Narcos: Making a cocaine caper out of Colombia's long nightmare
Pablo Escobar is the subject of a slick new Netflix drama but not everyone will be watching
There are moments in Narcos, the new true-crime drama from Netflix, when cocaine baron Pablo Escobar seems like a pretty cool dude. With his wacky Hawaiian shirts, porn-star moustache and laconic manner, as portrayed by actor Wagner Moura, Escobar has the mercurial dazzle of a Quentin Tarantino character. He's a monster, no question - but a charisma-oozing, large-than-life one.
The reality is more complex and the mere fact of Narcos existence has generated controversy in Colombia, the country Escobar and his cartel essentially held hostage for 15 years.
The show, debuting on Netflix this weekend, also raises wider questions as to the appropriateness of repackaging real-life tragedy and suffering for entertainment. Escobar was a sociopathic criminal who destroyed the lives of thousands - ought he really be grist for a fast-paced cops and robbers fandango?
To an extent, Narcos is a victim of its own over-achievement. Having sat down to several early episodes, this writer can testify Netflix's latest offering is, no pun intended, an absolute blast. Stylish, fast-paced, with a swagger that recalls original 1980s cocaine caper Miami Vice, Netflix has brought us the dictionary definition of a romp.
Anyone partial to shoot-outs, car-chases and endless sequences in which the leaders of the most powerful crime families in town hash things out at Godfather-style board meetings will want to binge on the entire 10 episodes. In a way, that's the problem. Imagine an American TV network making a shallow, silly, yet deeply addictive show about the IRA of the 1970s - a blur of jump-cuts and moody shots of men in balaclavas. We'd be appalled, because we would understand the horror behind the cliches.
"Escobar was a thug and a terrorist," says Mike O'Brien, Irish-born general manager of the English language Bogota Post. "Outside Colombia, he may have the Robin Hood nostalgia attached by people who do not know the whole truth.
"The fact remains that he almost destroyed the country, waged war on the city of Bogota, assassinated presidential candidates and murdered hundreds, maybe thousands, innocent or not. Who would want to have to constantly relive these horrors? What nation wouldn't want to try an bury this horrible past and move on with their lives?"
At the height of his influence, Escobar's Medellin cartel constituted a state within a state. To his enemies, the portly kingpin offered a straightforward choice of silver or lead ("plato o plomo"). That is, accept a bribe or take a bullet to the head. In a country where the rule of law was already often threadbare and vast wealth disparities meant the haves were comprehensively out-numbered by the have-nots, it was no surprise many opted for the less violent option.
Controlling 80pc of the cocaine trafficked to the United States through the 1980s, Escobar was worth billions (in 1987 Forbes magazine listed him as the seventh wealthiest individual in the world) and ruthless in defence of his empire, sanctioning the murder of thousands of policeman, the bombing of Bogota, the assassination of senior politicians.
Shipping cocaine on customised Boeing 727s, by submarine, via a constant stream of drug mules, at its peak, his operation was reaping $60m per day. Such was the cartel's reach, Escobar's lieutenants thought nothing of bombing a passenger jet departing Bogota because they (wrongly) believed a police witness on board (a long-term mistake as it ultimately brought down the full force of American military).
But there was more to Escobar than greed and a capacity for limitless violence. When not sleeping with underage prostitutes or smoking his way through endless quantities of marijuana (he never touched cocaine), Escobar fancied himself Colombia's Che Guevara.
In the context of Colombia's yawning social divide and endemic deprivation, in Medellin he admittedly did some good, building hospitals and bankrolling sports facilities (anyone rejecting his generosity inevitably ended up at the side of the road with a bullet through the head).
Through his life he wanted to be accepted by Colombia's patrician elite, the Bogota blue-bloods who had held an unassailable grip on power since independence. "I am Pablo Escobar Gaviria," he declares early in Narcos. "And one day I'm going to be president of the Republic of Colombia." He absolutely meant it.
"To the end of his life he was like a poor kid who wanted to be accepted and loved," was how Moura described Escobar to me recently. "To have the child within alive is very important to certain professions - if you are an artist, for instance. In Pablo's case, his child made him very charismatic, very interesting.
"At the same time, it was extremely destructive. 'You're not going to play with me? Okay, I'm going to smash the whole place up.' That was the kind of child Pablo had inside."
Narcos consciously blurs the moral line between criminals and police. It acknowledges that Escobar had an idealistic side and that the forces of law and order were prepared to play outside the rules in order to bring him down. It's a fascinating portrait of a society where right and wrong are spun on their head.
"The bad guys, the good guys, they have something in common: they are human beings," said Narcos director José Padilha.
"Human beings who, depending on the context, may drop their ethical stance to get the job done… This is what happens in real life." In Colombia, Escobar is agreed to have been one of the worst things to happen to the country - when the elite Search Bloc special forces unit finally caught up with Pablo in 1993, gunning him down as he "resisted arrest" (a euphemism for summary execution), the nation celebrated.
Yes, some in Medellin mourned him - to this day he is regarded as a folk hero in sections of the city. Across Colombia, however, his death was perceived as the end of a nightmare.
"Over here there seems to be a constant barrage of reminders to their darker past - be it in the form of the seemingly never-ending 'narco dramas' on TV, standard derogatory stereotypes from Hollywood, or simply an outsider's lack of knowledge about what this country truly is, says the Bogota Post's O'Brien.
"Over the past 20 years the country has done it's utmost to remove the shackles of 'cocaine' and Escobar's legacy, and have done a remarkably good job of leaving that history behind and becoming a modern, developed, educated country - to the point that you can see Colombians physically cringe when an uninitiated, fresh off the boat backpacker happens to mention 'how cool was Escobar?' or that they have come here to sample some of the 'local delicacies'.
"Far too often, Colombia is seen as a cocaine destination for many backing-packing tourists, so it is with no wonder that in certain parts of the country that foreigners are treated with disdain."