When Colombians think of Medellín, Colombia’s second biggest city and Pablo Escobar’s hometown, they hear a strong Paisas accent (Medellín’s dialect of Colombian Spanish). In Narcos, Escobar is played by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, who—although he attempted the Colombian accent—didn’t quite get the hang of it. It doesn’t stop there: Escobar’s wife (played by Mexican actress Paulina Gaitán) has a thick Mexican accent; his business associate Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha (Luis Guzman, Puerto Rican-American) and rival Jorge Ochoa (André Mattos, Brazilian) are also played by non-Colombians. Many locals don’t understand why the show doesn’t use Colombian actors, and many refuse to watch the show for this reason alone. A Bogotá local compares Moura’s accent to “someone with a strong southern American accent play Sherlock Holmes.”
Narcos plays heavily into common stereotypes of Colombians: the majority of Colombian characters are criminals, corrupt police officers, or sexy women trying to get ahead, and the show doesn’t depict everyday Colombians or how the events of the show affected them. This has caused many Colombians around the world to be judged according these narrow stereotypes. Narcos plays on these representation to create drama and interest, but many people non-Colombians take these literally.
Many of the show’s key characters and events differ greatly from reality. Escobar’s brother-in-law, for example, was presented as a key member of the cartel in the show, whereas the real man was not criminally involved at all and worked as an architect. Additionally, many important lives and deaths in the show were fabricated in some way: Narcos’ Escobar kills people who never died, characters who go on to live long lives false have been dead for years.
Narcos has used Escobar’s image as powerful figure in various campaigns, both on social media, using #wisdomwednesday and the character’s quotes, and on big billboard campaigns (a Christmas campaign in Madrid, Spain, features the line “Oh, white Christmas,” a thinly veiled reference to the abundance of drugs in Colombia). But this is only one side of Escobar’s persona—every Colombian has a story to tell about this time period, and they aren’t good memories. Over 80% of Colombians have been directly affected by Escobar’s actions: more than 4 million Colombians were displaced by his cartel or the ensuing violence, and the drug war killed over 3,000 civilians.
Colombian television is full of telenovelas about Escobar, like El Capo and El Patron del Mal (The Boss of Evil)—shows about similar subjects are sometimes called narconovelas—as well as a number of films that tell his story from different points of view. It’s the same violent, tragedy-filled story. So when Netflix announced Narcos, many Colombians thought, “not another show about drugs and Pablo.”
Colombia has come so far away from its state in the 1980s, it’s like a completely different country. In the nearly 25 years since Pablo’s death, Colombia rebuilt itself from the ground up, especially Medellín. In the 1980s and early ’90s, it was at the center of Escobar’s story, and due to its high murder rate, predominately thanks to the cartel, was named the most dangerous city in the world. In 1991, Medellín began to transform itself through urban development and exceptional transport links from poor neighborhoods into the city. Along with many other developments, this allowed people from surrounding areas to access the city and improve their working life, ultimately reducing the city’s violence and homicide rates by 95% and poverty by 66%.
Today, Medellín is a thriving metropolitan, a fashion and business capital, and a model for urbanization—it was even named Innovative City of the Year by the Wall Street Journal in 2013. All of that progress is being ignored. When Narcos premiered, many people around the world who had never visited Colombia believed the Medellín on the show was still an accurate image. It has influenced many tourists to visit the city, find and paintball Escobar’s home, and take picture doing illegal things in his house or next to his grave.
Narcos is told from the point of view of Steve Murphy, an American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officer on a mission to find and take down Pablo. At the time, Escobar wasn’t Colombia’s only problem—it was also dealing the guerrilla, paramilitary, the Cali cartel, and more—but Narcos presents the idea and image that Pablo and his cartel were running the country, which is not at all true. This Americanized version mixes truth with fiction and to add drama and keep viewers hooked, but the irresponsible storytelling aggravates a number of Colombians as many who watch the show believe the its representation of the country.
As the show’s story is from the point of view told by a U.S. DEA officer, it follows the tired trope of the blond agent who always knows best and thinks he can save the country from itself, whereas, in fact, some of America’s actions to ‘help’ the country made the problem worse. While the Americans where present in the country at the time, it was the Colombians who ultimately made the decisions and defeated Escobar, but this part of the story has been cut down.
Magical realism has often been associated with Colombia, through travel advertising campaigns and the great Gabriel García Márquez and his literature, but Narcos‘ use of the term falsely represents the country: The show begins with an incorrect definition of magical realism and a note: “There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.” In fact, magical realism stems from Germany but was made famous by Márquez but other Latin writers. The problem is that the show takes this idea further by saying, “God created Colombia and made it so beautiful, he had to fill it with bad people.” The entire representation of the country as inherently exotic and dangerous offends some Colombians as it portrays the majority of the country as evil.