In 1988, amid precarious peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Jorge Salcedo, the son of an influential retired Colombian army general, recruited a British mercenary outfit to assassinate FARC leadership. Salcedo took his orders from ranking hardliners in the Armed Forces, who considered negotiations with the FARC to be treasonous. But the mission’s financial backer was José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, the right-wing Medellín Cartel boss. And while the raid itself was eventually called off, Rodríguez Gacha made sure to get his money’s worth.
During their stay on the drug lord’s estates, the British mercenaries, veterans of such counterinsurgency campaigns as the white supremacist Rhodesian Bush War, agreed to hold intelligence seminars and guerrilla warfare trainings for Colombia’s burgeoning anti-communist militias. The sanguinary emerald baron Victor Carranza sent sicarios. So did Medellín Cartel associate Fidel Castaño, who would later consolidate and extend this narco-paramilitary model through the United Auto-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). “They were a friendly bunch and keen to learn,” one mercenary commander recalled. “Not that they lacked experience in killing people: What they needed was cohesion and discipline.”
The following year, a group of shadowy businessmen from the southwestern Colombian city of Cali approached Salcedo about hiring the British mercenaries to kill Pablo Escobar, the fugitive cocaine kingpin. One thing led to another, and Salcedo soon found himself overseeing personal security for the heads of the Cali Cartel—“the most powerful criminal organization in the world,” the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) thought at the time—which is where we meet him in the third season of Narcos.
Season 3, released on September 1, draws heavily from At the Devil’s Table, investigative reporter William C. Rempel’s account of how Salcedo collaborated with the DEA to bring down the Cali Cartel. The book opens with Salcedo’s aborted FARC raid, but the show makes only a vague, passing reference to that episode, and none at all to its significance in the institutionalization of narco-trafficking as a means of counterinsurgency in Colombia. Against some of the more gratuitous hackwork in Narcos’ reenacted drug war history, it’s a minor but telling omission. Salcedo, played to positive critical reception by Matias Varela, is treated almost as a noir hero. An expert marksman in real life, Salcedo conspicuously refuses to carry a gun on Narcos, which sets him apart as a “Good Guy,” and sets up the show for a predictable climax. Avoiding the ideological implications of his backstory is another way of simplifying Salcedo’s character.
A major problem for inspired-by-true-events fiction is that any alteration, whether born of necessity or expedience, can have pronounced effects on the popular understanding of things that actually happened. For Narcos, this isn’t so much a creative dilemma as a statement of narrative purpose. Three seasons in, the Netflix original series has no fixed parameters nor pacing. The cast is subject to dramatic change, as are the showrunners themselves. The plot, a composite of old headlines and officialized history, seems held together less by coherent artistic vision than a compulsion to personalize systemic misconduct and assign ad hoc rationale to structural components of drug policy. As I’ve written elsewhere and Lina Britto explained for NACLA, Narcos has always embraced bad revisionist politics. Now it’s more clear than ever that those politics constitute its primary reason for being.
When Narcos premiered on Netflix in 2015, its producers marketed it as the comprehensive, prestige-TV treatment of the Pablo Escobar mythos, shot on-location in Colombia and infused with the vérité aesthetic of an expensive Discovery Channel bio-series. But the show, its creators insisted, always aspired to transcend individual people and circumstances—to trace the flow of mutilated corpses and laundered money through time and across borders, an almost genealogical study of international prohibition. “We’ll stop when the drug trade stops,” Executive Producer José Padilha promised Variety.
The King of Cocaine died barefoot on a ceramic roof at the end of Season 2; Wagner Moura, who’s received an Emmy nomination for his starring Escobar role, is gone. But the “blow must go on,” as the show’s summer promotional campaign put it. “Cocaine cartels,” like big-budget TV shows, “are about succession.”
Narcos benefits as much from Escobar’s downfall as do the so-called Gentlemen of Cali. After helping the DEA take out the competition in Season 2, Giraldo and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela (Damián Alcázar and Francisco Denis), “Chepe” Santacruz Londoño (Pêpê Rapazote), and “Pacho” Herrera (Alberto Ammann) have reached “the pinnacle of trafficking evolution.” They kick off Season 3 by throwing themselves a lavish party, and the writing, too, seems freer now that it’s out from Escobar’s shadow. Ammann, in particular, struts his way through a deliciously menacing performance as “Pacho” Herrera, the Cartel’s gay, junior partner. With a close-frame scowl for every line of forgettable dialogue, Denis brings out the insecurity and envious rage in Miguel, the micro-managing younger brother behind Gilberto’s throne.
While Narcos succeeds in envisioning a future for itself after Escobar, Season 3 struggles with a familiar lack of imagination in other respects. The women of Narcos still find little to do but be sexy, be murdered, or to lend emotional depth to the men. And a cacophony of decidedly non-Colombian accents (the Cali godfathers are played by actors from Mexico, Venezuela, Portugal, and Argentina-by-way-of-Spain, respectively) continues to undermine the show’s signature claim to realism. The underutilization of native caleña Margarita Rosa de Francisco, who has a promising but ultimately peripheral role as a Colombian muckraker, provides a frustrating case study for many of the show’s unresolved issues with representation.
DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), who was a negligible figure in the hunt for Escobar and an unmitigated drag on the fictional script, has thankfully been relieved of off-screen narration duties. But rather than scrap the voiceover entirely, Narcos replaces Murphy with his partner from the first two seasons, Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal). What is the audience is meant to gain from the insights of yet another chain-smoking renegade cop with a mustache?
Instead, Narcos devotes much of the new season to Peña and his internal struggle with guilt over the extrajudicial death-squad he co-founded to go after Escobar. It’s a fabricated storyline—the real Peña, who didn’t participate in the Cali task force, seems quite proud of his Colombian adventures—and in keeping with the larger pattern, the show sacrifices important context to accommodate Peña’s soul-searching.
In one episode, the Cali godfathers pay FARC rebels—“the pros,” Peña calls them—to harbor a kidnapping victim vital to Peña’s case. The real Cali godfathers were themselves professional kidnappers, and the FARC didn’t need additional incentive from the mafia to ransom people. But the point of this also-fabricated sub-plot isn’t to illustrate the complex politics of armed conflict and cocaine in Colombia. It’s to bring Peña face-to-face with his demons, Fidel and Carlos Castaño, the AUC paramilitary commandos who helped him get Escobar. Peña wants to do things by the book this time, but “if you’re hunting communist guerrillas in the jungle,” he explains, the Castaño brothers are the only recourse available. Once again, the show invents sufficient circumstance to excuse Peña’s decision to enlist reactionary terrorists.
He’s not the only cop Narcos exonerates. Juan Pablo Shuk returns as Colonel Hugo Martínez, from the Escobar Search Bloc, who Peña trusts to do things “the right way.” Yet, according to declassified U.S. embassy cables, Martínez was almost arrested on charges of accepting Cali Cartel bribes and colluding with the Castaño brothers. (The major above him, who Narcos erases entirely, was later convicted of paramilitary ties.) Former National Police Commander Rosso José Serrano (Gastón Velandia), portrayed as a pious, incorruptible drug war crusader, has been accused by the AUC’s chief drug administrator of collaborating with the paramilitaries, including to free a major trafficker from prison—accusations Serrano has denied.
The paramilitaries, Peña tells us, enjoyed a “free pass for crimes against humanity, sponsored by Uncle Sam.” He doesn’t say that they also enjoyed a free pass to transship cocaine, sometimes on the very boats of the foreign corporations whose Colombian interests they protected. Narcos introduced the Castaño brothers last season as “right-wing, psychopathic, commie-killing” true believers, who came into contact with drugs fighting Escobar. In fact, as Colombian journalist and conflict researcher María Teresa Ronderos documents in Guerras Recicladas (Recycled Wars), the brothers were seasoned narcotraffickers, valuable as counterinsurgency assets specifically because they had access to vast off-the-books financing.
Narcos needs this sort of smoke and mirrors in order for Season 3’s basic premise to make sense. The Cali Cartel, explains Peña in the season opener, was “different in every way” from its Medellín rivals. Where Escobar acted on ego and impulse, flaunting his imperial wealth and challenging the formal powers that be, the Cali traffickers carried themselves with strategic sophistication and temperamental reserve, preferring to solve problems with money, not create more of them with bullets. Keeping a low profile, while Escobar drew all the attention, “allowed them to become the biggest cartel in history.” Cali, the show wants you to believe, presented a lesser evil last season and an outstanding evil this one. It made sense for the DEA to align with them and the Castaños for the sake of eliminating Escobar, just as it makes sense for Peña to reconcile with the Castaños for the sake of eliminating Cali. That the dismantling of the Medellín and Cali “super cartels” left the AUC—the Colombian state’s quasi-official counterinsurgency arm—with a majority stake in the transnational drug trade, is purely incidental, as far as Narcos is concerned.
This general framing happens to more or less coincide with the version of events promoted by the U.S. and Colombian governments, both as retroactive justification for their selective focus on Escobar and as the basis of a new mandate for the U.S.-driven “kingpin strategy”—which prioritizes the arrest of high-profile leaders. But the decision to ignore Cali and target Medellín was not the inevitable result of detached policymaking. It stemmed from a number of factors, among them the influence either side wielded over various state institutions, both foreign and domestic.
As investigative journalist Fabio Castillo reported in his seminal Los Jinetes de la Cocaína (The Horsemen of Cocaine), the Cali syndicate pioneered Colombian cocaine trafficking in the 1970s, investing important political and economic sectors in their business to foster an “ample social spectrum of solidarity” and protection that rendered them “virtually invincible.” Later, the Cali Cartel shared routes and shipments with the upstart Medellín traffickers. Cali Cartel leader Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela and Medellín Cartel boss Jorge Ochoa even co-owned a bank in Manuel Noriega’s Panama.When leftist rebels kidnapped Ochoa’s sister in 1981, the leaders of Cali brought the organizations together with military, police, and political officials to establish Death to Kidnappers (MAS), an early, crude iteration of the AUC. Pamphlets announcing the group’s creation were dropped from a plane over the Cali stadium where América, the team partly owned by the Orejuela brothers, was playing. (In Narcos, MAS is all Escobar’s idea, and no one from Cali so much as participates.) One reason the subsequent feud between Medellín and Cali was so exacting is that both parties possessed inside intelligence of the other’s operation.
Even once open hostilities had broken out, it would have been difficult to say which cartel was more powerful. In 1991, three years before Escobar’s death, the Cali Cartel was producing 70% of the cocaine sold in the United States and 90% of the cocaine sold in Europe, according to the DEA’s own estimates. Cali, more importantly, formed a key node in an international network that stretched from Argentina to Mexico and had inextricable ties to various U.S.-backed intelligence services and militaries. For instance, Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros, the well-ensconced Honduran trafficker credited with forging the Bolivia-Colombia-Mexico cocaine pipeline, was a known Cali Cartel associate long before his airline received U.S. State Department “humanitarian aid” contracts to assist the drug-funded Nicaraguan Contra armies. Numerous demobilized paramilitary commanders have testified that Miguel Maza Márquez, then-head of Colombia’s Administrative Security Department (DAS), a domestic intelligence agency that colluded in the “political genocide” of the Colombian left and was later shuttered due to rampant criminality, was on the Cali Cartel payroll. Escobar himself certainly thought so, which is why he detonated a half-ton truck bomb outside of DAS headquarters.
Narcos occasionally tries to reckon with the implications of prosecuting a war that invariably creates the conditions for its further perpetuation. But the best the show can come up with is the tired commentary of a jaded drug cop. By the end of Season 3, Peña has had it with empty victories. He’s just discovered that the Cali Cartel financed the campaign of Colombian President Ernesto Samper, and that the U.S. embassy knew about it and did nothing. Extraditing the Orejuela brothers, he says, is a cheap smokescreen for “governments who don’t give a shit about the war they’re supposed to be fighting to go on pretending they’re winning it.” In reality, Proceso 8000, as the Samper scandal became known, broke almost immediately after his election. U.S. officials never attempted to cover it up; they used it to apply immense public pressure for accelerated economic liberalization and the escalation of paramilitarized counterinsurgency packaged as counter-narcotics aid. The drug war, says an exhausted Peña, “can’t be won.” Narcos is neither willing nor capable of contemplating the possibility that it already has been.
Steven Cohen is a master's candidate at NYU's global journalism program. His reporting on Colombia has appeared in BBC, The New Republic, The Nation, Vice, and Colombia Reports, where he worked as an editor.