Narcos: an intelligent gangster series

Still from Narcos
Narcos: a realistic portrayal of the drug business

Narcos (Seasons One and Two)

Arrow Films, £19.98

(Buy at Amazon)

A few weeks ago Netflix released the third season of Narcos, a series that covers the rise and fall of the various Colombian drug cartels. It’s therefore a good time to review the first two series, which are now out on DVD, and which mainly focus on Pablo Escobar, the most infamous of the druglords. As the narrator points out, Escobar may have been a ruthless psychopath, but it was the impact of his “business activities” on the trade balance that ultimately forced America’s hand and made it seek to put an end to his activities. At one point Escobar was rich enough credibly to offer to cover Colombia’s national debt in return for amnesty.

While the series makes clear that Escobar was a murderous savage who brought his country to its knees, Narcos also hints at his idealistic side, as evidenced by his brief foray into politics and his lavishing of funds on worthy projects in poor areas. Similarly, while the forces of law and order showed tremendous courage in standing up to him, they were far from clean themselves, and the series doesn’t shy away from the gory details.

Narcos is strongest when it focuses on the wider political and economic context. Two-thirds of the way through Season One we are introduced to Raúl Méndez, who plays President César Gaviria, and Manolo Cardona as the vice-minister of justice. Both Méndez and Cardona give compelling performances as two brave men who overcame political pressure to continue the fight against Escobar, even though they knew that he was willing and able to declare war on the state. However, despite the efforts of the army, police and Drug Enforcement Administration, the tipping point came when Escobar’s rivals, along with right-wing death squads, turned against him. His eventual killing, which brings Season Two to an end, ends up being the start of a new era of terror. Season Three focuses on the Cali Cartel, Escobar’s successors.

Given the series is a realistic portrayal of what happened, you should expect violence, though this is rarely portrayed gratuitously. Overall, this is an intelligent gangster series that goes beyond the usual clichés to take a more detailed look at the drug trade as a business.