What I Learned about the Drug Trade from Watching Narcos

By Seth Ferranti 10/02/16

I knew the Escobar story from the late 80s/early 90s, but watching the series gave me new insights into the War on Drugs, the American narco soldiers who fought it, and the humanity of the man himself, Don Pablo.

What I Learned about the Drug Trade from Watching Narcos
We love to watch the drug trade. via Netflix

As I sat and binge-watched Netflix’s Narcos season two in early September, I was mesmerized. I rolled through all 10 episodes in about three days, much quicker than last year when season one debuted. Nothing seemed to matter as the episodes unfolded, exploring the perils of the drug trade an up close and personal. To say I’m a true crime junkie would be an understatement. I’ll be the first to confess that Narcos captivated me on multiple levels, enthralling me with a visual foray into human nature, addiction and why drugs are such a huge industry in the U.S.

Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor who portrays Pablo Escobar, admits the drug war is a “big flop,” but that doesn't make Narcos any less interesting. Director José Padilha has crafted a cinematic smorgasbord, cutting between real life documentary-type news footage, scripted narratives, scenic aerial shots, and “down in the barrio” clips that create a jarring and emotional whirlwind of a ride. Juxtaposed with Goodfellas-style voiceovers from DEA thug Steve Murphy, played with bombastic aplomb by actor Boyd Holbrook, the series teeters to its final foregone conclusion. No spoilers here, we all know Pablo gets killed.

Narcos proves that not only do we have an indelible appetite to consume illicit drugs, but we love to watch shows that romanticize drug dealers, blur the lines between the good and bad guys, and explore the pop culture mythology of big-time drug traffickers. The series entrapped me with its own special brand of addiction, and season three can’t come fast enough. The Escobar story has been well publicized over the years, but watching the series gave me new insights and perspectives into the War on Drugs, the American narco soldiers who fought it, and the humanity of the man who’s been vilified by society in the annals of drug war lore.

When You’re Pablo Escobar You Don’t Need a Gun or an Army

"Let me break it down for you- 4,000 soldiers, a 250-man team of Colombia's elite forces, tens of thousands of rounds fired, seven dogs and four fucking helicopters. Pablo Escobar was surrounded in the middle of fucking nowhere. There was no way he was getting out of this one, right?” Agent Murphy asks in the season two opener of Narcos as Escobar and his personal “sicario’s” walk out of the prison dubbed La Cathedral. It’s hard to imagine Escobar escaping with all those soldiers, but he did. He was just a man, but the fear he generated was tremendous. Cocaine made Pablo rich, but the violence he perpetrated made people view him as a villain of epic proportions.

In retrospect though, what a monumental law enforcement blunder. I questioned if the scene was dramatized or if it really unfolded that way. ”That's pretty accurate," the real life Agent Pena said of the escape. "When Escobar surrendered, many of the original Search Bloc guys got foreign assignments, which is what everybody aspires to, as a reward. So after Escobar escapes, those guys weren't there.” And since no one had the balls to shoot him, Escobar walked free with a simple, “Excuse me.”

Pablo Escobar Smokes a Lot of Pot

"Pablo never touched cocaine, he liked marijuana," Moura said. "The fact that he was a pot smoker affects the character, in a way. But at the same time, he was a very grounded man. He never touched cocaine, and he never liked people who did.” I knew that Pablo was a pothead, but he turned into a serious stoner in season two.

It seems like the more intense and crazy things got, the more he indulged. Especially when he’s hiding out at his estranged father’s farm. “Funny that you don’t like blood,” his father says to the blood-drenched and wild looking Pablo after he’s splattered with pig’s blood. After that scene, anyone would need a marijuana break. And with the weight of the world on his shoulders, marijuana became Pablo’s release valve. But maybe weed hastened his downfall. Prohibitionists would agree, but Pablo didn’t have a chance, with all the factions that joined forces to orchestrate his death. 

Even Pablo Escobar Can be Portrayed as a Sympathetic Figure

I found myself wanting Pablo to be with his family. I wanted them to escape with his riches. Despite his monstrous narco-terrorist reputation, Pablo was a loving and caring family man. As chaos reigned and people were murdered indiscriminately, Pablo maintained his commitment to his family. His wife, kids and mother were his whole world. In his mind, everything he did was justified. As he descended into despair and certain capture or even the inevitable death, a powerful melancholy descended on Pablo. With “Los Pepes" hunting him and countering his every move, I starting feeling sorry for him. Imagine that.

With everything closing in around him, Pablo became a hopeless desperado, an outlaw hero and Robin Hood-type figure. The scenes with him on the radio talking to his wife and kids were priceless, a loving father celebrating his lonely last birthday as a fugitive from the law. The writing was on the wall, but even in the dark and tragic heart of Pablo Escobar, there was some humanity. I think that speaks to the hope that springs eternal in every one of us: there can always be a new beginning. You can always start over, whether an addict or criminal or drug dealer. Unless you’re Pablo Escobar, that is, and multiple governments, rival cartels, and para-military groups are plotting your death.

Pablo Wanted to be President

Imagine the world today if Pablo would’ve won and became President of Colombia, turning the country into a Narco State. His aspirations and dreams to run the country as president were as exhilarating as they were terrifying. The scene that visualizes him becoming president is surreal, a technicolor fantasy in real time. Pablo smokes a joint in the presidential palace and shares a moment with his nemesis, former President Gaviria, where he kind of nonchalantly buries the hatchet. This scene is not so farfetched as it seems. It was a dream in Pablo’s mind, but one that he was well on his way to attaining, until he lost his position in congress. But just imagine, what if? From loving family man to ruthless criminal, Pablo was an economy unto himself. The money that he generated fed 850,000 people. That’s a serious constituency in itself.

The Cali Cartel was Evil

Pablo was a narcoterrorist of monumental proportions, but after watching the series I couldn’t help but come away with the feeling that the Cali Cartel was pure evil personified. With a legitimate front to mask their drug trafficking activities, they paraded through the halls of power and prestige with ease, calling the shots behind the scenes and more importantly supplying the resources—as in money—needed to destroy Pablo’s cocaine empire. 

But to the Cali Cartel, it was only an investment, one that proved outrageously profitable when they filled the vacuum in the drug trade after Pablo went down. By taking Pablo out of the picture, they became the only game in town. As I watched their machinations, I thought of robber baron tactics from the Industrial Age and even the dot-com takeovers of Y2K and how multi-conglomerates pull strings like a puppet master behind the curtain in the name of the almighty dollar. Because despite corruption, addiction, consumption and all the illegalities involved, at the end of the day it’s still about money or the lack thereof.

Pablo Escobar’s Death was Tragic

Not in the sense that he didn’t deserve to die or that he wasn’t a power mad tyrant trying to topple a country’s rightful government structure and replace it with his own version of a narco-democracy. But more in the sense that all these rival organizations, groups and individuals wanted him dead. In the end, the whole country—dare we say the whole world—wanted Pablo gone. His villainous reputation was well deserved, due to his ghastly deeds, but I felt a sense of tragedy at his death and this wasn’t a feeling I felt in real time. I remember all the hoopla surrounding Pablo and the infamous Medellín Cartel. He was made out to be worse than Hitler, and maybe he was. But back in the late '80s/early '90s when I was just a teenager involved in my own drug problems, it was just another War on Drugs news headline. The images of the hunters hovering over their prey were blazoned across the screen, Pablo displayed like a prize trophy from an African safari. Seemed like overkill to me.

In Narcos There Were No Good or Bad Guys

After watching the series, I couldn’t help but come away from it feeling that there wasn’t any difference between the good guys and bad guys. Agent Steve Murphy said that “the bad guys need to get lucky every time. The good guys just need to get lucky once.” But the lines between cops and robbers were blurred as American agents worked in collusion with the Cali Cartel, paramilitary organizations, and Search Bloc members whose sole mission in life seemed to be to kill Pablo. 

As I watched all these forces converge, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were worse than Pablo. Parading in the guise of justice and morality, but willing to resort to any measures to get Pablo. This was kind of exemplified when Agent Murphy beat up two yuppie coke heads in the airport bathroom after his wife and child flee the chaos of Colombia. “How many people died for you to get high,” he yells. But to me, this seems kind of arrogant and is a perfect example of drug war justice—where we blame the users and addicts for the prohibition-related violence. Instead of everything being black and white, there seemed to be a lot of grey areas, where the ends justify the means, and no extreme was out of bounds—at least when it applied to taking down Pablo Escobar. 

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