The night of the car bomb, my dad called home from his cell phone as he finished his rounds of the family’s bakeries. It was a nightly ritual, braving rush hour in his little silver Mazda to collect the day’s cash from each location. In early ‘90s Colombia, cash did not sit in registers a minute longer than it had to.
"Almost done here," he told my mom. "I'm stopping by the store at Imbanaco next, and then heading home. If you want any food, call the store now so they can bring it out to the car when I arrive." As on every other evening, my mom called the bakery and ordered some bread and milk for breakfast. She began preparing a light dinner, knowing my dad would be home in half an hour.
When nearly an hour had passed and he had not arrived, my mom called, not without a twinge of annoyance, to find out the cause of the holdup. There was no answer. Our phone rang a few minutes later, but it was my uncle Chalo at the other end.
"Quiubo," he greeted my mom, a tentative note in his voice. "Do you know where Eduardo might be?"
"No, I just called his cell, and he didn't pick up. He said he was stopping at Imbanaco and then heading home, but that was about an hour ago."
"Silvia, I just drove by there," my uncle said, all of a sudden gravely serious. "A car bomb went off outside the bakery."
I squirmed when the word "Narcos" appeared in bold white letters across the top of my Netflix homepage. There was actor Wagner Moura, flanked by streaks of white powder, sporting an all-too-familiar side part and mustache. Here we go again, I thought.
Hollywood likes to cast Colombia as a backwater damsel in distress, ready for her gringo Prince Charming to turn up with a gun. Clear and Present Danger, Romancing the Stone, Collateral Damage, Delta Force 2 — the list goes on. Consider the opening scene of Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Bogotá — a cosmopolitan metropolis with the climate of New York in the fall — is reduced to a sweaty Caribbean village at the edge of the jungle. The trouble isn't limited to America: In recent years, "narco novelas" have become a staple of Spanish-language television, and I have avoided them like the plague.
I knew nothing about this new show, and that's how I wanted to keep things. Critics had compared Narcos to Breaking Bad and Goodfellas, but what Colombian could view the story of Pablo Escobar as entertainment? To a child of the narcoterrorism era, Escobar and his ilk could never be just characters in a story. Watching Narcos seemed to me like grabbing a bag of popcorn and watching my country burn.
But a few days later I began to hear colleagues talking about the show. The reports were good, but I remained resolute in my decision to stay away from it. Still, as conversations about Narcos kept popping up in the lunchroom, it was strange to hear my colleagues discussing plot twists that had once been facts of my daily life. I felt like an outsider to my own history. What version of events were the filmmakers presenting to my co-workers? What bastardized idea of Colombia was about to spread through popular culture? At last, curiosity got the best of me. I logged on to Netflix and clicked the play button on my screen without knowing what I was in for.
Narcos begins, oddly enough, by defining a literary genre. The camera pans over a dark landscape. It is the Colombian Andes, covered in mist, towering above a large city. Then we see the words: "Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe."
If magical realism has become a term closely associated with Colombia — to the point of becoming an official marketing slogan for the country — it is largely due to the influence of two men. The first is Gabriel García Márquez, our beloved Nobel laureate, whose novels are the crown of the genre. But despite being its foremost exponent, García Márquez distanced himself from the magical realist label in several interviews. If foreign critics chose to call his realism "magical," he said, it was only because they were ignorant of the Latin American reality.
The second man is Pablo Escobar. As he and other drug lords rose to prominence in Medellín and Cali, people began to call them "mágicos" —the magic ones. Buoyed by an insatiable American demand for cocaine, their fortunes grew at a rate that seemed nothing short of miraculous. They brought hippos to the Magdalena River and literally buried treasure throughout their haciendas. The wonderful strangeness that García Márquez had brought to life in the realm of fiction, Pablo Escobar and the mágicos imposed on the real world through their ruthless ambition.
Narcos suddenly plunged me back into that world. From the first scene, I noticed the care that Brazilian director José Padilha had employed in re-creating the Colombia where I grew up. Instead of a cheap counterfeit for the Colombian capital, there was the real Bogotá, sprawling, enormous over its cold plateau. While not all the actors playing locals were actually Colombian, I was pleased to see that as a group they plausibly looked it, reflecting the country's particular racial and ethnic diversity. The Colombian characters were actually speaking Spanish, too. While the accents were often unconvincing — something that is especially true of Moura's Escobar, unfortunately — it was obvious that Padilha had hired local writers who hadn't merely peppered the script with generic Colombian expressions, but had actually given each character the speech patterns proper to his or her region of the country.
Then there were the small details that brought it all together: the logos on political banners, the ever-present Renault 4s and Mazda 626s on the street, the miniature facades of colonial village houses hanging on the walls of Pablo's mother's home. None of these factors is essential to the story, and an American audience would never know the difference. Nevertheless, Padilha's emphasis on authenticity gives viewers an experience impossible to have through any other English-language show or movie ever made about Colombia.
Stories from the Colombia of that period are almost inevitably centered on the lives of outlaws and agents of the state; they say little about the experience of ordinary Colombians. One of the most eye-opening things about watching Narcos was realizing how significantly the drug wars shaped my world, despite my parents' best efforts to insulate me.
We lived in a nice neighborhood in Cali, where there seemed to live at least one cartel member on every street. My dad despised the drug traffickers, and to the extent that he could do so without getting shot, he was intolerant of any social interaction that might legitimize their place in society. If a neighbor showed signs of belonging to the cartel (somehow, you always just knew who they were), my dad would refuse to speak to him, not even returning a casual greeting. My sister and I were expressly forbidden from playing with the children from house numbers 3 and 5. When my aunt considered inviting them to a birthday party (along with all the other children on the street), my dad threatened that if she did my family would not attend. I still remember the boy and girl standing outside the entrance to my aunt's backyard, looking sadly at the entertainers.
To the extent that my dad could make it so, the mágicos did not exist to us. It was all the more striking, then, to watch Narcos and to see, in each episode, so many close connections to my early life.
The bizarre thing about living in Colombia during the '80s and '90s was how normal it seemed to be. My childhood was in many ways indistinguishable from that of an American boy in an upper-middle-class suburb. In the morning I attended a beautiful private school where most of my classes were taught in English; in the afternoon I watched cartoons on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, and sitcoms like Saved by the Bell and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air later on. On weekends, I took tennis lessons and went to the multiplex at the mall. Obviously, I was aware of my country's trials — in fact, I cared deeply about them. But it wasn't until my family immigrated to the United States and I encountered the stories of those years in books — through García Márquez's News of a Kidnapping and Mark Bowden's Killing Pablo — that I realized the utter strangeness of our experience. Narcos made this realization all the more clear, as memories started rushing back to me while I watched.
When I was a child, I spent the summer playing on the grounds of my grandfather's country home in the Cali foothills, just as my father and his siblings had done during the holidays of their own childhoods. I had my own playmates, but in their day my father and his siblings had played with the next-door neighbors — the Pizarros.
"Pizarro" is a name that is written into Colombian history — four future members of the M-19 guerrilla movement and one law-abiding oddball, they were the children of an admiral and former commander in chief of the country's armed forces. The third oldest among them, Carlos, would become a household name as the last supreme commander of the M-19, the one who led the group after its astonishing assault on the Palace of Justice. He had long since disappeared from my family's social circle by the summer before my second birthday, the day when he turned up unannounced at the country home. A fancy car with tinted windows just showed up at the gates, and there he was.
When Carlos arrived, my grandmother had no choice but to let him and his sister Nina into the house, to serve tintos and snacks in the living room and chitchat as if they were just any old friends catching up. But Carlos's visit was a reconnaissance mission. Two weeks later, the M-19 attacked the town in the middle of the night, facing off with the army just up the road from our house.
While the battle raged, a group of our old friend's comrades showed up on the property. They banged on the doors and windows, calling us by name, while we pretended not to be there. The next morning we discovered that they had left several wounded fighters with the groundskeeper, with instructions that we were to hide them and nurse them back to health. During the next couple of weeks, just to be sure we would honor our "friendship," they would call with daily updates on our whereabouts and activities. The whole episode ended with an army assault upon the property — prompted by my family's own anonymous tips — and a nightmare of a legal process to prove my grandfather was not a guerrilla collaborator.
Now, Narcos, which usually stays quite close the facts, takes a substantial degree of artistic license when it comes to the M-19. It is plausible that "Ivan the Terrible," one of the group's co-founders, may have relinquished for a time the group's most prized symbol, the stolen sword of Simón Bolívar, into Pablo Escobar's hands. But it is simply not true that Escobar murdered the guerrilla leader, as episode four depicts in a shocking scene.
That fictional flourish does, at least, succeed in conveying the drug baron's callous cynicism — something the show fails to depict at times. The M-19 was not, as Narcos suggests, a smallish band of naive idealists. Idealists they certainly were — but they were also feared and powerful, and it was not only my family in Cali who came close to dying at their hands. In those days, my aunt Rosario worked as an attorney a few blocks from the Palace of Justice, the Colombian Supreme Court building. On the day the M-19 attacked the Palace, she was on her way there to check some files for a case. But when she was less than a block away, she remembered that she had a meeting with a client and returned to the office, annoyed at her own forgetfulness. When she arrived about 15 minutes later, the radio was reporting that the palace had just been besieged. It later came out that Escobar had bankrolled the attack in order to destroy the government's evidence against him, evidence that happened to be stored behind the palace's walls. Had she not turned around, Rosario might've become an extra in episode four (dead body No. 99), but as it happened, there were only 98 dead bodies, including 12 justices, plus 11 missing.
By the time my parents decided that enough was enough and resolved to move our family to the States, I was a senior in high school. Not willing to make me to leave so close to graduation, they allowed me to stay with my grandparents my final year while they went ahead without me.
But even this close to my own emigration, my story still cannot be told without the rest of the Narcos cast. In the year between my parents' departure and my own, I attempted to visit them in Miami, but found myself the victim of a bureaucratic joke — I was missing a stamp certifying that my documents had been properly certified. I wound up in the airport security office.
There, I saw a man in his mid-40s, sitting on a couch, in handcuffs, his head bowed in shame, his eyes wet with tears. He was a mule, the kind the first episode of Narcos shows the Medellin Cartel recruiting, drug runners who would try to sneak cocaine out of the country on their bodies, for sale in more lucrative markets. When an agent walked in and reported to the head of the office that "the test came back positive," the handcuffed man began to sob.
"What did I tell you?" the head agent said to him in the tone of an annoyed parent. "I told you to turn back while you had the chance; I told you not to try boarding. Now it's out of my hands."
The handcuffed man could only cry, utterly hopeless, and I wondered about the hardships and decisions that had brought him to that point, and how those who truly profited from the drug trade continued to run free, tempting an entire country into ruin.
I remember the utter fear I had of Escobar as a child, and I remember the glorious sense of relief I felt the day he was finally vanquished. It was as if Satan and all his hosts had been defeated for good. With each episode of Narcos, the memories keep coming. When the elite "search block" was introduced, I remembered the morning when I found them swarming our street on my way to school. Then when the Cali Cartel's number four, Pacho Herrera, entered the story, I recalled that what the search block had been doing there was looking for his right-hand man — our neighbor from house number 3. When Narcos turned to the war between the cartels, I remembered the bombs.
Narcos is not a perfect show. Critics have already pointed out its flaws: its overreliance on voiceover, the way the blandness of most characters on the side of the law not only diminishes the drama, but also does little credit to the real-life men and women who stood up to Escobar at the cost of their lives. I would add some items to the list. At times, it appeared as if the only way the writers could think of bringing women actors into the production was for random sex scenes that usually distract from the story. And while Narcos succeeds in depicting a multifaceted Escobar — at once a violent, ruthless strategist and a devoted family man — it largely glosses over his gratuitous cruelty. We rarely see the Escobar who had torturers drill into his enemies' kneecaps, who could inflict barbaric punishments for the most trivial offenses. Once, during a party, a servant was caught pilfering silverware. Escobar dealt with it by having the man tied up and, in front of all his guests, drowning him in the swimming pool.
Nevertheless, Narcos remains a remarkable series. Its first season somehow succeeds in bringing to life a period of my country's history that most of us would rather forget, while at the same time respecting the culture and people that the drug trade nearly destroyed. The show expertly eschews Hollywood caricatures and casts an unflinching eye on the realities of the drug wars, for both the villains and the oft-compromised heroes of the story. The mere fact that a show like this can exist is evidence of how much things have changed since that time, both in the United States and in Colombia. Narcos makes the idea of a Chuck Norris or a Harrison Ford flying in to lay down the law look nothing short of ridiculous; it makes quite plain that the blame for Colombia's countless dead lies not only with the drug barons but with America's ravenous demand for cocaine. Today, when a much closer neighbor to the south finds itself in similar throes, the lessons of Narcos are nothing if not timely.
As for Colombia, the mere fact that a show like this exists is evidence of how far we have come. Violence and the drug trade still play a part in the country's public life. Overeager Colombians devoted to promoting the country's image can leave you with the misleading impression that Escobar's brutal Colombia has been replaced with some South American Shangri-la. But the last time I visited, I truly was amazed by the large number of foreigners touring the country — not just grungy backpackers from Europe, but American honeymooners who previously would have never dreamed of coming.
But still: While the cartels have been vanquished, and a peace agreement with the remaining guerrilla groups seems closer than ever before, there are still deep wounds in the country. Yes, our economy has grown, criminality has dropped, and our democratic institutions have been strengthened; Colombia is very different from the nearly failed state it became. Yet even now, even if extremely rarely, the salsa rhythms surging at night over the streets of Cali are sometimes broken by a deep, dull noise and the rattle of windows.
"There's something else, Silvia," my uncle Chalo continued. "Someone on the street told me he had seen a bearded man, gravely injured. And..." he paused. "And I wasn't allowed to get very close, but I thought I saw a small silver car badly damaged near the blast site."
Though she refused to admit it to herself, my mother knew what this meant. The beard, the car, the timing, the unanswered calls. It was all too plain.
"Keep calling him, Silvia; I'll let you know if I find out anything certain."
So she kept calling, over and over again — for 10 minutes, 20, half an hour. It was now almost two hours since my father should have returned home, but still she refused to break the news to us. She was waiting for a call from Chalo to confirm what she already knew.
When at last the phone rang, she barely dared to pick it up.
"Mi amor, there was a bomb outside Imbanaco," said a male voice on the other end. "I got held up at the other store and missed it by a few minutes. Sorry I haven't called, but my phone ran out of battery right after we talked."
García Márquez had it right about what reality means in Colombia. It is the kind of place where, on any given weeknight, the dead can come back to life.
Bernardo Aparicio García is the founder and publisher of Dappled Things. He is currently working on a family memoir of Colombia.
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