A Troubling Viewpoint: Colombia and the War on Drugs

By: Francisco Coch, Contributor



In May of this year, the guerilla movement FARC, or the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, reached a significant milestone with Colombia’s government. As part of a series of talks conducted between president Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of FARC, the two sides are seeking to bring an end to a long standing conflict over Colombia’s illegal drug trade.

The talks, first announced by Santos in August of 2012, have sought to address the terms for maintaining peace, and are recognized as a cornerstone policy of Santos’s presidency. The advancements made in this process are indicative of huge strides in Colombia, away from its image as the war-torn nation of just a few decades ago. As for the illegal drug trade itself, the violence and policies seeking to address it largely concern the production and distribution of the drugs, in which the FARC has played a part in a much broader picture.

Colombia’s illegal drug trade proliferated after increased demands for psychoactive drugs in the late 1960’s and 70’s. The increases in cocaine production catalyzed much of the violence in the 80’s and 90’s, as the conflict spread among rival cartels, paramilitary and guerilla groups, becoming the country’s Guerra sucia. Total casualties since the violence escalated have exceeded 200,000 people, and between four and five and a half million people have been displaced as a result.

Furthermore, the effects of the conflict are still being felt today, even now as it winds down. According to the World Bank, the five highest rates of intentional homicide per 100,000 people are all found in Central and South America. Among these, Honduras, Venezuela, and El Salvador all account for the endemic violence of this drug war.

Among the figureheads of these drug trafficking operations was Pablo Escobar, a native of Colombia’s Antioquia region and the leader of the Medellin Cartel, responsible for perpetrating much of the violence throughout this time period. His role in Colombia’s drug trade has been the subject of several films and television shows, many of which will be released this and the next two years. Among them, the Netflix drama “Narcos” has recently garnered lots of attention and is seeking to sustain Netflix’s position at the forefront of the entertainment industry.

Directed by Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha, the show relates the series of events and bloodshed leading up to his prominence as a kingpin in the drug world, and features fellow Brazilian Wagner Moura as the title role of Escobar. The show has garnered several positive reviews, but lately has attracted a mixed acceptance from the behalf of the show’s Latin American and Hispanic followers.

Early on it begins, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the Narco world, is that life is more complicated than you think.” Padilha’s account, like the many others that have preceded it, chooses to tackle the controversial narrative set within the context of a country trying to lift itself out of poverty. Escobar, among many others, is shown doing so by turning to the drug trade. Yet it is not the story that is the root of the show’s conflicted depiction, rather, the manner in which it chooses to do so.

In it, Boyd Holbrook, a Kentucky native, and Pedro Pascal, of Chile, accompany Moura as the other lead actors. The show’s neglecting to cast a Colombian actor for the role of Escobar raised attention, particularly over the nuances of Moura’s accent. Furthermore, the other characters evoke an ever-present disparity between the show’s attempts to communicate to Latino audiences, and appeal to the broader Netflix audience, assumed to not have a background with the Spanish language.

What is arguably most concerning is not the fact that the show’s producers could not hire Colombian actors to play the parts, rather, its deliberate portrayal of a nation’s role amidst the context of a violent struggle. The pretense of labeling Colombia as a region inherently condemned to violence and exploitation of drugs, and the habit of creating violence into an entertainment commodity, has gradually displaced the culture’s image within an international context.

The portrayal of Colombia by Narcos only perpetrates this view, as though the prevalence of violent crime is in reality seeded in the verdant, lush countryside as naturally and often as one would expect coffee beans. The manner in which Narcos portrays the drug conflict also gives way to an audience proclaiming a familiarity with the systemic issues plaguing the socioeconomic and political sphere of a developing country for the past several decades, and it is concerning to see the extent to which its message has reached viewers as a popular entertainment source. If its message reaches viewers unfamiliar with the cultural and political contexts of the issue, what is to be said about the manner in which people begin perceiving Colombia as solely portrayed through a Netflix show?

Are Narcos, and the multitude of other films and shows portraying Colombia’s drug war, glorifying a viewpoint of a drug lord and the violence brought upon so many innocents, or is it seeking to hold as accurate a view of historical events as they occurred?

As the peace negotiations ensue in Colombia, the country’s history and stances on these issues will continue to shed light on its emerging presence in an international domain. It will be increasingly important to consider these questions in view of how a country, and its people, is perceived.