Review: Narcos – the life of Pablo Escobar, drug lord, politician and businessman

What was the most extraordinary thing about Pablo Escobar? Was it that he became and remains America’s most renowned cocaine trafficker; or that he was the world’s 7th richest man at the height of his power, or that in order to evade extradition to the US he built his own “prison” in Colombia, allowed the government to send him there but would not allow police near the facility? Or was it perhaps because he was an astute entrepreneur who had the vision to connect a highly sought after commodity with a lucrative market.

Netflix’s series on the life of Escobar provides us with a feast of crime, corruption and politics that charts his rise and fall. Clearly it’s a potent story but did this production provide a powerful hit?

Our first glimpse into the world of Pablo Escobar is through the eyes of DEA agent Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook) who also provides a melodic voiceover which stands in sharp relief to the violent history lesson being dished out on screen. The voiceover also gives the series a documentary feel which is compounded by the hefty use of real photos and footage of Escobar.

We meet Escobar just as his career is taking off as he moves from smuggling cigarettes to cocaine and soon both his ruthlessness and business acumen are apparent.

In one crucial scene where Escobar meets Chilean drug chemist “Cockroach” the far sighted Pablo immediately recognises the profit he can make by selling Coke in Miami rather than just Colombia. This simple snippet demonstrates that Escobar is not simply a drug lord but a businessman who connected the world’s biggest market with its most potent product.

Detective Murphy and the DEA’s perspective continues to be skilfully woven into the narrative as they witness first hand the upsurge in violence that coke brings to Miami and we soon move onto their attempts to tackle the problem at its source in Colombia. As anyone familiar with the history of the region will know the situation escalates in spectacular fashion into further conflict.

When in Colombia Detective Murphy teams up with another cop Javier Pena (played by the striking Pedro Pascal) who provides the moral counterweight to Escobar’s increasingly over the top activities.

Escobar is played by Wagner Moura and is of course the quintessential ruthless drug baron, bribing, killing and threatening anyone that stands in his way. However we still warm to the mass murderer thanks to Neflix’s clever depiction of him as a loving family man who gives millions away to the poor and stands up the Colombia’s elite.

Perhaps more subtly our affections for Escobar are swayed by a heavy screen presence with a lot of close ups and in one early key scene where his overt concern for a dog is contrasted with another much less likeable drug baron. This is the now familiar anti-hero leading man depiction which has become a staple of many popular TV series in recent years and Narco demonstrates that this particular trope has not yet gone stale.

Moura has an almost relaxed air on screen and his casual appearance at times give us the impression of someone who is taking the dog for walk rather than one of the world’s most dangerous men. At other times he is very much the intimidating drug kingpin, whether casually threatening the Colombian police with his knowledge of their families whereabouts or acting as the alpha-narco when persuading his peers to form a cartel. Moura wisely steers clear of a Scarface style over the top psychotic persona, giving us a well-balanced, believable performance.

The series gives us tantalising glimpses of the operations behind his business empire – a multimillion dollar enterprise whose manufacturing base started out as a series of tents and shacks in the jungle. In these humble abodes Escobar’s men created the product which eventually developed into a US $50 million plus a day business. Even with the vast amounts needed to bribe police and officials as well as pay smugglers and an army of hired thugs it still left Escobar with an unimaginable fortune. The business generated so much money his men resorted to digging pits in the ground in order to store the cash. Escobar’s venture was clearly of “informal” nature but also clearly relied on certain degree of conventional bureaucracy as the capture of the accountant “Blackbeard” and with it 600,000 incriminating documents demonstrated.

Even legitimate companies like the highly topical Glencore have murky origins. Glencore was founded by Marc Rich, a US commodity trader turned fugitive who made much of his fortune evading sanctions and working with unlikely partners and pariahs such as Iran, Apartheid South Africa, Cuba and Marxist Angola – he was eventually charged with tax evasion by one Rudy Giuliani (future New York mayor). Rich fled to Switzerland (no extradition treaty with the US) where he went on to lead a cloak and dagger existence, forced to evade the attentions of the FBI whenever he travelled abroad. Eventually his powerful connections and a well-timed political donation by his daughter got him a controversial pardon from President Clinton on his final day in office. Although he clearly broke the law, he also revolutionised the commodity trading business, establishing the more highly leveraged model in existence today.

The series provides us with some terrific tense entertainment, as well as (unsurprisingly) a fair amount of violence, but it also allows us to see Escobar as he viewed himself, as a brilliant businessman who changed the world.

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