Not Your Average Narcos Review

Did anyone watch "Narcos?" I was not impressed. They should have named it "Narcs" -- it's the story of two U.S. drug agents helping Colombia nab Escobar. It's not the story of Esobar, it's the agents' story, and it's got some factual issues. If you want the real flavor of who these agents are, read some Congressional Hearing testimony from around 1993 or their description of their time in Colombia over at the DEA Museum where they gave a tour. [More...]

My biggest criticism is the voice over narration by one agent. It seriously drags the show down. It's also a lecture, not a recitation of history, and I'd take issue with several of his statements. All in all, Narcos is both plodding and jumpy, too detailed and not specific enough where it counts. It's not half the show Pablo Esobar: Patron de Mal was. At least that series humanized everyone -- narcos, crooked cops and victims. It was also a more accurate rendition of Escobar's rise and fall.

The traffickers and hitmen in Narcos are portrayed as one dimensional. Escobar is particularly flat. We learn little about them.

"Narcos" is also hardly the "true story" of American involvement in the War on Drugs or takedown of Pablo Escobar. Conveniently, it ends with Esocobar's escape from the Cathedral, avoiding the creation of the Pepes and having to deal with how the Pepes, with the aid of the right wing paramilitary groups led by the Castano Brothers and later Don Berna, with funding from the Cali Cartel, acted in concert with the Search Bloc to locate and kill Pablo Escobar and kill scores of others.

To this day, the extent of our Government's passive participation in the Pepe's violence (by turning over intelligence to the Colombian police who most know were sharing it with the Pepes and receiving information from the Pepes) has not been resolved. Just two weeks ago, a federal court ordered the Government to turn over more documents in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that has been going on for six years over the issue.

A federal judge ordered the CIA to release more records on its involvement in the killing of Pablo Escobar, and a Colombian death squad.

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the CIA to prepare a Vaughn Index, identifying each document it claims is exempt from disclosure and explaining how declassification would hurt U.S. interests....Judge Lamberth found the declarations released from CIA National Clandestine Service agents "insufficient."

Here is the now declassified 1993 U.S. cable, Unraveling the Pepes Tangled Web All of the declassified cables are available here, just scroll down.

In the Netflix series, the two DEA agents, from whose point of view Narcos is told, blame the rise of Escobar on the U.S. for waiting too long to get into the war on drugs. I'd say it was our militarization of the war on drugs in Colombia and elsewhere that caused the problem in the first place -- it ramped up the violence. The entire U.S. "kingpin" strategy was flawed, and that's all these agents were a part of: a specific mission to take out (not capture) Escobar and the Medellin cartel.

Narcos barely touches on the corruption in the Colombia police and military, and it glosses over the involvement of the Delta Forces, Navy’s Seal Team Six and the right wing paramilitaries.

Narcos is not an anti-drug war show. It constantly decries the fact that U.S.. hands were tied by being limited to wiretapping and riding along with the Colombians. (Although we know now that's not all they did.)

If you read the now declassified cables from the time, you'll see what a slanted version this show gives. If I get time, I'll write about it more, with links to many source documents. Mark Bowden's book, Killing Pablo, is also good on this point. It even names the second informant working with the Pepes and Cali Cartel who was feeding Javier Pena and the Search bloc information on Escober.

Senor de Los Cielos (season 3 ends next week and has been renewed for a fourth season), El Cartel (I and II), Esobar: Patron de Mal and even En El Boca del Lobo (the story of the takedown of the Cali cartel) are all way better than Narcos. Netflix has them all now, with subtitles.

The two DEA agents in Narcos left Colombia the day after Escobar was killed. While I'm not a fan of any DEA agents or cop shows, I will say the two agents who succeeded them to go after the Cali Cartel were more likable and competent -- at least as they were portrayed in En el Boca del Lobo, which does a thorough job of exposing the corruption in the Colombian government, military and police forces.

Here are the two agents from the Netflix series today:

Here's a typical Murphy statement that's not in the show but available at the DEA Museum website from his tour of the Escobar exhibit:

The point that we both agree on that we wanna leave you with, a couple points actually, is, one, here’s a guy who was rated number—the number seven richest man in the world. Look at his fat butt up there now. That’s what happens. You know, how infamous is he now? He’s just another doper. The second thing is, yes, we were there, we participated, we made sacrifices. DEA was the forefront of this entire investigation.

Memo to Former Agent Murphy: he's more infamous now than ever. Patron de Mal has 74 episodes and has aired all over the world. His hitman Popeye, let out of jail after 23 years last year, is in the news almost every day, being quoted on everything narco-related, including El Chapo. Every year there's another book, another tv series, another movie about Escobar.

Right now, Tom Cruise is in Colombia for the beginning of filming of Mena, a new movie about Barry Seal, Escobar, the Contras, Noriega, etc. Even today, defense lawyers arguing for a reasonable bond tell judges, "Your Honor, my client isn't Pablo Esobar." Escobar committed horrible crimes, but as Colombians know, so did their government and the right wing paramilitaries -- which worked hand in glove with the Colombian police and army. Not only has Esocbar's notoriety grown, he's now become a legend. El Chapo is headed in the same direction.

Colombia keeps his notoriety alive in other ways. In 2015, it's still putting people on trial for the 1989 murder of presidential candidate Galan. On trial now (for the third or fourth time) is former DAS chief Miguel Maza Marquez, now age 80. Marquez was Pablo's biggest enemy --Pablo tried to kill him half a dozen times, including blowing up the DAS building where scores were killed and wounded. Masa Marquez emerged unscathed -- his office, and only his office, was encased in steel.

Colombia has decided that Maza switched out Galan's security detail a few days before Galan was killed, and therefore he must have been complicit with his enemy Escobar in taking out Galan. Who's was on the prosecution's witness list? Both Popeye, one of Esobar's top sicarios, and Cali Cartel leaders, the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers. (The latter were to testify by Skype from their U.S. federal prison where they are doing 30 years.)

Maza's lawyer was able to block Popeye's testimony at the last minute on the grounds that he's a publicity seeker and not credible due to his new book. As for the Cali Cartel leaders, well they're as clever as ever. Two weeks ago they said we'll testify, but first you have let us testify in the case against one of our sons. He's been held 6 years without trial on money laundering charges. They repeatedly asked to give evidence for years and Colombia said so sorry, we have no money to send prosecutors to interview you. Well, now that they have money for the brothers to testify about Maza, there should be no stumbling block to first letting them testify for their son/nephew. The Supreme Court put the trial on hold as it mulls this over.

Who else did they trot out for Maza's trial? Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela's last wife, and a paramilitary bigwig, Ivan Duque. It's like old home week back at the Colombia Supreme Court. They'll never kill the narcos' notoriety this way.

Contrary to what Murphy believes, Esobar in death has achieved even greater notoriety. than he had in life. He now has legend status. The public's appetite for all things Escobar, Senor de los Cielos, El Chapo, etc. just grows and grows the more the Government chases them. Drugs are only half of the problem -- the other half is corruption, the militarization of law enforcement and the use of the military in the war against drugs. It's the second half, not the drugs, that fuels the most violence.

A couple of trivial criticisms: How much do the Narco producers know about drugs? Look at these packages. They each are supposed to represent a kilo. They look more like 8 oz or a pound to me.

Here's what a kilo looks like (these are each one kilo). No way you could put five of them in that sport coat. (I've also never seen another source claim Pablo's mother sewed jackets knowing they were going to hold kilos of cocaine. She was a huge enabler of her son, but Narcos turns her into a willing participant in his drug business.)

And I never heard of coke going for $150,000 a kilo even back in the early 80's.

Also, the scene with Escobar in bed with his wife when the Cali Cartel bombed the Monaco where his wife and kids were living seems wrong. Escobar didn't live there and wasn't there when it happened. Just his mother, wife and kids were there. Most books and news accounts say he wasn't there, and Jorge Saucedo, who was Cali's chief of security at the time,and whom the U.S. used to take down the Rodriguez-Orejuela brothers, says in his book "En El Boco Del Lobo":

The show also is difficult to follow from a timeline perspective. In Episode 1, Murphy says it's 1989 in Colombia and the show then goes right into the shooting of an Escobar hitman named "Poison", along with an innocent mother of two, at a nightclub. But Murphy has said a million times he didn't get to Colombia until 3 days before Escobar surrendered to the Cathedral (1991.) Then in the last episode, after the Cathedral killings of Galeano and Moncado and Escobar's escape (1992), one of the Cali cartel leaders kidnaps Murphy and shows him photos from the nightclub massacre resulting from Murphy's tip-off to the Colombian cops, and says it happened "several weeks ago." The entire show has these timing issues, making it very confusing.

So, should you watch Narcos? Yes, as long as you realize it's a show about narcs, not narcos.

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    I Am On Episode 4 (none / 0) (#1)
    by ScottW714 on Wed Sep 02, 2015 at 11:21:14 AM EST
    Yeah, if you are looking for a documentary, this ain't it, but it is really good IMO.

    And not for nothing, 5 kilos is 11 pounds, which before pat down and scanner days could easily fit into a jacket.  Whether it was in 5 packs or 11 opr 20, why would it matter.  I was actually somewhat inadvertently involved in a deal of 4 keys, they were $15k each about 5 years ago.  But I had not even noticed they claimed a key was worth $150k.  That is really funny, even at the gram level a ridiculous statement, but then again I have no idea what blow went for in the 70's.

    But I remember reading why it took so long to come down on coke was because only the wealthy could afford it, the rich and famous drug, so they didn't bother with cracking down until it was too late, and too cheap.

    I also like that it is narrated by an actual DEA agent because it clearly shows just how wrong they are, were, and will always be about how and why they fail in stopping the importation and use of drugs.  He paints himself as some sort of savior, which works well because if anything he is just as scum bag as anyone else, and the show exploits his dumbassery IMO. I am positive that was not an error.  They in no way make the narrator out to be the good guy IMO, if anything they show time and time again just how naive the DEA was/is in dealing with traffickers in a 3rd world, and how his ambition outweighed his American sense.  I mean letting someone in Columbia photocopy your passport, jesus.

    I also like how they show the interworkings of a cartel, whether it's actually fact base, who knows, but this is a pretty secretive group with people dying all the time and seems unlikely that they would actually be able to find out exactly what was going on without using sources that surely have motives.  But it worked well, as I doubt many actually get to witness it firsthand and live long enough to tell about it.  So for entertainment it was really good IMO, but if you are doing research, probably not so good.

    One thing I really didn't like, even from the DEA perspective, they aren't showing the actual violence that was happening.  It definitely romanticizing both the trafficking and the DEA, and while they talk about killing family members and politicians, they rarely show it or even mention that it was being done is mass, ditto with the torture, they mention it offhandedly, but so far none.  Not that I want to see it, but I think a movie about a extremely violent drug trade needs to show just how ruthless Escobar & Co. really were, and same with the people tracking them down.

    I would recommend it for what it is, drama based loosely on actual events, which makes it like most other series about actual people.  IMO it's better than Breaking Bad, which I found to be so absurdly fake, that I could not get past season one.  Granted it's not based on anything, but still too ridiculous for me to watch and the transition from show to show was intolerable. From no way out to solving the problem lickety split.