Narcos: A Colombian Perspective on the New Netflix Series

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Narcos

Editor’s Note: There are no spoilers in this review.

I’m glad I was outside the country for the premiere of Netflix’s Narcos; it gave me the opportunity to see how the reactions have changed when I mention I’m Colombian.

Before, it was always an “ooh, how exotic,” or “you don’t sound Colombian” or a conversation about coffee would spark up, among questions about what I’m doing in Canada. It was an ice-breaker. (I’m sure cocaine questions were sometimes left out on purpose, but often thought of).

After the premiere of Narcos, both my partner and I noticed that the spark has been immediate. A twinkle in our new acquaintance’s eye lit up: “You’re Colombian (Or living in Colombia)? I’m watching Narcos!” As if one thing apparently was linked to the other.

My family members from other countries are fed up with the references of the hit TV show and the connection everyone makes to us as citizens of Colombia. Since knowing about it, until now, having watched it, I have been on a truly nauseating swirl of emotions.

I know some may not agree or like my opinion, and I’m open to hearing what you all liked and disliked about the series, or if you didn’t watch it at all, but here is my review.

Before Watching “Narcos”

My family is big on watching Colombian novelas -or Soap Operas- that air every night after the evening news. It’s a cultural thing, I think. Since I don’t own a television I don’t share this with them so from time to time I get updates on the latest novela and its characters.

During one break from school, I spent time in Manizales with my family and joined their ritual of novela watching while the Colombian version of the Pablo Escobar biography novela was running.

The hit series is entitled “Escobar: El Patrón del Mal,” literally translated The Master (Or Boss) of Evil, but the international title is “Escobar: The Drug Lord.” It is based on the novel by Alonso Salazar.

I was surprised by its faithfulness to the time, the logos were adapted, the hairstyles, types of glasses, clothing…etc.

The actor who played Pablo Escobar, Andrés Parra, from Cali, was perfect for it. He spent a great deal of time studying Escobar as a person, his body language, his expressions, his ambivalence between noble and cold-blooded, between family man and public enemy #1.

It was shot in HD and the acting was, in my opinion, better in than most novelas. It was enjoyable to watch and informative. I also found the music to be very melodramatic, as in all soap operas, but the casting was excellent. The actors and the production were Colombian.

So when I heard about the high-profile international cast and perspective from which Narcos was told, I was immediately turned off. I wanted nothing to do with it. The title itself gave me the heebie-jeebies, but I watched it for the sake of curiosity.

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Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar at Hacienda Nápoles

About The Hit Netflix Show

It starts with a quote:

“Magical Realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason Magical Realism was born in Colombia.”

That reason is certainly not the drug wars.

But, it’s quite the start, no? Here they say ‘I’m about to show you something incredible.’

Most people would say it’s true, the directors, producers, and the team working on this series showed people something that seemed to be incredible: the rise of a regular, run-of-the-mill guy who went from simple contraband of marijuana and electronics to the biggest trafficker of cocaine and one of the richest men in the world in record time.

However, it isn’t the story of Pablo Escobar perse, that we’re looking at here. Really, this show is about how a DEA agent (Agent Steve Murphy) took down the biggest and most powerful drug trafficker in Colombia, and in the world.

For he’s a jolly good fellow…. 

For that story to be told, they clearly needed the background info, which I’m not going to focus on at all here.

Agent Murphy's wife and Elena, member of M-19 (screenshot)
Agent Murphy’s wife (right) and Elena, member of M-19

Impressions

Yes, I’m biased. I’m Colombian: I’ve heard the stories, I watched the first Colombian-made show.

My impression of “Narcos” was that though the story is told well, in an interesting fashion, the actors are from all over the place, and that throws me off.

I see why this is not an issue, being a show made in the States. When my boyfriend and I watch, I’m constantly yelling: “we don’t talk like that!” and “He’s not Colombian!” (or Mexican, or whatever he or she is being portrayed as) while for him that makes no difference at all- he’s totally into it.

The Guardian also highlighted this issue felt by Colombians:

“Much of the show’s dialogue is in Spanish, but the cast has been drawn from across North and South America, and the actors’ attempts to adopt a Colombian accent have not always been successful […]To a non-native speaker, the accents may not make a difference: the actors speak Spanish and you can read the subtitles. But many Colombians have felt their teeth set on edge by the sound of Escobar offering the choice of “plata o plomo” – silver or lead – with a strong Brazilian accent.”

It’s true. I spend every scene in which Wagner Moura plays Escobar studying his mouth imagining how he can pronounce Spanish the way he does.

His dialogue is rehearsed (not in a good way) and his tongue gets in the way of the true Paisa pronunciation, but on the other hand, he’s a hell of an actor and plays him really well. As well as Andrés Parra? Mmmm…as always, it’s a matter of taste.

Why is the accent thing so important? The Guardian quoted Orlando González, from Bogotá, who said “It’s like having someone with a strong southern American accent play Sherlock Holmes.”

On the other hand, the characters are Hollywoodized. They’re gorgeous; they have great bodies (especially the women).

Understand: that’s not a complaint, I rather like it. If someone were to make a movie about my life, I’d choose a high-profile beautiful actress to play me. I mean, Frida Kahlo was no Selma Hayek, right?

Since the story is from DEA Agent Steve Murphy’s point of view, it leads to the U.S. being much more involved in the actual representation of the action. It’s full of shooting scenes, bombs, sicarios, and other things that, as The Guardian said, we- as Colombians- are tired of.

Narcos
Agent Murphy (left) speaks to César Gaviria’s chief of security

My Epiphany

I kept asking myself: what is the point? Why make a show that has already been done?

Well, to be fair, it hasn’t been done like this. The perspectives are different, the actors are different, but most importantly, I realized, the audience is different.

While the novela made in Colombia got great ratings in all of Latin America, bumping other TV series from their usual prime-time spots, the audience was mainly Latin American. That’s not the case for Narcos. This is an original Netflix series which hits all the spots that make a good, addictive show for people outside of Colombia.

There is violence, sex, and drugs. Check, check, check. AND there’s history that backs up the premise and a lot of the details It is the vice of every tranquil American dad, or mom after a long day and why?

Because it’s incredibly exciting!

This is something others haven’t seen a million times like Colombians have. This is something new! For me, the novelty lies only in Agent Murphy’s story, and that intertwines so much with what I’ve already heard that it gets tiresome.

I am watching Narcos for curiosity, but not as a vice, like everyone around me. I understand why it’s interesting to others, and for me it is entertaining at the time, but it certainly isn’t something I long for when I finish my day.

I encourage people to learn about Colombian history and our deep wound with drug wars, because then they’ll understand why we’re so impatient to show something different; we want to feel empowered, not defined by something that happened decades ago.

I will finish watching Narcos eventually, but I will also insist to everyone I meet that my being Colombian doesn’t mean that I have great stories to tell. I was born the year Pablo Escobar died. Every year of my life counts as a year that Colombia has tried to get past the blood shed for his objectives.

I applaud the great work done on the show, the history represented, the acting, the beautiful views of Colombia, the way as a viewer, you sympathize with Colombia of the 80s.

I am interested in what they’re going to do for the second season, which they signed up for in early September.

However, closing in on the 22nd anniversary of Pablo Escobar’s death, I’m ready for a new representation of Colombia.

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Hi, first of all I am deaf so I don’t know the difference of accent but that seems to be the big deal between Narcos and Pablo Escobar: El Patron Del Mal. I’ve had the opportunity to watch both series this month and finished them all. I enjoyed both series although they both had a different telling but the only difference was the character or Pablo Escobar. In my opinion, I viewed Pablo in Narcos as more calm yet intimidating and fearless while the Pablo in Pablo Escobar: El Patron Del Mal is viewed as erratic and as if he is a kid that pretend to be somebody and hardly someone you view as a respected and fearless leader. I guess that’s just me after being involved in motorcycle gang for some time and have seen plenty of crazy bad-asses I know how to compare tough and weak character.

    Also, the fact that Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal left out a LOT of details the involvement of DEA and USA when in fact I remember as a Senior in high school reading and watching news about our involvement in trying to help Colombia bring down the difficult man to track down is what had me intrigued to know who is really telling the true story? Did the author/Caracol left out American because they wanted to give too much credit to Colombia Police? And the way I understood it is that it was USA who found his location and informed the Colombia Police where he is hiding. Did this promptly Netflix to make US version of Netflix because Colombian version did not include much of US involvement?

    It will be interesting to see what second season will bring for Narcos because I don’t know how they will make 10-13 episodes after Pablo Escobar escaped from the “hotel” prison.

    • Hi Ken, well I must say that I haven’t seen “El patrón del mal” but I did watch “Narcos” so I really don’t know how much it’s shown in the first about the US intervention in Colombia. I can only guess the reason why they probably didn’t say much about it. First, this is a story told by colombians and it shows the efforts of other colombians who were actually fighting against Escobar, efforts that were real and painful. I think showing US citizens as the main people concerned by Escobar capture would be a lie, since colombians wanted him more captured/dead than anybody else. This is the perspective in “Narcos” and it is understandable since it is an US production. In addition, when it comes to give an open portray of the US, Colombian media tries to be discreet, since these interventions have always had their up and downs. Colombia does not say much since the USA and Colombia have been working together to fight against drugdealing and it is not convenient for Colombia to show all of the implications and actions of the US in here, sort of by trying to be “thankful” with the help and money that Colombia receives. Talking about how americans intervened in this war would have to show not only the good, but also the bad things, meaning the fact that also under knowledge and benefit of US authorities drugs were been exported and sold. Probably Colombian government would not let that been out so publicly since “telenovelas” are the main tv form watched in Latinamerica. This are the reasons why I guess all of the US efforts were not portrayed in “El patrón del mal” version, since both the good and the bad would have to be shown. That being said, you can see how we definitively have other perspective of Escobar’s life as it is said in this article… :). Cheers!

  2. Great article! Of latin origin but raised in the U.S. I initially might of not been bothered by the horrible accents and yet possibly fascinated by the glamour hollywood tends to intice us gullible Americans with. Thankfully, my fortunate experience of having and living with my Paisa girlfriend has developed my discerning senses to the authentic culture that foreign producers fail to capture. Ironically yesterday was my first time for watching both Narcos and Escobar: El Patron del Mal. I couldnt get past the 10 mins or so on Narcos due to being thoroughly disgusted. Imagine my girlfriends reaction. So we decided to watch the first episode of El Patron and lets just say how she immediately related with the history behind the Montañeros who were chased from their land to the sayings that only a Native would appreciate. Im instantly hooked to the Colombian production of Pablo and see myself watching all 113 episodes. Finally, I agree with you as i mention to most, Colombia deserves better propaganda. So much to offer than Narcos, prepagos, El poblado and plastic surgery… lol

  3. I just started Narcos and was upset for the same reason you were. The accents and sayings were not Colombian. I am actually Mexican-American who has been living off and on in Bogota for the past 4 years. I have yet to find a character with a distinct Paisa accent, with maybe an exception of an extra.

    I also am familiar with the novela. It is very much true that the netflix Narcos is geared towards American by making the DEA agent the main character. It allows Americans to relate. Do I hate Narcos? Not really. But it does bug me that there are no Colombian actors.

  4. I think the series undermines the advancement of Colombian society.. I am warned each time I come to visit how dangerous it is and there is a drug dealer on every street.. This general ignorance runs rampant in America and is perpetuated by shows like this Narcos.. “We cannot have a future by living in the past.”. This show does scare enough people away from my paradise and I am happy about that.. The land is beautiful the people are loving and the food is excellent..

    • Oh God ! Another one that wants to live with his head buried in a hole like an ostrich. Having lived through the Escobar era as a young adult like Pablo himself, I marvel at those who wish to only “live in the future” and forget the past. Wake up ! I think it was Winston Churchill or George Santayana that said “Those that fail to learn from the past, are doomed to repeat it.” – and Colombia made some horrible mistakes as we all know or even have learned. Yes, Colombia is a beautiful country with mostly beautiful people who wish to live in peace and safety and simply be happy. But in order to achieve this we must learn from the past and recognize we can repeat these mistakes. All i care about is that the “docudrama” does not glamorize it and sticks true to the history. I this case Narcos did a good job at least as I recall living through it and as a student of history.

  5. Thanks for this. We have not watched this series and don’t plan to. We actually don’t watch commercial television (cable included). As an African American woman (and also as a retired journalist), I’m so sick of seeing Black people represented by the Boyz in the Hood mentality or women portrayed as “bitches” by pop media. We are coming to Medellin this Winter because of the good reports we have read and people we have talked to. While I understand that it must really irritate Colombians, I almost like this nonsense because it will keep ignorant Americans out of Colombia (and maybe keep prices down for the rest of us?) The one thing I learned as a journalist is that TV exists to sell ads, not to report the truth.

  6. I sat yesterday an watched all the episodes of narcos an I loved it an I cannot wait to see it next year. I could not tell any differences in the accents as I speak basic Spanish, but I have a thick southern accent an I hate listenng to shows with actors who do a terrible real southern accent an example of this is the actors on NCIS New Orleans.

    Anyway, I am going to live in Medellin soon because of the pretty scenery an cost of living. I told my neighbor this an he thinks that I am crazy ; mind you this man has a master degree an he still thinks Medellin is like the show narcos minus the bombings. I stop trying to convince him otherwise anymore mostly because I think 50% of americans have that same impression of Medellin; because there is no shortage of ignorance in America, an most American are to lazy to learn how to speak even basic spanish ,

    but I know better an I plan on enjoying living in Medellin an it may be another 10 years before the rest of the world truly recognizes what a great city Medellin is an what kind of a quality of life you can have in Medellin;

  7. I watched the first season, and I enjoyed it, but to me it was just entertainment. I do not consider it representative of Colombia or Colombians, but unfortunately many viewers do not share my views. I can see people who don’t know much about the world and watching this show and thinking it is they way it is in Colombia even today. I can understand your frustration.

  8. Come on people lighten up its a great show. So what if the accents are not spot on its a SHOW its ENTERTAINMENT I don’t expect every gay character to actually be gay or every gangster character to actually be a gangster. I’m from Philadelphia and guess what I’m not offended that Sly Stallone a New Yorker played Rocky a South Philadelphia boxer or that Tom Hanks who’s from Los Angeles played a homosexual lawyer from Philadelphia in the movie Philadelphia when neither of those men sound like real Philadelphians I mean heck look who just played Noah in that terrible movie or the same actor who is from New Zealand playing a Roman in the movie Gladiator.

    • Thing is… Chris… can I call you Chris? this topic bring sensibility up to colombians because it is recent history and because drugdealing and violence are still problems in Colombia -although in a much smaller scale-. As a colombian living in a foreign country it is sooooo annoying when when people start asking me questions about Escobar or telling jokes about cocaine… I know they are not malicious and the same as the show, they are just for “entertainment”. However there is always some truth behind a joke and in this case there are two truths. One is that drugdealing conflicts are hurtful to us. Every time we hear news about tragedies, it hurts… Another truth is ignorance, but the ignorance shown by that who asks questions like “does your father traffic with drugs?” (believe me, comments like that I receive a lot. Many people that watch this show believes everything to be real and also that it is happening in Colombia in the same way. You seem to have clear the difference between fiction and reality, but let’s face it, most people – specially when is comes to watch a story of a place they know nothing about- don’t. So anyway, you are right, it is only a show, so please, as a favor I ask you, when ever you meet somebody who watches “Narcos” and is totally absorbed by it, even having opinions about Colombia based on only that show, remind him/her that, “dude, that’s only a show” 😉

  9. well fairly sure there ARE still narcos in Colombia, as in many other countries in the world..it{s not totally of the past

    I can read Spanish..El Espectador with the stories of at least KNOWN 15 torture houses where the narcos torture & peel the skin off the faces of their victims or skin them alive.

    the police & politicians stilla fraid to act becasue they beelvie then they or their families will be targeted.

    it is sort of understandable why this stuff is more interesting to many people than a puff piece saying ..oH its all THE PAST, no?

    I actually learned a few things, like tha Escobar bombed an airplane (killing over 80 people) and was behind the M 19 attack on the Supreme Court..and how many police & judges & presidential candidates he ordered to be killed, among other people (competitors)

    every country has some evil people, I do not think Colombia is an exception

    must we pretend otherwsie in order not to hurt someones precious feelings?

    ah feelings, the basis for more & more censorship.. BAN BOOKS ! BAN MOVIES! BAN WORDS.. BAN TRUTH!

    GODDAM there are still people in Medellin who think of the murderer Escobar as a HERO & ROBIN HOOD..

    the presidnetial candidates words when he says Colombians say we have the most beautiful country..and God gave us the most evil men so other people would not be envious..to balance it..struck powerfully

    we should also pretend or forget that your new country Canada slaughtered native people and locked up Japanese Canadians during WW II..forget that the Spanish murdered & plundered South America

    all way in the past..rewrite history, right? MUCH further in the past than Escobar.

    thousands of people still alive today had family members killed by Escobar & his gang

  10. Great Article , I watched Narcos first before I watched pablo escobar patron del mal . They were both available at the same time but I did not have time to watch a 74 episode series while the other was only 10 . after watching Narcos I started watching the other one during the christmas break .

    I need to qualify this that I am neither latin or from columbia I happen to live in the US even though I am originally from Sri Lanka . you may not know where this is but about the same time Escobar started wreaking havoc on Columbia another short fat ugly terrorist started doing the same thing a hundred fold over in my country .

    But I digress , I find this story fascinating . because the parallels are huge even though there are some differences . So I guess you can say I understand , and have lived though some of what you columbians may have lived through .

    I thought after watching both shows the Narcos version was nothing more than a hollywoodized Rambo Dea version that had more about connie’s CAT puff than the real story which had the Rambo as the DEA agents . the other one was detailed and showed the details and the real pain the people of the country suffered . Also the Heroism of a few incorruptible men and women . I am glad it was made and like its theme song says it is a story that needs be told because if you dont know History it repeats it self .

    Our war took a lot more innocents and Heroes to end , but thankfully it did end , and I hope someday that story will also be told with the detail and the quality that was put into P B Patron Of Evil . and not the Rambo version .

  11. Hi Ximena, Agree with most of your review, but the argument of providing something with historic context distorted to please a type of audience is something I cannot agree with. The cinema/TV as a type of art, it entertains and teaches and rightly or wrongly will perpetuate misinformation while re-enforcing negative stereotypes. Hollywood has for a very long time gotten away with a lot of rubbish about other cultures. I mean, John Wayne impersonating Genghis Khan to name one example, it is as ridiculous as it sounds. I can take Giancarlo Esposito struggling to speak Spanish in breaking bad, as it is fictitious anyway, but this is a Colombian story, not an American one. I watched Narcos first and was hooked, but Wagner Moura as charismatic as he was in it, cannot speak Spanish with a Paisa accent, I mean he learned Spanish for the part, never mind getting the right accent, intonation, paucity and modulation, plus the colloquialisms used by Pablo Escobar. Could they not pick an actor from the 6 million people living in Antioquia? Narcos also leaves the impression that Colombia were totally incapable of dealing with Escobar and had it not been for the CIA, they would have never solved the issue. This is an insult, as Colombia provides the vast majority of the victims and the suffering, cultural change etc. When I watched Patron del mal, I could not believe how well the characters were portrayed and how well they were cast. I saw a documentary where Pablo is speaking in public and it could have been Andres Parra talking, as they are almost indistinguishable. Also, Patron del mal goes more in-depth in detail on the stories and is kept more accurately historically. The fact that the audience for Narcos is mostly English-speaking does not mean that the insult is any lesser as in this era of communications people are better informed. Both enjoyable, but Patron del mal is way so superior is not even a contest. By the way, I’m not Colombian.

  12. Great article. I watched season 1 of Narcos on Netflix before watching El patron del mal….no contest. The Colombian show beats Narcos hands down. I even bought Killing Pablo and half way it dipped into the whole US solving the problem so it mirrors the Narcos’ tendency. I agree that the audience is very different from show to show however. On a side note watching Narcos for a Colombian has got to be excrutiating a cross between The Quiet Man and In the name of the Father for Irish people….