Pubdate: Sat, 02 Sep 2017
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2017 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: John Doyle
Page: R1


The point of Narcos was never Pablo Escobar. For its first two seasons
the series rooted itself firmly in the rise and fall of Escobar, the
most notorious of maniacal drug kingpins, and a performance by Wagner
Moura as Escobar was as emphatic as it gets.

But Narcos was always planned as a vast epic about the drug trade -
what fuels it, who runs it and how every lame attempt to curb it goes
awry. Two years ago when I spoke with Jose Padilha, the Brazilian
director, producer and screenwriter who is an executive producer on
Narcos, he said it's about, "What cocaine is - it's cheap to make,
it's a natural product and it makes the human brain go haywire. The
American approach to dealing with the cocaine problem is basically
fighting cocaine by fighting supply. So yeah, you wage war on the
Medellin Cartel. You kill Pablo Escobar. And then it goes to Cali.
Then you wage war on Cali. And then it moves on and then it goes to
Mexico. It's always there."

The third season of Narcos (starts streaming on Netflix on Friday) is 
about the Cali Cartel. Escobar is dead, Bill Clinton is now president of 
the United States and the "war on drugs" grinds on and on. Escobar was 
small-fry when compared with the reach and wealth of this cartel. They 
delivered hundreds of tons of cocaine into North America every year. 
This small group (really only four players) of slick, secretive 
businessmen had learned from Escobar: Don't make noise and don't taunt 
the politically powerful. They just do business, quietly and ruthlessly. 
That's how they became, at one point, suppliers of 90 per cent of the 
cocaine consumed in the United States.

As the story evolves - and it is not necessary to see the first two
seasons in order to appreciate the story and heft of the third - it
becomes increasingly gripping and sometimes terrifyingly cynical.

Early on, a character says to Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal), the main
agent investigating the Cali Cartel, "The drug war? We lost it. You
were there."

Javier was there in the first two seasons and is now the lead
character on the side of the authorities. He also provides the
world-weary voice-over that connects the plot lines. The DEA and the
CIA want the drug supply from Colombia curbed. But this cartel is as
cunning as it is ruthless. As Javier tries to figure out why it's so
difficult to penetrate the cartel's operations, he realizes that they
own all information in Colombia. Every possible source of info is
bought. Phone calls are monitored by phone-company staff. Every cab
driver reports who is going where and whom they meet. Over footage of
the lush beauty of Colombia, Javier says, "It was like the Soviet
Union with nice weather."

The men running the Cali Cartel are a strange bunch - as understated
as Escobar was flamboyant. As the season starts, an announcement is
made: They want to wind up their operations and just live on their
vast wealth. This is, of course, not a plan they all agree upon. Pacho
Herrera (Alberto Ammann), who is gay, wants to settle some scores. Too
many people mocked him and he wants revenge before any business is
concluded. He's a terrifying figure, this Pacho, a menacing man who
needs attention but hates it.

The viewer's path into the Cali Cartel is through Jorge Salcedo
(Matias Varela), who is in charge of security for the four bosses.
He's not a bodyguard or a brute. He leaves the brutality to others.
He's just the savvy guy who oversees the elaborate process of knowing
where everybody is, what they are doing and how their wives are
spending their time. He's a cautious man. He doesn't even carry a gun.
Jorge has announced he's stepping away from the job to open a
legitimate business. One of the bosses asks him to stick around for
the final six months. He has no choice and that creates the one weak
link in the cartel's armour. Much of this is based on fact, by the
way, and the real Salcedo became a key figure in court cases years

What propels the series along is the continuing and superbly nuanced
combination of thriller and scathing political narrative. It is even
more male now, this thriller - there is is a fearsome tension in the
slowly burning male rage of the cartel bosses as they see their master
plan being undermined. Once into Episode 2, there is hardly a scene
that is not ripe with the jeopardy of betrayal and a sudden killing.

At the same time, there is a beautifully florid quality to it. When I
spoke to Padilha, he reminded me that Colombia's culture, climate and
landscape are alive with magic realism and that the fiction of
Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez defines the term. When I asked him to
elaborate, he laughed, shrugged and said, "The place is, like, kind of

But there's nothing crazy about the narrative that emerges in Narcos -
the Cali Cartel got its long arms into the United States by using
Mexican criminals and bandits to transport drugs and, in so doing,
created both an adversary and a successor in the mass-drug trade.
Which takes us to a contemporary story and the politics of today.
Narcos is highly recommended as a terrific thriller and and a timely
political parable.
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