There was a time not long ago when Medellin could only be spoken about outside of Colombia as the world capital of murder.
Its violence required superlatives: lots of “mosts” and “worsts.” Organized cocaine traffickers and the Colombian state had merged to create an immense system of indiscriminate cruelty. Nothing separated the methods used by the police in their hunt for notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar from those used by his sicarios to punish and intimidate the police. In 1991, two years before the death of Escobar, a city famous for its year-long spring had the death rate of a warzone.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, reminders of this suffering are today exchangeable for cash. A day which begins with a tour of Escobar’s Edificio Mónaco — a now-eerily silent structure he once used for torture and meals with the family — might very well end at Comuna 13, a barrio that was long impenetrable to outsiders and considered the city’s most violent, but which today attracts tourists with brightly painted street art and charming local guides.
Travelers arrive in Medellin informed by their guidebooks that the state’s “urbanismo social” has transformed the city into a model of inclusive innovation and peace. Some, mostly middle-aged gringos with little interest in the history of Colombia, make excruciatingly clear the fact that justice is never as simple as an end to war: “peace,” for them, means access to underage sex and dirt-cheap cocaine — the pleasures of a “South American Amsterdam,” a motif that often comes up in conversations with visitors to the city.
Not coincidentally, lately what links these travelers, almost to a person, is that they arrive at this new El Dorado having just watched Narcos.
History as Told by the Police
Narcos is not a biography of Escobar, it’s a kind of map of his era. Rather than developing characters through a sequence of slow, loosely connected, everyday vignettes, the show builds itself chronologically around a hard historical axis. Its opening credits intercut stylish documentary footage with shots of the instruments used by police in the 1970s to detect, confirm, and store facts. Period listening devices, topographic maps, redacted documents: we are encouraged to anticipate what follows as grittily forensic.
This is exacerbated by the clear intention of the show to escape the limits of the “mostly true story,” which usually foregrounds persons and psychologies, not structures or events. Narcos, though, expands the frame of the narrative to include the period’s broader geopolitical detail: Reagan, Noriega, the Sandinistas — they’re all here. Things feel big, raw, World Historical.
It matters that Narcos tells its story in voiceover from the perspective of an American DEA agent, Steve Murphy. This is history as told by the police. The show’s core truths are the kinds of things said by cops who have “seen shit” we can only imagine: close encounters with the specificity of crime scenes have shown them that the last thing standing between human nature and disaster is a law with fangs.
To catch what the narrator calls a “bad guy,” the “good guys” are going to have to get their hands a little dirty. Anyone who doubts this — those who naively cling to the ideals of due process or rule of law — haven’t “spent enough time with the bad guys.” Evil, is on this account, a kind of school or training ground for experts in authority. Though we’re told that the line between good and bad is relative, there’s never any doubt as to where it actually lies.
Of course, there’s nothing new in any of this. Police dramas have always hidden their conservatism — a taste for law and order, for justice as punishment — behind an image of rebellion. Brash, prone to booze and fistfights, congenitally allergic to authority, the rebel cop is a figure that allows the viewer to indulge in the frisson of broken rules without actually challenging them.
It’s true we’re shown the narrator’s blind-spots. Murphy’s Spanish is terrible. He can only silently blink when given a brief history of American crimes in the region. His ignorance, however, isn’t seen as a weakness — it actually allows for greater clarity in diagnosing the region’s problems.
Murphy is no wonk, he’s an intuitive anyman. The wonk gets lost in grey abstractions and puts off action in the name of the comfortably probable. The rebel cop dives head-first into a bunny-hole based on hunches.
Order dressed as rebellious rupture; stupidity sold as “outside-the-box” intuitiveness; aggression as a necessity for winning. Isn’t this precisely the shape of authority in the age of Trump, the charm at the heart of hard-right populism?
Alongside the oxymoron of the non-conformist cop, Narcos sets up a second axis of political desire: the narco-revolutionary.
From the beginning, we are encouraged to see Escobar as a figure of revolt, a revolutionary whose origins in authentic poverty differentiate him from a run-of-the-mill gangster capitalist. After allotting a single episode to the early history of Escobar’s actual “business,” the phase between 1975 and 1982 in which he constructs a system of clients, laboratories, and trade routes under the imperative “plata o plomo,” “silver or lead” (the latter as in bullets) — the show begins the action of the narrative at his 1983 congressional campaign.
This choice reveals Escobar to be someone focused less on money than retaliatory justice. On these terms Escobar’s narco-empire comes to appear like a working-class revolt against the rule of the oligarchs.
It is not just that Escobar has political ambition: he is depicted as having allowed his passion for politics to subordinate and endanger the interests of business and family. Lest we dismiss Escobar’s pursuit of a seat in Congress (and beyond it, the presidency itself) as empty political realism — a strategy of survival, a desire for personal power — the show goes out its way to insist that in the last instance Escobar is motivated by justice: “what I want, sincerely” he says in private to a friend “is to help the poor people of this country.”
This takes on greater relevance in the context of how the show represents extra-parliamentary leftism. In a bizarre scene, Escobar is shown solemnly accepting Simon Bolívar’s sword from the leader of M-19, a socialist guerilla group active at the time. When, in 1974, M-19 commandos stole the relic from a museum in Bogotá, they did so to underscore their desire to complete the revolution begun, but left unfinished, by Bolívar.
Narcos, then, relies on the revolutionary credentials of communism to legitimize Escobar’s politics, while at the same time negating leftism by linking militancy to idealist infantilism and blindness. Communism, it seems to suggest, is the perennial temptation of the stupid, of foolish children and women, but also of that most childish and effeminate of figures: the male leftist intellectual.
If the bureaucratic wonk constantly defers action, the communist child always acts too soon. Comprised of middle-class university students who have “read too much Karl Marx,” led by a blundering history professor (Iván Marino Ospina), the guerrillas are framed as the gullible victims of book-learning. Heads in books, the past, or the clouds are all in the wrong place. In a classic liberal-pragmatist gesture, left activism is portrayed as slavery to theory and dogma.
The series denounces the guerillas for eschewing peace and parliament while at the same time mocking them for being bad at violence. Though the paramilitary right are described as “psychopaths,” they’re at least granted the dignity of competence: they kill with meticulous efficiency, even if they take a little too much pleasure in their work.
Narcos doesn’t trace the origins of left militancy to the repressive anti-communism of the Colombian state or to the indignities of Colombia’s rural political economy. Instead, it frames communism as national pathology, an echo from Colombia’s oldest cultural neurosis: magical realism. Colombia is, after all, “a country where dreams and reality are conflated, where in their heads people fly as high as Icarus”.
A clear opposition begins to take shape. Narco-revolutionism is unconscious and organic rather than utopian and repressed, authentically working class rather than naively vanguardist, and operates directly against the state and existing distributions of wealth rather than waiting for a revolution that never actually comes.
Where communism merely speaks about housing as a social and historical problem, narco-revolutionism physically builds the houses needed by poor people. Narco-revolution is lusty machismo, a thrilling anti-ideology; communism, meanwhile, is dull, one long ideological snore.
Where the guerillas are ignored by the many or simply despised — we’re told that in the countryside farmers live in a state of outright “communist subjugation” — Escobar is able to constantly evade capture by melting into the poorest barrios like a ghost.
The way the show chooses to represent the 1985 Siege of the Palace of Justice event is especially telling. This was, next to the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, the most iconic political event of the century in Colombia. Narcos represents the siege as entirely orchestrated by Escobar with the guerrillas and their political ideals a mere proxy for his desire: legal evidence against him was stored in the building and he wanted it destroyed.
Though this remains a popular conspiracy theory — this evidence did exist and it was destroyed during the attack — most historians believe that records were set alight when the Colombian military chose to open fire on the Palace with tanks, killing senators, guerillas, and administrative personnel indiscriminately.
Though the guerillas announced a set of demands “about the redistribution of wealth and an end to injustice and tyranny,” we’re told by the cynically realist voiceover that it was all just “bullshit.” We’re reminded again of something our culture’s deepest investments have already long taught us: injustice is so much a part of capitalist societies that those who speak of abolishing it can only be intuited as the ultimate liars, tricksters to the very core.
The narco’s claims can be believed because they don’t pretend to be pure. Like Trump, Escobar is a dealmaker, a figure whose potency is based on mimicking, not resisting, the corruption at the heart of marketized life. In a world of deals, only the sleazebag can be trusted never to lie to us about the existence of utopias.
When Narcos is not offering a romanticized view of Escobar, it tacks toward the gooey center of Colombian politics: El Partido Liberal. As narco-revolutionary violence slides into nihilist incoherence and cruelty, the series foregrounds a new hero: Dr. César Gaviria, president of Colombia between 1990 and 1994 and a key early architect of neoliberal reform in the country.
Like Escobar, he is sold as a revolutionary outsider, a diligent anti-oligarch capable of attacking bureaucratic corruption from within. Where Escobar attacks the corrupt Colombian state with explosives — a narcissist violence that ends up destroying him — Gaviria chooses instead to strictly observe political principles. He is a proper liberal-centrist saint.
But turning the Colombian Liberal Party into a vector of transformative purity is a remarkably dishonest act of political fiction on the part of the series. For most of the twentieth century, political power in Colombia was divided with miserable consistency between two parties: the Conservatives, traditionally linked to the country’s latifundista elite, and the Liberals, a party associated with the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie, institutionalized labor (sometimes), and the country’s professional middle class.
Though diarchy has effectively been the rule in Colombia since 1849, this arrangement was explicitly institutionalized during the years of the Frente Nacional (1958-74), a power-sharing agreement in which four-year terms were mechanically (and undemocratically) rotated between the two parties. Left alternatives, when not outright banned, have traditionally been repressed, either by way of direct state violence or through paramilitary proxies.
Narcos represents Gaviria as a high-minded reformer whose origins in the discipline of economics promise to infuse Colombian politics with the middle-class moral rectitude of the accountant. He is portrayed as someone who, at great personal risk, has the political will to finally free Colombia from its long cycle of corruption and violence.
Sidestepped entirely is Gaviria’s role in bringing free-market reforms to the Colombian economy.
Gaviria passed legislation to flexibilize labor (Law 50) and disempower unions, privatize state assets and pensions, marketize health care (Law 100), and shift the economy away from protected state interventionism towards a free-market model of development. As was the case elsewhere in the region, in the wake of neoliberal reform, high rates of growth masked the social suffering produced by the reduction of services and a sharply increased rate of unemployment.
Gaviria’s self-avowed “revolución pacífica” took as its core theme the slogan “There will be a future!” — a sentiment the series imbues with great historical and affective import.
In an era which forces populations to choose between various kinds of disaster — eco-catastrophe, mass unemployment, new forms of social violence and alienation — and technocratic tweaks to the system, this is the ultimate neoliberal slogan. Progress isn’t a more just future — it’s any future at all.
Bad Boy Seventies Moustache
Twenty-five years after the death of Escobar, Medellin has changed. Couples hold hands on roller blades, shirtless joggers are a regular sight. The number of people murdered each year in the city has thankfully dropped. All over the city, one finds artsy public spaces and bright new modern libraries. Nobody confuses thunder with a car bomb.
But wages are low and rents are high. There are very few good jobs. “Fronteras invisibles” — zones of control run by local gangs — still crisscross neighborhoods with fatal stakes. There’s reason to believe that as violent deaths have declined, the number of people physically forced out of neighborhoods has actually increased: displacement may be part of an agreement between the state and the gangs to better manage the city’s international brand. Some think the gangs are simply killing smarter.
Narcos appears at a moment in which Medellin ranks among the trendiest travel destinations in Latin America. For those who want their travel edgy but progressive, Narcos sells an impression of political diligence. Such travelers can leave the city feeling they’ve played a role in its renaissance: dollars spent locally on artisanal bags have helped to grow its economy and bury the bad old days of violence.
At the same time, Narcos traffics in an image of Colombia that presents Medellin as a macho, nihilist utopia. Free-flowing booze and cocaine; ignorance styled as “outside the box” charm or intuition; a world organized around the petty male glory of the vendetta — all of this is combined to produce an atmosphere of rebellion against the limits of a present stifled by convention.
Narcos dreams a Medellin that is gone for good. But its resonance with the desire of a right-wing populism that craves unbridled power, the fascist spectacle of a man without limits, means it may be more an image of the future than the past.