Netflix’s new series Narcos opens with the quote “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia“, and they are right.
For many years, we have heard the story of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria (Wagner Moura), the man that came from nothing, built an empire on drug money and was even featured on Forbes magazine, worth more money than General Motors. Yes, that man whose figure seems like a myth, and that after many movies, documentaries, and series, we get a new take on his story on Netflix, this time around focusing more on the Americans and the DEA in Colombia that helped to track him down.
Descenso begins with DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) comparing the difference between tracking down a drug kingpin back in the 80s as to how easy it is today to track someone’s cellphone. You could say that Murphy is Narcos‘ voice: while some may find the voiceover a bit too much, his narration is essential for the series, especially those that are unaware of Escobar’s story and Colombian politics from this decade. Murphy’s narration is supported by photographs and videos that reflect the events at the time to support the narrative.
One of Escobar’s hit men or sicarios, Poison (Jorge A. Jimenez), makes a phone call through a satellite phone which is picked up by a DEA plane. After finding out about his location, Murphy alerts the local police about Poison and the other sicarios meeting at a Karaoke Bar, which ends up in a shooting sequence in which the police take down the men as well as other innocent partygoers inside the bar. In a way, Murphy basically started this bloodbath, but “don’t call him a bad guy just yet“.
After the opening credits scene, Murphy goes back to the 70s to tell us more about how cocaine drug trafficking started when Richard Nixon thought Chile’s Augusto Pinochet was one of the good guys because he hated the communists. Little did the US know, Pinochet ended up killing and disappearing thousands of people in Chile during his dictatorship. In 1973, Chile was poised to become the top cocaine processing and exporting center in the world, but Pinochet had different plans: he shut down the labs and arrested drug dealers, who in true Pinochet fashion, shot them all on the spot. All but one, Cucaracha (Luis Gnecco), who pretended to be dead and managed to take his coke business to Colombia because the best smugglers were there.
Confident about his product, Cucaracha had three options: the Ochoa brothers, Jorge(André Mattos) and Fabio (Roberto Urbina), who had a lot of money but Cucaracha thought that being too rich made them soft. Then there was Jose Rodriguez Gacha (Luis Guzman) aka The Mexican, an emerald smuggler that didn’t hesitate to kill his enemies or partners, which Cucaracha thought made him too hard. Last but not least, there was Pablo Escobar, an experienced smuggler that had over half of the Medellin police bought. In our first scene meeting Pablo, he’s stopped by DAS who are Colombia’s version of the FBI. DAS aren’t easily bought and Pablo knows this, he didn’t even hide the products in the back of the trucks. However, he happens to know every single detail about each agent that stopped him and uses this as leverage. He knows their full names, their wives names, their children, everything. In the most respectful but threatening way, Pablo manages to scare off DAS members and let’s them know that he has eyes everywhere and knows exactly what they and their families are doing. Either they accept the money, or accept the consequences: plata o plomo.
In the following scene, Pablo and his cousin Gustavo (Juan Pablo Raba) meet with Cucaracha who explains how he’ll be in charge of the chemical side of making the cocaine and for them to help him smuggle it in Colombia, to which Pablo, a man with vision says: “If we can sell it here for $10, imagine how much it would cost in Miami“.
Cut to agent Steve Murphy in Miami in 1979, chasing down marihuana drug dealers, before the cocaine craze started. We get to see Murphy with his friends at a bowling alley where he meets Connie (Joanna Christie), who ends up becoming his wife.
We move on to Pablo and Gustavo going to one of Cucaracha’s labs in the Peruvian jungle where we get to see the process behind making cocaine. Pablo, being a man of ambition, decides to take 60 kilos of paste (and make $500,000 in one trip) using the same smuggling routes they have used before. From here on, Pablo buys a home in his neighborhood as well as their first lab in Medellin where they turn the paste into cocaine.
The family business wasn’t only Pablo and his cousin, we meet Pablo’s wife Tata (Paulina Gaitan) and also meet his mother Hermilda (Paulina Garcia) who helps them sew a jacket in which they will put their first coke bags to be smuggled in the US by The Lion (Jon-Michael Ecker). The Lion’s contact in Miami was Carlos Lehder (Juan Redinger) who used to fly shipments of marihuana from Colombia to the US. The Lion had to find new ways to smuggle the drugs, so he started by asking the pilots to carry it in their suitcases and drug mules.
Slowly but surely, cocaine was inside almost every Colombian exported good, but the real game changer came when Pablo met Carlos Lehder and started to fill up his plane with cocaine for daily flights to Miami.
Back in Miami, drugs are killing people daily in the streets which prompts Ronald Reagan to declare the War on Drugs. Murphy, who was used to chasing down hippies with weed, feels that he isn’t making much of a difference to end the war on drugs by staying in Miami and decides to move to Colombia with his wife.
On the other hand, Cucaracha becomes aggravated about not getting his fair share from the business and hijacks one of Pablo’s shipments by tipping off a DAS agent about how much the drugs are worth. Pablo then decides to take matters into his own hands and stops by the DAS office to talk to the agent..
The agent wanted to renegotiate their deal since they knew now that the shipment was worth over $4 million, to which Pablo replies he’ll pay him $1 million under the condition that he tells him the name of the person in Pablo’s organization that told him about the street value of the drugs. The name was Cucaracha, who ended up being shot by Pablo.
Meanwhile in Miami, Murphy and his partner are going as undercover to pick up drugs from one of Cucaracha’s contacts, but in a sudden turn of events Pablo’s men shoot them, only Murphy surviving. Now more than ever, Murphy feels as if it’s his duty to crack down on the drug kingpins in Colombia and the only way to do so is by moving there.
The episode ends going back to the Karaoke Bar shooting, and Pablo being informed that his hit men were killed by the police with the help of the DEA. He raises the bounty to $500,000 for the head of each member of the DEA in Colombia.
Narcos does a great job of introducing us to the figure of Pablo Escobar, the family man who was also a kingpin, the man with so much money he could by anything and anyone. Not only do we get to know him as a character so driven by his ambition, we also get to know the events that led to the mass production and trafficking of cocaine, and most importantly: the meaning behind the politics at the time which are vital in order to fully understand Escobar’s story. Indeed, magical realism was born in Colombia: there is no other way to tell this story without having people wonder what’s real and what isn’t.