliamy (whose books on the subject you should absolutely read). “The world of narcos is not some exotic underworld horror show, because there is nothing underworld about the money.”

He continues:

Ask yourself: what happens to the money? If Escobar’s and [Sinaloa cartel capo Joaquin “El Chapo”] Guzmán’s is a multi-billion dollar business, where is it?

Escobar and Guzmán could not drive around spending hundreds of billions out of the back of a truck. No, you have to bank it, and to do that, you have to find a bank willing to take your money.

Here’s where the Escobar story deserved a treatment more akin to the one given the criminal justice, education, labor and news systems in The Wire.

Narcos is—or should be—an indictment of the financial system, which was happy to enable the graphic violence if it meant a few more deposits from their number-one customer. This is exactly what’s going on today.

Vulliamy quotes Martin Woods, a whistleblower at Wachovia Bank, which happily and knowingly laundered El Chapo Guzman’s blood money.

“It’s simple,” said Woods. “If you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering by banks and people killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point.”

Drug trafficking is not the stuff of an abstract Western—it’s a plot point in the black comedy where the suits sitting in boardrooms commit the vilest of crimes and go free, always, no matter how many ordinary people suffer.

Look at the U.S. financial crisis. Look at Escobar’s financiers.

This is the same old story, and it’s one Narcos isn’t telling.

Guess who bankrolled it, and is bankrolling Netflix? They’re the same bankers who worked with Escobar. That’s one morality tale that can’t be captured in an eight-part miniseries—because you’re living in it.

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