Pablo Escobar was dead, to begin with. The notorious Colombian drug lord was shot by police on the rooftops of Medellín in 1993 but his legacy still haunts the country.
Today, Colombia is one of the world’s economic and political success stories – a ceasefire with guerrilla group FARC last December ended a 52-year conflict and won President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize – but the ghosts of the past still linger. What’s more, they have been vividly resurrected by the Netflix series Narcos, one of the world’s most popular TV shows, whose first two series dramatised the rise and fall of Escobar and reinforced Colombia’s association with cocaine.
The Big Issue is on the guest list to attend the premiere (below) of the third series of Narcos in Bogotá, one of a series of events happening simultaneously in the city that captures a country at a crossroads. The same week, FARC is holding a conference during which they will establish themselves as a legitimate political party (changing their name from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to Revolutionary Force for the Common People – though their acronym remains the same) and the streets are being specially spruced up for an impending papal visit, with bus stops and billboards proudly declaring, ‘Bienvenido Papa Francisco’.
And it’s not just the Pope coming. Lonely Planet named Colombia the second best place to visit in 2017 and tourism numbers have increased 15 per cent as parts of the country off limits for decades are opening up. It’s also the economic star of South America, with forecast growth of 2.3 per cent this year above the region’s average of 1.1 per cent – but to many around the world, in part thanks to Narcos, Colombia is still synonymous with cocaine, crime and corruption.
The new season, released in its entirety at the start of the month, explores what happened after Escobar. While the business he established and built was extraordinary – Escobar became the wealthiest criminal of all time, earning up to $60m every day, and was placed seventh on the Forbes rich list in 1989 (while being responsible for the deaths of 4,000 people including 200 judges and killing police at a rate of 300 per year) – he was just the beginning.
Escobar became the wealthiest criminal of all time, earning up to $60m every day
“The truth is, after Escobar the cocaine industry grew,” says Pablo Pascal, who plays DEA agent Javier Peña. After the king was dead, more kings arose. While Escobar ran a business, the Cali Cartel ran an economy, with politicians and police in their pocket allowing them to export almost a tonne of cocaine every day, bringing in $22,500 every 30 seconds.
Pascal was born in Chile but fled the country at 18 months with his parents who were political activists wanted by Pinochet’s dictatorship. The family were given asylum in the US, and would visit friends in Colombia on vacation. Now sitting in the Four Seasons in Bogotá, he has seen how the country has changed over the years.
“I came to Colombia when I was 13 years old, it was a very normal life that everyone was living, strangely accustomed to the fact that bombs were going off,” Pascal says. “My experience of living in Colombia shooting the show here is in complete contrast to the story we’re telling. I never felt like I was in danger. I would rather go for a walk in Bogotá in the afternoon than park my car too far away from my apartment in LA after midnight.”
Yet anyone who has watched Narcos would find it hard to walk down a city street and not half expect to witness a drive-by shooting.
“I don’t think it’s the intention of the show to sensationalise,” Pascal says. “The problem is that it is sensational, it is fantastical, stranger than fiction. But it is also dangerous and violent and everyone falls. It doesn’t make me want to do coke and it doesn’t make me want to be a drug dealer. For other people it might.”
A constant theme of the show has been to illustrate the failings of the perpetual, US-led, ‘war on drugs’. “I think that is the wrong way to think about it,” he says. “Are people doing drugs today? Are people doing drugs right now in this hotel? People are going to do drugs. Drug use – or let’s say addiction – is not a criminal but a health issue, and if we could start there, there could be less criminalisation
of the culture.”
Strangely enough that was not the message US Vice President Mike Pence preached when he visited Colombia last month (while back home Charlottesville was reaching boiling point) promising “decisive action” to “combat drug production and transnational criminal syndicates”. More coca is being grown in Colombia now than in the days of Pablo Escobar – 460,000+ acres equalling 710 tonnes last year – which is saturating the market and bringing down prices.
It is another drug with which Colombia is rebranding its reputation: coffee
But maybe Trump is just angling for a part in a future series of Narcos. In previous series, Reagan’s role in the drug trade is documented, when US foreign policy prioritised fighting communism over cocaine, allowing dealers to build empires.
But it is another drug with which Colombia is rebranding its reputation. Café Cultor is an enterprise that showcases the best beans of the world’s third biggest coffee exporter, and improves the quality of lives for their farmers (encouraging them to grow coffee rather than coca). In a branch next to the cultural centre named after Gabriel García Márquez they serve a bean grown in the Tolima region.
The barista explains how Tolima was an area affected by war and people forced to leave their homes have only recently returned, tending again to the crops they left behind years ago. “It is a privilege to taste this coffee,” he says about the coffee nobody could drink while conflict continued, pointing out for the benefit of inept taste buds that its flavour contains hints of caramel, raisins and that its body is “smooth like butter”.
From the cultural centre, 25-year-old anthropology graduate Nicol Lesmes gives guided tours of the historic central district of La Candelaria, through cobbled streets lined with street art to the presidential palace, ending in Bolívar Square where the city’s main cathedral is being power-hosed in preparation for the Pope. On the north side of the square stands the Palace of Justice, rebuilt after a siege in 1985 destroyed the previous building.
Carved on the façade are the words: “Colombians: weapons have given you independence, laws will give you freedom”. The attack was carried out by terrorist group M-19, but backed by the inescapable Escobar.
After 90 minutes spent showcasing Bogotá’s cultural highlights, Lesmes is frustrated that the dark shadows of history won’t go away. “Colombian people don’t like Narcos,” she says. “We are trying to avoid this kind of stereotype in Colombia. It happened in the 1980s and 1990s – now we’re in 2017 and we are tired about the same story. We are trying to build something else, another reputation. Colombian people are more than this.”
Back at the Four Seasons, it’s a sentiment Andi Baiz agrees with, though as a director on the show, he would seem to be more complicit than most in promoting that narrative.
“There is a resistance to the Narcos image in Colombia,” he admits. “Around the world they think of us in terms of drugs so there’s an effort to make people understand we’re much more than that – our culture, our music, our resilience is very important. Narcos has shown that too. It has taken away the stereotype, shown how complex it was, how we suffered. It’s a sad story – it’s also a success story because Colombia is better than ever.”
The rise of the Cali Cartel, which is the focus of the third series, is personal for Baiz, who grew up in Cali during that time.
“We were living in a bubble, a fictional world,” he recalls. “The economy was booming, there was a feeling of protection. Then the bubble popped. We understood all the corruption that was going on and how the moral values of people decayed. We were living in a dreamy atmosphere and then this all vanished and the consequences of that were awful.
“It’s important to show future generations the mistakes that were done so that we don’t repeat those mistakes. The fact the show is shot in Colombia shows how Colombia has progressed through the years.”
The country is at a crucial crossroads. A much-heralded peace was reached with FARC but there are other attention-seeking groups out there – an IED exploded at a popular Bogotá shopping centre in June. The Nobel-winning President Santos, in office since 2010, can’t stand for re-election next year and there is no guarantee his successor will continue the ten-year peace process. Meanwhile the ‘war on drugs’ continues.
Production may be high but drugs don’t dominate life like they did and the murder rate is roughly a quarter of what it was 25 years ago. Colombia’s biggest export today is not cocaine – or even coffee – but flowers. The problems it had caused by the drug trade, the battles it fought, won and lost, are now being played out in Mexico and the Philippines. Narcos may be historical but it is still pertinent.
At the glitzy Narcos premiere attended by all the movers and shakers of Bogotá high society, including former president César Gaviria who held office at the end of Escobar’s reign, Baiz introduces the opening episode of the series to a rapturous reception. Also in attendance is Taliana Vargas who plays Paola Salcedo and is (spoiler alert) instrumental in the eventual downfall of the Cali Cartel.
Colombians are like, ‘Thank God there is a character to represent the whole country’
“Paola represents so many people, Colombians who didn’t want to be involved with drugs, that struggled through the situation,” she tells The Big Issue.
“That’s the way we managed to solve that problem in Colombia, because we’re more good people than bad. I’m so glad that I got this part because the rest of the women we have seen in Narcos are prostitutes – and we are not all like that. Colombians are like, ‘Thank God there is a character to represent the whole country.’”
Vargas has previous experience in this area. She was crowned Miss Colombia in 2007 and was leading the Miss Universe contest in 2008 after the swimsuit and evening gown rounds before being overtaken by Miss Venezuela.
Although Narcos resurrects a past many Colombians would rather forget, Vargas believes it is good for people to see how far the country has come to continue the momentum towards a better future.
“It’s part of our history, it’s not our reality any more,” she says. “It’s a story that hurts because it was horrible to go through, but looking back and knowing what happened gives us more strength to keep on moving forward.”
All three series of Narcos are available on Netflix, series one and two are out now on DVD
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