Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness

Notwithstanding my advice to CounterPunch readers to junk Netflix, it is still worth the membership fee for many of the European television shows they reprise such as Wallander and for their own productions such as Narcos that I have been watching for the past several weeks. As you may know, this series now in Season Two is about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín cartel that shipped billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the USA in the 1980s, and who is played brilliantly by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura.

Narcos has very few deep insights about the social and economic context for the rise of the drug industry so why would a Marxist film critic recommend it? The answer is that it is vastly entertaining and has enough background about the Colombian political context of the 1980s to motivate reading about the “war on drugs”. Like the “war on terror” and the Cold War that preceded it, it was one in a series of conflicts that were designed to mobilize Americans against a dreaded enemy after the fashion of the permanent warfare in Orwell’s 1984. When a population grows restive over declining economic prospects, what better way to suppress resistance than to redirect anger against an external threat? Indeed, you will find striking affinities between the hunt for Pablo Escobar and the one for Osama bin-Laden.

As it happens, Judicial Watch—the rightwing website that so many leftists have relied on for proof that the USA promoted the growth of ISIS in Syria—has connected the dots between Mexican drug cartels and ISIS operatives sneaking across the border:

According to JW’s sources the Islamic terrorists have joined forces with the renowned Juárez drug cartel, which has long controlled the region. “Coyotes” are used to move ISIS operatives through the dessert and across the border between Santa Teresa and Sunland Park, New Mexico as well as the porous border between Acala and Fort Hancock, Texas.

Narcos does have some of the same tendencies to bend the facts but is quite reliable on many of the details, especially when they involve the battlefield strategies of the Colombian military, its American puppet masters and Escobar’s private army. Unlike network shows about the drug wars such as Miami Vice that depicted Crockett and Tubbs as unvarnished heroes, the two American DEA agents featured in Narcos are depicted more like Dirty Harry, breaking or bending Colombian law as they beat, torture or kill Escobar’s men while in custody.

Unlike Crocket and Tubbs, the DEA agents in Narcos are characters based on real people.  Voice over narration comes from Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) whose partner is Javier Peña (Pedro Pascal), an agent born in Texas. Both men are still alive and can be seen in a documentary titled The True Story of Killing Pablo based on a book by Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down.

The drama of Narcos is similar to that of The French Connection. As each episode unfolds, you watch the two DEA agents pursuing their prey like they were Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. In the chess game that pitted Escobar against the Americans and the Colombian state, the drug lord is a master strategist—as skilled as Bobby Fischer and just as insane. Instead of chess openings like Ruy Lopez or the Spanish Game, Escobar relies on “Plata o Plomo”, the Spanish words for silver or lead. Their meaning: if bribes (plata) did not work, then bullets (lead) must suffice in protecting the Medellín cartel from prosecution and its leaders from extradition.

Throughout the series, the principal dramatic tension revolves around Escobar’s attempts to avoid extradition to the USA, just as it was in real life. This involved major confrontations with the Colombian state that included the assassination of Luis Galán in 1989, a candidate for President from the Nuevo Liberalismo (New Liberalism) movement, a split from Colombia’s Liberal Party that had been the rival to the country’s Conservative Party in a two-party system similar to our own. After his death, his chief adviser César Gaviria took his place and was elected president in 1990 on a program that included support for an extradition treaty with the USA. During the campaign, Gaviria narrowly escaped being the victim of a bombing on a flight from Bogotá to Cali. One of Escobar’s men had boarded the plane with instructions to tape record the conversations of other passengers, having no idea that the recorder concealed a powerful bomb. At the last minute, Gaviria did not board the plane after becoming convinced that a plot to kill him was real. It is in scenes such as this that Narcos is at its most compelling.

In many ways, the war between the Colombian state and the Medellín drug cartel overlapped with other violent Reagan administration interventions in Latin America. Like the war on drugs, Reagan was also pursuing a war on communism that Pablo Escobar often played off one side against another.

As a young and aspiring gangster, Escobar employed anti-imperialist rhetoric that would later be used in his public denunciations of the extradition treaty that he rightfully characterized as an American attack on Colombian sovereignty even though his main motivation was in remaining wealthy and free. We see him developing a united front with the M-19 guerrilla group that while not as well-known as the FARC or the ELN far exceeded them in boldness of tactics. Like Escobar, the group opposed extradition but more from a genuine anti-imperialist standpoint than out of self-interest. Escobar promised millions of dollars to the group in exchange for them raiding the Palace of Justice on November 6th, 1985 and taking the Supreme Court hostage. As part of the action, they were instructed to destroy police records implicating Pablo Escobar.

When the army stormed the building, 100 people were killed including nearly half of the Supreme Court justices. Journalist and TV anchorwoman Virginia Vallejo, who was Escobar’s lover, wrote an account of the siege that blamed the military for most of the deaths. So compelling was the case she made that a number of high-ranking military men went to prison based on her testimony. Belisario Betancourt, the Conservative Party president of Colombia in 1985, ordered the army to detonate a bomb in the building that had 400 people inside. None of this is reflected in Narcos.

The other glaring falsification in Narcos involves a drug dealer named Barry Seal, who was supposedly involved in a drug smuggling operation with the Medellín cartel and top officials of the Sandinista government. Played by Dylan Bruno in episode 4 of Season One, he is taken at his word that the “commies” were involved in the drug trade.

As I watched this episode with my wife, I turned to her and said, “This doesn’t sound right to me. I am sure that Seal was part of a sting operation designed to make the Sandinistas look bad.” It turns out that my memory of the period did not fail me as borne out in Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn’s Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press.

If Narcos succeeds as swiftly paced police procedural and as a relatively reliable account of the drug wars in Colombia in the 1980s and 90s, it is not so nearly as useful in helping us understand what could make the country such fertile soil for the drug trade. By contrast, the 1989 British series Traffik portrayed the Afghan/Pakistani heroin trade from the very top (with the East Asian equivalents of Escobar) to the very bottom—in this instance a ruined poppy farmer who goes to work as a truck driver for a German-based syndicate. Steven Soderbergh made Traffic in 2004, a film based on the British TV series but relocated to Mexico. Unfortunately, the film had much more in common with Narcos, relying on police procedural elements rather than reflecting on socio-economic factors.

To understand why the Colombian drug industry took off in Cali as well as Medellín, you have to start with the nation’s history, one in which the utter disjunction between rulers and ruled cultivated an indifference to law and order. When those at the top are criminals, why should a poor peasant stay within the law especially when he has to feed a hungry family?

To paraphrase Tolstoy, every Latin American country is unhappy but each in its own way. What follows is the story of Colombia’s unhappiness.

Simon Bolívar tried valiantly to carry out a bourgeois-democratic revolution in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, but the cowardly and unpatriotic bourgeoisie would not lead it, let alone cooperate. Symbolic of this failure was his own vice-president Francisco de Paula Santander, who had no grand vision for the continent but merely articulated the petty ambitions of the agrarian gentry and urban middle-class.

Bolívar’s army, composed of people of mixed African, Indian and white races that anticipated the guerrilla armies of Sandino and Castro, proved inadequate to the task of revolutionizing society. After Bolívar retired in 1830, the shrunken army was no longer a guarantor of revolutionary plebian interests and soon became superseded by civilian political rule, divided between the two major parties, Liberal and Conservative, that would betray Colombian national interests until the present day.

The two parties saw each other as rivals, but their real rival were the popular classes. The Liberals sought to modernize the state and reduce the influence of the Catholic Church, while the Conservatives sought to maintain the status quo. No matter how much they disagreed with each other, even to the point of resorting to arms, they agreed on the big question, which was how to exploit Colombia’s agricultural wealth without allowing the mass of peasants to own or control the land, or the right to share in its benefits.

The fundamental contradiction in Latin American capitalism is this: Capitalist agriculture for the export market requires preservation of the hacienda system, which provides the social base for the Conservative Party and semifeudal reaction. On the other hand, the modern state requires tax revenues and democratic participation from a mass social base of small proprietors, such as the shopkeepers and peasants who provided the shock troops of the French Revolution. Since Colombia, and no other Latin American country, can resolve this contradiction, tensions persist and periodically erupt in bloody conflicts where the two bourgeois parties become surrogates for deeper class antagonisms.

And when it comes to capitalist agriculture, no other commodity defined Colombia as did coffee. Just as cocaine, another addictive stimulant, provides the fuel for the Colombian economy today, so did coffee in an earlier time. Although Colombia entered the 20th century with the weakest economy next to Haiti’s, by the 1930s it had become a powerhouse. Coffee production rose from 40 to 70 percent of exports by 1930 and Colombia ranked fourth in Latin America in terms of volume of external trade.

Although coffee exports enriched the elite, the coffee growers failed to enjoy the benefits. Starting in the 1940s, they begin shifting toward the left until spontaneous rebellions led to the formation of the FARC. When the governments, either Liberal or Conservative, launched a scorched earth attack on the peasantry, many fled to the cities for safety including Medellín that was in the heart of coffee country.

With little gainful employment awaiting them, they were ripe for recruitment into the cartels especially since Pablo Escobar was spending millions on projects that benefited the poor such as housing and soccer fields, not to speak of generous cash outlays that were often the only way poor people could stay alive. This led to a fanatical support for “El Patron”. As we shall see, despite the populist leanings of Pablo Escobar, he regarded the FARC and the left as mortal enemies.

Colombia did not start out with cocaine production, but actually was a major producer of marijuana in the 1970s especially along the Atlantic Coast. The USA pressured Colombia to make war on the pot growers and was largely successful. By 1980, according to Jenny Pearce, the author of Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth, more than 40 percent of marijuana was grown in the USA and Jamaica was supplying the remainder. The consequences for the Atlantic Coast of Colombia bereft of the marijuana trade income were devastating, as crime, unemployment and economic insecurity increased dramatically.

Relief came in the form of cocaine traffic, however. Coca grown in Peru and Bolivia was processed in Colombia to supply the new demand in North America. The cocaine trade eventually replaced coffee as the number one supplier of foreign revenue. In 1984 it is estimated that between 10 and 12 billion dollars was flowing into the Colombian economy due to the cocaine trade.

It was around this time that the Colombian drug cartels joined forces with the ultraright against the guerrillas. For all of the allegations about partnership between the FARC and the drug traffickers, there is little attention paid to this recent history. The cocaine Mafia arrived late in Colombian society, but it followed exactly the same pattern as the coffee bourgeoisie. It financed both of the two major parties and private armies in defense of its class interests. This led to fierce intra-class clashes in the Colombian ruling class as it tried to both fight off and co-opt noveau riche Mafioso figures like Pablo Escobar.

But despite these family quarrels, the cocaine Mafia was determined to show its allegiance to old-fashioned Colombian values, especially anti-communism. Cocaine billionaire and Escobar partner Carlos Lehder set up his own fascist party, the Movimiento Latino Nacional, to defend his interests on the vast acreage housing cocaine factories that he had bought up with drug profits. This outfit joined forces with the Movimiento Sanitario Amplio (MAS) to kill suspected guerrillas and left-wing politicians.

One of the ironies of recent Colombian history is the transformation of Medellín into a city that is a citadel of capitalist law and order, as well as integration into the global economy. To start with, the Colombia state resorted to drastic measures in order to finally stamp out the drug trade as Forrest Hylton described in a March-April 2007 New Left Review article titled Medellín’s Makeover that is behind a paywall. The article begins:

Medellín, the most conservative city in Colombia, the continent’s most conservative country, has been undergoing a dramatic boom for the past few years. Levels of high-rise construction now surpass those of Los Angeles and New York combined. Since 2002, the profusion of apartment towers, luxury hotels, supermarkets and shopping malls has been breathtaking. The country’s largest conglomerates and over seventy foreign enterprises now have their Colombian headquarters in Medellín, among them Phillip Morris, Kimberly Clark, Levi Strauss, Renault, Toyota and Mitsubishi. A 30,000 square-foot convention centre opened in 2005, and over a dozen international conferences have been held there annually, generating more than $100 million in investment and business deals.

It turns out that law and order was restored by Don Berna, a former partner of Escobar who is played by Mauricio Cujar in Narcos. After deciding that Escobar’s days were numbered, Berna hooks up with the Cali cartel, the DEA and the Colombian cops to wipe out Escobar’s empire. Hylton is worth quoting at some length to wrap things up:

In The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore famously described European feudalism as ‘gangsterism that had become society itself’. Don Berna’s trajectory from hired gun to mafia don to ‘pacifier’ of Medellín epitomizes the re-feudalization of power in Colombia’s neo-liberalized economy, underwritten by cocaine profits as the former, industrial model was based on coffee. This fusion of politics, property and organized crime, reflected in the paramilitary grip over security for capital investment, links the city’s bad old days to its good new ones, and largely determines the present and future shape of the built environment. Following Don Berna’s victory, homicide and violent-crime rates fell precipitously, even as the city’s first mass graves for the uncounted dead were uncovered in the central-west and northeast. In the late 1990s, publicly sanctioned security forces ‘cleansed’—limpiaron—a large area of the city centre, dominated by a red-light district and open-air market on the north side and a street of gay salons to the west. Hired thugs threatened, displaced or murdered the district’s ‘disposable’ inhabitants—drug sellers, addicts, prostitutes, street kids, petty thieves, called desechables—to make it safe for urban redevelopment. After 2000, this city-wide ‘pacification’ campaign was supported by state-security forces, businessmen, politicians of both parties and the Catholic Church.

‘Pacification’ is the condition of possibility for the much-touted improvements in tourism, investment and security. Taking the credit for it, Don Berna explained that his troops understood the need to create the ‘necessary climate so that investment returns, particularly foreign investment, which is fundamental if we do not want to be left behind by the engine of globalization’. While continuing to manage extortion, contract killing, gambling, drug sales, etc., Don Berna has also had an important hand in construction, transport, wholesale and retail, finance, fashion, private security, real-estate development and cable television. In the 2004 elections, thirty of Don Berna’s candidates won posts as heads of neighbourhood associations, the Juntas de Acción Comunal. They ran through an NGO called Corporación Democracia, led by Giovanni Marín, alias ‘Comandante R’, a butcher turned ideologue who ran for Congress in 2006. According to Marín, ‘My conscience is clear. People should know that we collaborated in pacifying the city; that we handed over a city at peace.’

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.