‘Narcos’ vs. narco novelas: In Latin America’s cartel TV shows, a compelling complexity
Journalist Ana María Solozábal is investigating the jailhouse activities of a notorious trafficker inside a Bogotá prison when she learns from an inmate that her father, a judge who was assassinated by the cartels when she was a young girl, may have been linked to those same cartels in unsavory ways.
As soon as she hears the news, her face tightens and she seems unable to decide where to cast her gaze. Was her father complicit in the system he was purportedly trying to take down? Within seconds, the moral certitude with which she’s always carried herself — knowing which side of the drug war she stood upon — is destroyed.
This wrenching scene is from the 2017 Colombian series “Surviving Escobar: Alias J.J.,” inspired by the tale of a notorious hit man who was once one of Pablo Escobar’s most trusted henchmen. In the show, Solozábal, played by Natasha Klauss, is investigating the sicario’s criminal doings when she stumbles into her own family’s secret history.
“From one moment to the next,” she says later, “the man I had loved and idolized was turned into a stranger.”
There is no escaping stories about the Latin American drug trade on big and small screens, whether it is last year’s “Sicario: Day of the Soldado,” the film in which Benicio del Toro reprised his role as a Mexican prosecutor-turned-CIA-hit man, or incarnations of Netflix’s “Narcos,” which take viewers down a memory lane of 1980s cartel biggies.
But no medium has cranked out these stories about trafficking quite like Latin American television, which, for the sake of argument, also includes the Spanish-language networks based in the United States — Telemundo and Univision — since they often produce programming geared at and distributed to the rest of the continent.
These so-called narco novelas offer a striking contrast to what you see depicted on English-language TV — a compelling complexity in the face of the simplistic story lines that emerge out of Hollywood. Narco novelas generally dispense with the black and white in order to look at the world in shades of gray.
“We don’t want to do the melodrama about the good guys and bad guys,” says Dago García, a vice president of production and content at Caracol Television, the network that produced “Alias J.J.” “We want to acknowledge the problems that exist, the social problems.”
Plug the word “narco” into Netflix and you will turn up countless programs that run the gamut from soaps with high cheese — Telemundo’s 2013 series “El Señor de Los Cielos” (“Lord of the Skies”), in which a cartel leader with great abs spends a lot of time in the sack with an equally hot leader of a rival cartel — to more subtle, cinematic dramas such as “Alias J.J.,” which uses a story line about a ruthless sicario to explore how the drug trade has penetrated every level of Colombian society. “Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal” (“Pablo Escobar: The Drug Lord”), a 2012 drama also produced by Caracol, tracked Escobar’s unprecedented and pathological rise to prominence. And Telemundo’s “La Reina del Sur” (“Queen of the South”), starring Kate del Castillo, launched in 2011 and this month is launching a highly anticipated second season.
These programs, which are rife with bad ’80s haircuts and sublime Spanish nicknames (Cheeseface, Cockroach, Silicone and Bullet Swallower), offer an intriguing counterpoint to the stories about drug trafficking produced for English-language audiences in the United States.
U.S. shows tend to revolve around law enforcement, typically a Drug Enforcement Administration investigator who descends into the chaotic world of narcotrafficking to go hunt the baddie. These are narratives that for the most part adhere to the concept of good (the DEA) and bad (the cartel) — even if sometimes the DEA agent does questionable things to get his man.
This, to a large degree, is the model of Netflix’s “Narcos,” which wears the mantle of noir detective procedural, complete with hard-boiled voice-overs: “Before [stuff] went south,” says the omniscient narrator in the first episode of “Narcos: Mexico,” “Guadalajara was the ... place … where mariachi music was invented; tequila too. That’s enough to get a town into any country’s top five list ... maybe even into the No. 1 spot.”
It is the Latin American drug war as narrated by a dude-bro on spring break.
Contrast that with the narco novelas, where the world of narcotrafficking isn’t a separate world that you need a passport to visit. It is part of everyday life — an invisible narco state that inhales people voraciously, whether you intend to be inhaled or not. It is the woman who falls in love with the wrong man, the bystander who becomes an accidental witness and therefore must be killed, the journalist who digs in the wrong place. It is a place where the dead pile up to feed the need for cocaine in the U.S.
In this regard, “Alias J.J.” is particularly compelling. Rather than chronicling the rise and fall of some cartel leader, it focuses instead on John Jairo Velásquez Vásquez (played by an on-point Juan Pablo Urrego), a Medellín cartel bureaucrat who has to figure out how to survive in the wake of Escobar’s death, when rivals rush in to pick off what remains. Much of the story takes place in the Bogotá prison where he is doing time — a setting that is as much about punishment as it is about criminal impunity.
Narco novelas generally dispense with the black and white in order to look at the world in shades of gray.
“I was looking for another angle and other perspectives on the problem,” says García. “Constantly centering the story on the cartel leaders and how they build their empires, we were less interested in that here.”
Indeed, the show tackles a fascinating range of social issues. The story line with journalist Solozábal explores the complicity of the upper classes in the country’s drug trade. Another subplot, revolving around a prison guard named Clemente Díaz (a character brought to rich life by the skilled Nelson Camayo), highlights the personal ambitions of an indigenous man who is trying to advance in Colombia’s complicated social bureaucracies. His avenues for advancement are few — in his case, a thankless job at a violent prison for which he pays a steep price.
The groundbreaking “La Reina del Sur,” one of the first narco shows to feature a powerful woman so prominently, tells a story of immigration — about the prejudices endured by Mexican and Moroccan immigrants in Spain. And “Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal,” used Escobar’s story to explore Latin America’s urban-rural divide and the systems of race, class and power that trap less-educated or racially mixed people in economic dead ends (making it easy for the cartels to recruit).
“The complex that Pablo Escobar had was that he was never accepted by the Colombian upper class,” says Carlos Moreno, one of the two directors behind the show. “He couldn’t aspire to power. Power belonged to this privileged class and they weren’t going to let it go.”
Moreno creates an Escobar that isn’t simply a cartoon Hollywood villain. He is a person rife with contradictions, a rural bandit turned master businessman turned violent monster, who is ultimately done in by the chip on his shoulder and his impetuous tendencies. In the series, he is masterfully played by Colombian actor Andrés Parra, who depicts him as a vengeful nerd — awkwardly adjusting his hair and perpetually jotting down notes.
“He did a villain who was simple, a villain who was ordinary, a villain who lies, a villain who was afraid of his mother, who gets sick, who is afraid,” says Moreno. The sort of villain who could be running a drug empire — or a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley.
We wanted to show that this is a brutal world. It’s a terrible life. … You lose your soul for sure.
Silvana Aguirre, showrunner, “El Chapo”
The show was so engaging and smartly rendered (even if it dips into moments of melodrama and questionable wigs), that it inspired an essay on the subject by Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in the Spanish daily El País. “If he’d been committed to a role that was less histrionic, less exhibitionist,” he writes, “Pablo Escobar could have been, today, president of Colombia, or perhaps that country’s shadowy owner.”
Which gets at one of the through-lines in all narco novelas: corruption, and the ways in which these invisible narco-states pull political strings with their money and their armies of men.
One of the most compelling shows exploring this issue has been “El Chapo,” the three-season program launched in 2017 that was produced in the U.S.-style by Univision and Netflix. (Each season contains about a dozen episodes, rather than the customary 60 to 100 episodes that can make up a Latin American telenovela.)
As is to be expected, the program charts the rise and fall of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the recently deposed head of the Sinaloa cartel. But it does so with nuance. Playing El Chapo is Mexican theater actor Marco de La O, who resists playing the capo as a lovable bandit. He is a hyper-capitalist who consolidates, kills and rapes. Paralleling his story is that of a calculating Mexican government functionary named Don Sol (brilliantly rendered by Mexican actor Humberto Busto), who also seeks the trappings of power — and therefore gets in bed with the cartels.
“We aren’t going to get rid of narcotrafficking,” he tells the president in one scene. “What we want is to control it.”
“El Chapo and Don Sol are two faces in a way,” says Silvana Aguirre, the program’s creator and showrunner. “They are both thirsty for power. One is doing it in the legal world, the other in the illegal world. But sometimes, in the legal world, they are as corrupt.”
The narcos are honest about their means, these shows seem to be saying. The government? Not so much.
Naturally, narco novelas are not without controversy. In the U.S. context, with its glaring lack of Latino representation on television, it has meant a bevy of programming that features Latinos as violent drug traffickers and women as bikini-clad arm candy — and virtually nothing else. In Latin America, the viewing context is broader, but there are nonetheless concerns about glamorizing what should be reviled. With every new narco novela comes hand-wringing essays about what it means to show narco culture on TV.
“We do not want to be apologists for this,” says Marcos Santana, president of Telemundo Global Studios and Telemundo International, which produced “La Reina del Sur.”
Likewise, Univision’s Aguirre says she took great pains in “El Chapo” to show that the path of the narco is not the desirable one. “We wanted to show that this is a brutal world,” she says. “It’s a terrible life. … You lose your soul for sure.”
But just as stories about Prohibition-era bootlegging and the Italian mafia saturated film and television during the 20th century, so does narcotrafficking today. It is the criminal enterprise of our globalist, neoliberal era. And to some degree, the stories of narcos are the stories that mirror our own societies’ desire to revel in the narratives of the outlaw and of unlikely success — both in Latin America and the U.S.
In 2008, Colombian cultural critic Héctor Abad Faciolince wrote an essay that traced the outsize presence of the narcotrafficker to the ostentations of the U.S. nouveau riche (think giant pickup, 10-gallon hats) combined with the aesthetic affectations of the Latin American bourgeoisie (abundant statuary, European-style homes).
“All the [narcos] do,” he writes, “is make larger than life that which already exists.”
On TV, we see the narcos and it turns out we are them.
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