NARCOS and Why It’s Not ‘Magical Realism’

Apr 30, 2016
11:56 AM

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” The Princess Bride

The opening scene of the Netflix series Narcos shows us grayish-whitish brushstrokes, on a black background. When we hear the wind, we realize that the streaks are actually clouds. A few seconds later we read this:


While we read, we notice that the camera has begun to move. The next shot only contains four words in red.


Following the words, we see mountains and fertile valleys covered in an intense green. then the following words appear on screen:



I am a bit of a lit geek and am in the process of recovering from academia. I was very interested in the magical realism about to be displayed by the series. I watched the first and second episodes. Who am I kidding? I binge-watched the hell out of Narcos. I may have watched Season 1 in a weekend. I almost certainly did.

But I have to say that there was no magical realism to be found. When I think of magical realism, I think of food and drink that taste like windows (El amor en los tiempos del cólera) or a straight-faced Isabel Allende narrator discussing the spirits that walked around her childhood home. Needless to say, Narcos had none of those things. The events portrayed events that really happened, (well more or less, but we’ll come back to that shortly) and to back that up there was footage from news sources, magazine clips, etc.

Where was the magical realism promised by the first minutes of the series? I’m still looking for it, but in the meantime I have some ideas about what it’s doing in those first few minutes of the first episode of Season 1 of Narcos.

The usage of the term “magical realism” here is simply put, wrong. Magical realism is a way of telling stories which takes the extraordinary and presents it as ordinary. One of my favorite examples is from El amor en los tiempos del cólera by the most famous magical realist author, Gabriel García Márquez:


Alguna vez probó apenas una tisana de manzanilla, y la devolvió con una sola frase: “Esta vaina sabe a ventana”. Tanto ella como las criadas se sorprendieron, porque nadie sabía de alguien que se hubiera bebido una ventana hervida, pero cuando probaron la tisana tratando de entender, entendieron: sabía a ventana. (123)

(At some point as soon as he tried a chamomile tea, he returned just saying, “This thing tastes like windows.” She and the maids were shocked because no one knew of anyone who had ever drunk a boiled window. But, when they tried the tea trying to understand; they understood: it tasted like windows.)

The taking for granted, the telling with a straight face of the window flavor of the tea is what is magical realist. To put it another way, in magical realism,

The principle (sic) thing is not the creation of imaginary beings or worlds but the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances. In magical realism key events have no logical or psychological explanation. (Luis Leal, etc. emphasis mine).

So, I take issue then with the use of magical realism because it is used as a blanket, if not obvious, explanation for the events portrayed in the show. It’s as if there was a magical unexplainable something lingering in the background in Colombia and of the events portrayed in the series.

This has huge implications not only for the show but for U.S.-American perceptions of Colombia (and more broadly, Latin America). It’s timely because we’re still waging and losing a war on drugs. It’s timely because no matter what, Colombia (and Latin America more generally) is still portrayed and believed a “magical”  place in which things (coups, civil wars, kidnappings et al) “just happen.”

Spoiler alert: Colombia is not a magical place, the U.S. has helped drug trafficking when it served its interests, and Narcos isn’t original—it just replays the same old same old tired tropes (violent, sexually voracious, morally ambiguous and all holding powdery substances or weapons, sometimes both) about Colombians and Colombia that the media and many other films and novelas do.

But the issue is not just the misuse of the term, which is a way of telling stories which has in fact been disavowed by many “Latin American directors, fiction writers and cultural critics” who “have begun to reassess magical realism as a mode of telling stories that is full of self-exoticizing traps and false comforts” (source). It’s important to note that magical realism was how Latin American literature got on the world map during the literary boom of the 1960s. But then it became the only way that Latin American writers could publish outside of Latin America and any non-magical realist voices were hard pressed to find publishing outlets.

Starting Narcos then with a scene dealing with magical realism falls into the same trap that publishing houses did. That is to say, to paint all of Latin America, or in this case, Colombia, with a magical realist brush. And so, in this piece I want to look at a few different aspects of the first season of Narcos. I want to question the intended audience of the show and the tired tropes displayed by the series (i.e. good vs. evil, the corrupting influence of Colombia; as well as highlighting the very real and present dangers of pseudo history and how these are all helped along by “magical realism.”)

And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Why Narcos Is Not Magical Realism

A voice over comes in and we hear how “Nowadays the U.S. government can listen to anything you say. They know where you are… you turn on a computer and you’re doomed. But in Colombia in 1989…”

The camera continues its movement, the words disappear and we now see how the mountains are surrounding a city followed by the revelation that the city in question is Bogotá, Colombia and that our vantage point, allows to look down and see over a small plane. We then learn that the small plane is used to intercept phone calls made by narcotraffickers. So how did we get from foggy backgrounds and magical realism to intercepting phone calls?  This lack of logic —life’s mysterious nature— refers us back to those red letters seen at the beginning:


Why is it considered necessary or appropriate to talk about magic realism against an opaque and mysterious background when talking about a city of millions, about events which took place firmly in modern and real times? This is after all the opening scene of the entire series. It sets a tone, or at least, it ought to. Yet so far what we have is this:

Magical realism.

Drug trafficking.


There is a dynamic here in which they try to “Vender un continente rural cuando, la verdad de las cosas, es urbano” … “sell a continent as rural, when in reality, it’s urban.”

If you ask the majority of people what they think Colombia looks like, I’d guess that they imagine mountainous regions, rivers and valleys. Somehow the fact that some of the largest cities in Latin America predated the existence of major cities in the U.S. by decades seems to escape people. For instance, Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 while St Augustine, Florida (the oldest inhabited city in the U.S.) was in 1565, but I digress.

Narcos premiered on Netflix on August 28, 2015. The first season was filmed in Colombia. The series was produced by Dynamo Capital, “a multimillion-dollar private-equity venture run by a talented team of Colombians and Europeans with extensive experience in finance and film” and by Gaumont International Television, “a premiere European production company with a film library holding over 900 titles.

The series is about Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel. In general, it had a good critical reception, being referred to as “ a delight in its unabridged form” and touted as “separating itself from the pack [of other Escobar biopics] with an impressive breadth and depth.”

However, there are some exceptions. For instance, the Indiewire review questions the need for (another) series like Narcos, which ends up being “an entry into one of the least-exciting genres of media available to producers at this point: a celebration of masculinity defying the law.” In another review, we read how the mention of magical realism “as if to prepare us for evocations of Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende. Instead, we get a gangster tale super-sized by sheer volume (So much coke! So much money! So much violence!)” And so on.

The language in the series is very revealing as to its intended audience of English speakers from the United States. The problematic accents of some of the actors come immediately to mind. The most notable is the lead’s, Walter Moura, who is a native Portuguese speaker. Apparently there were no Colombian actors available to play the role. Don’t get me wrong, his performance is good, but if you’re going to do it in Spanish to begin with, do it right.

Even more revealing are some of the mistakes in subtitling and in the translation from Spanish to English. For instance, during Escobar’s first onscreen appearance he threatens two police officers who stop a convoy of his which is carrying contraband. Escobar gives them two options, “Plata o plomo.” The English subtitle reads, “Silver or lead.” But in Colombia, like in other Latin American countries, “plata” is another word for “money.” The translation of the phrase is something like, “Either you take the money (that is the bribe on offer) or you’ll get ‘lead’ (that is, you’ll get a bullet.)” That is not, however, what is communicated by the subtitle. “Plata o plomo” is a phrase we’ll hear a few times in the series; it’s a trademark of sorts. Its careless translation then does have consequences for the audience’s understanding of the characters and of the means of coercion at their disposal. When I watched this episode with a monolingual English speaker they said, “Sure but the translation [to silver and lead] flows better, it sounds better, well, to a non-Colombian.”

And that’s precisely it: the series was not intended for (bilingual) Colombians who would catch those kinds of mistakes immediately. So then who was it made for? The answer to that ends up being more complicated than expected since, while we see errors in translation or hear accents that just don’t work —all symptoms of production not intended for Colombians or Spanish speakers— why do it in Spanish in the first place? Why film in Colombia at all?

I suppose that has something to do with the subsidies handed out to get movies made in the country, in addition to a desire for authenticity, as we read in Variety. There are of course other fun subtitling mistakes, such as the mistranslation of the Colombianism comerse a alguien, which means, to have sex with someone. In its place we read: go down on. In another example from the first episode (when Escobar meets Cucaracha, the guy who brings cocaine to Colombia), Pablo refers to him as “Cuca,” which is a Colombianism for “pussy.” The play on word and insult to the guy’s virility: lost on the English speaker and on and on.

Aside from questions of intended audiences, we need ask: why make Narcos at all? There have been films, novelas and documentaries made already.

In an interview, series director Jose Padilha said this:

Our idea is to tell the true story of how cocaine became such a huge problem in the U.S. and Europe – and how it all started here in Medellín.

The director’s focus in the interview then is on the cocaine problem vis-a-vis the United States and Europe—the West is a victim of the export of drugs, and so the West thereby gets centered even in a story that’s not set there. This is also reflected by the series for instance, in a scene in the first episode when the first jacket with five kilos arrives in Miami. León gives it to Carlos Lehder (one of the founders of the Medellin cartel who is currently imprisoned in the United States) and describes it as “puro veneno” (pure poison). His interlocutor responds with, “Los gringos van a quedar encantados con esa mierda. Les va a putear el cerebro, eso es seguro”. (“The gringos are going to fall in love with this shit. It’s going to fuck their heads up, that’s for sure.”) At the same time, the narrator informs us how “Pablo’s coke flooded in, it didn’t take long for Miami to get addicted.” This talk of cocaine as poison which floods Miami makes it sound as if the goal here were to screw with the United States, to infect them somehow, instead of you know, making a whole lot of money.

This image of infection and invasion coming from the South to the North is not new. One notable (if not unique) example of it can be found in the Health Films Disney made in the 1940s. On the surface, the films were ways to stay healthy, but the backgrounds used were unnamed rural places where people wore sombreros. The message, if truly intended to dole out information about health in latin america would have been made in Spanish. Therefore the intended audience is another, an English-speaking one. The message here is a warning about invisible enemies which may seem small as individuals but when allowed to reproduce can be deadly. This sounds an awful lot like nativist anti-immigrant rhetoric. In the case, of Narcos though, the disease is addiction and the invasion is cocaine or Colombians; either works.

In another interview, the director criticized the war on drugs and said that he wanted to show its real victims (that is to say, the number of dead in Colombia). I think it’s contradictory to speak of concern for the real victims of the war on drugs and at the same time make a series which is more than anything, a gangster movie inspired by Goodfellas. If his intentions are good, then they’re not quite as good as his sense for a moneymaking show. In either case, Padilha who “…is best known for directing the Brazilian critical and financial successes Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within…”, films which also talk about criminality but in Brazil. Why does a director choose precisely these types of movies to depict lo latino? Or more precisely, as in the case of Narcos, Colombians? Is there nothing else to talk about when representing these topics?

Good and Evil: Good Guy and Bad Guy

As usual in both Hollywood and Latin American films, the bad guys are all Colombian.

While the good guys, well let’s just start off with The Good Guy. The narrator and one of the protagonists is Steve Murphy a DEA agent.

Murphy’s first onscreen appearance is him chasing a kid who is carrying a backpack full of weed. These were in the days before the arrival of Pablo’s coke—the bad guys back then wore flips flops. After the arrival of cocaine in the United States, Murphy kills a dealer who was 16 years old and this has a huge effect on him. This takes place in Miami, before Murphy is sent to Colombia. That is to say, the infiltration of Colombian cocaine starts to corrupt him from afar, “It was the first time I shot someone. He was sixteen.”

When Murphy gets home, his wife Connie, who’s a nurse, reminds him that it was in self-defense. She then asks him, “Did he deal cocaine?” Yes. “Well then, fuck him,” she replies. She then tells him the story of how at the end of her shift that night, a girl was rushed in after collapsing at the airport after getting off a plane from Colombia. She was a “mule” who was carrying eleven ounces of coke and had died of an overdose, not just killing herself killing but the fetus she was carrying which had died in Connie’s hands. The scene between the Murphys paints a picture of a good-hearted couple who do not know what to do to fight this menace.

The United States government gets into the fight against this menace around the same time. Apparently what got the U.S. government to take notice “was the money. billions of dollars flowing from the US to Colombia and that, America couldn’t take.” But in reality, Agent Murphy’s statement about the direction of all that money is not quite right. Instead the truth of the matter is that in the 1980s known as the Cocaine Decade, the money did not in fact stay in Colombia. Most of the profits from the drug trade went to the United States as illegal money to be laundered in CIA-linked banks. Banks that have been involved in money-laundering include HSBC, Citibank, Bank of America , Deutsche Bank and the list goes and on and on.

In the next scene, a voiceover tells us how the Murphys are going to fight drug trafficking. We hear about Murphy’s dad, “who volunteered to fight in WWII because of Pearl Harbor. You think he knew anyone in Hawaii? No way, he was a West Virginia farm boy, but these fuckers stepped on our soil. So he laced up his boots and went to fight…. It was his duty.” (This leaves out the legacy of internment, how in the U.S. thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned for years in desolate concentration camps. Atomic bombs are also left out. A lot is left out. )

Now however, it’s the war on drugs which has become in Murphy’s “duty.” “Cocaine in Miami? Kilos from Colombia? This was my war. My duty.” Likening the (mutually beneficial) import of cocaine, to an attack on the United States is a theme that we will see repeated and we will return to it shortly.

We had no idea what we were in for. One year later all that patriotic bullshit was right out the window. (Murphy)

What they were in for, as we quickly find out is this. In one short year, in minutes, the world of the narcos (Colombia) corrupts the agent. Remember how affected Murphy had been when he shot that dealer? In that short year, Murphy went from mourning someone he’d shot to taking pictures of the dead at a club. Turns out that the conversation we’d overhead while looking over the plane had been a group of traquetos (drug dealers, criminals) discussing their plans for the evening. The CIA was listening and tipped Murphy off. Given that the “DEA was restricted on foreign soil, [he] did what you’d do, [he] called the cops.” The Colombian cops take the tip-off as a gift and proceed to shoot the entire place up, killing everyone inside.

Another exculpatory voiceover tells us how “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the narco world, it’s that life is more complicated than you think. Good and bad, they’re relative concepts. In a world of drug dealers, you do what you think is right and hope for the best.” He continues, “You wanna call me a bad guy? Fine. It just means that you haven’t met enough bad guys to know the difference. There’s one thing I’ve learned here in Colombia, is that good and bad are relative concepts.”

So if good and bad are relative concepts, as the agent conveniently alleges, why are we so convinced the bad guys were the drug dealers, Escobar chief among them?

The series makes much of the fact that Escobar was seen as Paisa Robin Hood and there’s certainly an element of an “only in Colombia” vibe to the whole thing. But let’s pause here for a moment. Colombia is a poor rich country. That is, it’s rich in natural resources oil, fertile farmland, gold, emeralds etc and yet has shocking wealth disparity and living standards. USAID’s report on Colombia states how, “Land distribution in Colombia is highly inequitable, and upward of 68% of the rural population lives below the poverty level. An estimated 0.4% of the population owns 62% of the country’s best land.”

These facts are not mentioned as a possible explanation for the fierce loyalty the lower classes maintained towards Escobar and the Narcos since they stepped in and provided services where the government did not, building housing projects, sponsoring literacy campaigns and charitable acts like donating 5,000 toys to poor children during the holidays. Escobar’s populism put him in direct opposition to the Colombian ruling classes. More importantly, in terms of U.S.–Colombian relations, he attacked the U.S. couching the debate over the 1982 extradition treaty in terms of imperialism.

What we begin to see is that the reasons for the Colombian chapter of the war on drugs are not solely drug-related, there are political and monetary considerations at play too. Much is made of Escobar’s personality in Narcos but his anti-imperialist rhetoric is conveniently left out. Apparently the complexities of good and bad are only taken into consideration when they have to do with an American DEA agent, the bad guys are painted with a much less generous brush.

In fact, not just the bad guys, but Colombians in general even if they’re on the right side. Take for instance, Javier Peña. We learn more about Murphy’s counterpart in the second episode of the season whose blurb is quite telling since in it we read how “Murphy gets an education in Colombian law enforcement from his new partner Peña.” Contrary to Murphy who represents here, “ingenuity and disinterested courage” (Pérez-Melgosa 77), Peña represents the immoral seducer or as he is more popularly known a slightly edgier Latin lover. His depravity is highlighted in a montage of three different couples having sex. One is Murphy with his wife; the other Escobar with his mistress Valeria and the last is Peña with his informant Elena, who we later find out is a prostitute. Apparently the good guy only screws his wife while the other two, one The bad guy in the series, the other the not quite good guy, have extramarital affairs or sleep with prostitutes.

The contrast is notable.

 Murphy’s education in Colombian law enforcement comes about when Elena, infiltrating a meeting of Narcos, the one the gave rise to the Medellin cartel, no less, loses contact with the agents. As Oliver Villar has noted, these meetings were set up by the CIA, a fact that is left out of the dramatization. In any case, she was gathering information for the DEA in exchange for a visa to the U.S. When they lose contact with her, Peña goes looking for her. To find out where they’ve hidden her, he and the Colombian colonel he’s working with know that they will have to use extralegal methods to get information out of their contacts. They leave Murphy behind since he’s carne fresca to go looking for a sicario who, under torture (they asphyxiate him using a plastic bag over his head) reveals where the girl might be. After rescuing the woman, who’s been brutalized, raped and beaten while in captivity, Murphy confronts Peña for having left him behind. “I’m in all the way,” he tells him. To which Penna ominously replies: “I hope you know what that means,” while handing him a beer. “I’m in all the way”, is heard again and again, every time Murphy goes lower and lower and does increasingly illegal things, under the influence of his environment.

It’s as if fighting the war on drugs and the war on terror infects the good and noble Murphy somehow. But as anyone paying attention to US foreign policy knows, these are more aptly described, as Oliver puts it, as “a war for drugs and a war of terror.” But that’s not the story we are told in the series or otherwise, since ,“ such assessments are not easily grafted onto the consciousness of a populace conditioned to impute noble —or at least sincere and non-paradoxical— motives to U.S. projects abroad.” That’s precisely it. If Murphy does illegal, awful things we are shown how it’s his environment that makes him do it. His motives are good. He is shown as selflessly going to fight drugs in Colombia. The other characters, whether part of the good or bad team are not delved into nearly as much, they are not allowed to be complex. The exception is Escobar, but the complexities allowed him are of the sentimental macho kind which put family and generosity above all, leaving out any hint of politics or valid criticisms of the U.S.’s decades long involvement in Latin America, for reasons that are not noble and are paradoxical in the extreme.

The Dangers of Pseudo-History

Prior to the beginning of each episode we read the following: “This television series is inspired by true events.Any similarity to the name, character or history of any person is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”

There is a glaring contradiction in this warning. How is any similarity coincidental OR unintentional? This is nonsensical given the fact that many of the characters in the story are known to have been real people. Dramatization of true events is an often enough recourse in TV and film, but nevertheless, in Narcos, some of the events dramatized go beyond the realm of fiction and into the rewriting of history which can be dangerous. This is the case of the version of the siege of the Palace of Justice (the Supreme Court) presented by the series. This is a tragic episode in Colombia’s history, one whose consequences and effects are still being felt to this day. Moreover, what happened on those fateful days is still be sorted out. But to hear the series tell it, it was just another example of the unreal that is Colombia.

In the series, we watch as the siege is watched by horrified employees of the American embassy in Bogotá. Again, the events of that day are still not clear.

There are people who disappeared and whose whereabouts are still unknown. “On November 6, 1985 on the day in which M-19 fighters broke into the palace of justice with the goal of politically indicting then president Belisario Betancur” (Semana).

In Narcos, on the other hand, the M-19 fighters are presented as merely puppets of the narcotraffickers, so much so that Pablo Escobar and the leader of M-19 exchange the sword of Simón Bolívar.

In linking M-19 so explicitly to the narcotraffickers, the series drowns out the political and historical significance of the armed conflict in Colombia, which has been raging as a civil war for over 50 years. The guerrillas are presented as a group of idealistic college students who set off to fight for things that are none too clear. But the worrisome thing is not just the impact the series may have on the image of the guerrillas in Colombia, but rather how this has very much the potential of becoming yet another example of “cross cultural pseudo-knowledge” (Perez-Melgosa, 7) in which U.S. Americans think they “know Colombia.”

Outside Colombia, this becomes important since the series is supposedly (in spite of its claims to the contrary) based on real events. I am certain that there are people who really believe that the version of events in Narcos of November 6, 1985 is the truth or at least close enough. I teach undergraduates, and students of mine have commented on how much they loved the series and one of the reasons they loved it so was that “it was based on real life.”

This pseudo history is not just harmful to history, it is also an insult to the memories of those who lost their lives that day, a case that is still not solved. But why? Why did they decide to portray just that episode in just that way, that is as just another thing that was too incredible to believe in the story of narcotrafficking?

I suppose that it is a better story, given that it’s much easier to simplify the Palace of Justice episode (money, fighting extradition). It’s definitely much easier than explaining how there’s been a Civil War in Colombia for the last 50 years and that the right-wing factions of it have had US/CIA support almost uninterruptedly. Moreover the very real question of Colombian peace accords which again were not supported by the US are not mentioned. That would make people think that there are political complexities in a country that is not the United States, which is not in the series’ interest, since it gets a fair amount of attention from the fact that these things “really happened.”

So, again, what does magical realism have to do with any of this? Narcos’ creators adopted the term magical realism to open the dramatization (and glorification) of a violent and bloody period in the history of U.S. and Latin American relations. It becomes problematic due to the simple fact that contrary to something lacking logic, which is what we expect with magical realism, narcotrafficking and the bloody war still being fought now, this all fits in quite logically in fact under the rubric of an unbridled capitalism. What, after all, is coca? A plant. It becomes cocaine, drugs, commodity, illegal and a justification for a war without end, only under certain conditions.

Cocaine is, as is mentioned in the series, “el producto perfecto” (the perfect product) which makes addicts out of people and takes hostage all impulse control. The addict does not stop until they get their fix. It is the perfect product then because addicts pay whatever price is needed to get it. And given the high prices it commands (in no small part because it is illegal) there will always be those who sell it, no matter what the risk.

But the narrative we see in Narcos, of how the perfect product came to infiltrate the United States is only part of the story. There is a documentary made in 2010 that tells the story of Rat Park‚ a series of experiments conducted in the 70s and 80s. Briefly, the results of the study, which have been replicated in others, argue that, “that the great majority of individuals who use the so-called “addictive drugs” in reasonably healthy social environments do not become addicted.” (Alexander) So beyond questions about the inherent goodness or evil or the inevitability of addiction, we should ask ourselves, how healthy is our social environment? Can we say with any certainty that the majority of people have good lives, lives that they want to be present for? Are they happy? Do they feel part of a larger community?

Cocaine is the perfect product because the same system that creates demand benefits from its profits. This sort of reasoning is left out almost completely by the series. There is one notable exception. There is a scene where the President Gaviria character reminds the US-American representatives of the DEA and CIA at the US Embassy when they insist that he and his government need “additional resources” to fight Escobar. “Your government’s research states that 660 tons of cocaine were consumed in the United States last year, perhaps if your resources were focused at home, we’d all be better off.” After this comment, the scene changes and it’s left at that.

Dramatizations are dangerous, as we’ve seen, but they’re also contradictory In Narcos, like in the drug narrative generally, we are confronted with the “Just say no” (using the real footage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan) rhetoric of personal responsibility but we also see the glamorous side of the drug trade. That is to say, the money, the women, the power that comes with the territory of the life of the Narco. The following review exemplifies this:

‘Narcos’ is playing to rave reviews right now, but the life of Pablo Escobar may just actually be more interesting than any TV series could ever define. One of the richest criminals in the world, Escobar led a life so opulent that it is truly, as the series calls it, “magical realism.”

First, it talks about the wealth and opulence if Escobar’s life. But again, we see a misuse of the term magical realism. Magical realism has nothing to do with opulence. This review just adopts it due to having seen it in the first scene of the series. This is precisely the danger of the series though, people watch it and take what it presents as fact. And so, they will also take as given that Colombia as a magical place where things happen without logic, with no explanation and certainly with no involvement from the United States the very government waging a war on drugs for decades. Is that last part, about the US involvement in the drug trade, what’s actually too strange to believe?


Diana Méndez is a translator, recovering academic, and activist. She tweets from @yosanchapanza.