Like most people who watched Narcos, from the minute I heard Rodrigo Amarante’s “Tuyo” introducing the cast of the first season I was instantly hooked. I was finally getting a deep dive into Pablo Escobar’s rise and fall in the narcotics industry and gaining an understanding of the nature of this man. I was also getting to learn about the role the DEA played in trying to stop him.
Escobar captivated the world for all the wrong reasons. Twenty-six years later, the world is still deeply invested in the myth that surrounds him.
And yet, even knowing what we all know about Pablo Escobar’s dealings, about the violence he unleashed on civilians, there is still a sense of awe and bewilderment concerning just how expansive his narcotics empire was at the time. At its strongest, it was bringing in four billion dollars a year. For all intents and purposes, it was a Fortune 500 company that worked outside a legal framework.
For much of the show, it’s Escobar’s emotions and actions that are explained. DEA agents Pena and Murphy’s battle with bureaucracy and inaction are of less importance. Of course, this isn’t the only piece of pop culture that invites us to identify with Escobar. The infamous drug trafficker has been immortalized on many a rapper’s song. There is an entire oral history of Pablo references in hip hop. There are also shirts you can find online with Escobar’s smiling face in that well-known mugshot on them. How can we forget about the famous ‘fun fact’ of Escobar once setting a million dollars on fire to keep his daughter warm?
El Chapo’s image is going the route of Escobar. The ways in which he gets narcotics across the border are mysterious, terrifying and impressive. His ability to thwart the authority of the Mexican government are of singular interest. Escaping and eluding capture at least three times with a maze of tunnels, back channels, and reinforced safe houses have been instrumental in upping his profile. Not just as a successful drug trafficker, but as a fugitive.
All of these things have not just gotten the attention of current events, but of pop culture at large. Much in the same way Escobar’s actions did. Part of the reason why El Chapo as a character was featured in Narcos Mexico is because of this. The public at large followed his trial after his final capture with rapt attention. Often glomming onto the gruesome murders and the tearful testimony of his mistress at the time. The combination of his escapes, his trial, and his family melodrama took over social media feeds and newspaper front pages for weeks. However, the capture and subsequent release of El Chapo’s son, has brought a new type of publicity. Ovidio Guzman like his father before him freed himself from the constraints of capture.
Mexican troops raided a house in Culiacan in an attempt to carry out extradition to the US. Chaos erupted with weapons being taken from guards at the local prison and members of the cartel creating diversions. Intersections were impeded, toll booths were occupied and a gunfight ensued. The eruption of violence is a stark reminder that people like El Chapo and Escobar are not folk heroes or Robin Hood figures. Nor are they mythical badasses that are sung about in songs or rapped about boastfully.
They may very well be complex, complicated individuals that we get to see portrayed on screen in shows like Narcos. In the end though, none of this matters. Because so were the victims of their brutality, forever silenced by these men’s actions. For every ‘fun’ or ‘interesting’ fact about Escobar, we must remember that he ordered the murders of the Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara and the presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.
El Chapo’s escapes and the gossip-worthy family unit can often obscure his large scale disruption of his country. It is important that we don’t forget that his cartel is responsible for the entire state of Sinaloa being under constant threat of violence. The Ovidio Guzman debacle is a chance for us to reimagine perspectives. By engaging in an art that bears their depiction we walk a fine line between glorifying them and seeing them for what they are. Narco terrorists.
It’s easy to be seduced by the handsome leading actors that embody these men and expert storytelling. But the effects of men like El Chapo and Escobar’s actions are not a story, they are real. For a long time as consumers of pop culture, we often prize the point of view of the traffickers. But it’s the victims of such violence who deserve to be heard. Not the traffickers, not the DEA, but the people who are forced to live in a war zone. Maybe the events concerning Ovidio Guzman can remind us of that.