Gringos watching Colombians

Netflix Narcos
Wagner Moura as Escobar

The US, Hollywood-inspired vision of Colombia gets a revamp in the Netflix series Narcos, as Mike Mackenna explains

The new Netflix show Narcos makes it clear from the very beginning that it wants to take a nuanced view of US influence overseas. At the start of the first episode, Steve Murphy, the DEA agent who is supposed to be limited to an advisory role in Colombia, narrates for us how he implicitly ordered the local police to shoot up a crowded Medellin nightclub, killing a Pablo Escobar associate, but leaving inevitable civilian casualties.

This morally ambiguous take on the US role in Colombia is quite a step forward for high-profile depictions of the country. Just the fact that the show was actually shot in Colombia makes it a far cry from the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, maybe the most prominent physical misrepresentation of Colombia. The movie opens with a scene that is supposed to take place in Bogotá; however, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie dance in light clothes not at all suitable to Bogotá’s climate, in some kind of open-air cantina that has no need for the kind of stand-alone heaters often used on the terraces of the capital’s bars. The gross inaccuracy of the scene probably owes something to the fact that it was filmed in Los Angeles.

Besides being based on the lazy idea that all of Colombia is tropical, the scene doesn’t miss a chance to exploit the stereotype of the country as a violent, lawless place. Bogotá, we’re told, is “apocalyptic” and “on fire.”

Narcos, then, is a major improvement on execrable movies like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but that doesn’t mean it’s free of all the sins of past portrayals of Colombia.

By casting Brazilian actor Warner Moura as Pablo Escobar, Narcos made it clear it was disregarding the importance of Colombian Spanish in its portrayal of the bloody heyday of Colombian narcos. Moura isn’t even a native Spanish speaker, so hearing him try to speak in the distinctive paisa accent is like hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger attempt to imitate Tony Soprano.

Considering he spent just four months in Medellin preparing for the role, and that he’s using his second language, he really doesn’t sound that bad, but his halting Spanish is still glaringly obvious.

For other important roles, they did at least choose native Spanish speakers, though few Colombians. On the Narcos IMDB page, you have to go 12 actors down the list to find one who was born in the country, though the actor in question was raised in Spain, and 16 actors down the list to find one who was born and raised here. No wonder Colombian magazine Arcadia described the series as “implausible”.

Netflix Narcos
Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook in Narcos

Despite the lack of Colombian actors in Narcos, it wouldn’t be entirely fair to say Colombians don’t have a voice in the series. By Hollywood standards, just the fact that the Latino actors speak Spanish to each other is an advance. It’s not like, say, the 2007 movie version of the García Márquez classic Love in the Time of Cholera, in which all the residents of Cartagena inexplicably speak English to each other. Surely a US audience would find it strange to watch Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway converse in Spanish in 1920s New York.

But those are just the actors pretending to be Colombians. What about the actual Colombians? In a postmodern touch, the series had two actors from Colombian narconovelas (Juan Sebastian Calero and Christian Tappa) share scenes with characters they once played. Calero played narco Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha in the series El Mexicano, and Tappa played Escobar’s right-hand man Gonzalo Gaviria in El Patron del Mal. In Narcos, both trade brief dialogue with other actors playing Gacha and Gaviria.
What are we to make of these casting choices? Sly winks by the Narcos creators at the Colombian series? Or a cursory attempt by them to involve local actors? Given how minor a role real Colombians play in the series, it’s hard not to suspect the series of tokenism.

So yes, Narcos is a step forward for the US entertainment industry, since it acknowledges the violence, humiliation, and resentment generated by US intervention in Colombia. However, its improvements are features that we should really take for granted in any production about the country: it was filmed here, with mostly Spanish-speaking actors, and it includes the Colombian perspective on the events in the story. Now that we’ve satisfied those barrel-bottom-scraping standards, can we please have more actual Colombians in the next production?

By Mike Mackenna


  1. Why does it need Colombians? I think thats a moot point, its the story and it’s telling thats important. Realistically this doesn’t make a difference. You seem to have missed the point that it’s made for a predominantly English speaking audience.

    And it’s a series, not a news documentary, it does an admirable job or presenting the key events.

    • Yeah Dave, you have a point that it’s not for a Spanish-speaking audience. I would say that for anyone familiar with Colombian Spanish, though, it’s hard to take the series seriously, and it fits in with a long history of uninformed portrayals of Colombia (though, like I say, it is a lot better than the worst offenders). I would say there is an inherent value to representing the culture accurately, whether or not that culture is your target audience, but I would also say that casting Colombians makes more sense if you’re only thinking of ratings. After all, your English speaking audience doesn’t care if you cast Colombians or not, but much of your Spanish speaking audience will. Why not make them happy?

      • I don’t think the other Spanish speakers care, why would they, it’s the story that’s important and thus program does the job. I understand every word and It didn’t effect my enjoyment, I saw past it to the quality of the acting and the production, Here we have, as usual The Colombians acting the victim. It’d be nice to erase it from history for them, but it happened

        And it’s not uninformed, what makes you say that? Specifics please? And by that I mean major story features, not that the American ambassador was a man and in the series is a woman. The main historical events and the central tenants of the narrative are accurate, or do you disagree? It does a good job of portraying what actually happened.

    • It’s a matter of preference, right? For me, actors sounding right is important. I give the example in the article of Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Tony Soprano. Even if Arnold were a brilliant actor, his accent would ruin the series for me. But if you’re not bothered, then you’re not bothered. Regarding historical accuracy, they get lots of events basically right, but also take some pretty big liberties. Escobar was never given Bolivar’s sword, he never killed the head of the M19, it has never been proven that the Palacio de Justicia attack was funded by Escobar, and no DEA agent warned President Gaviria not to get on the plane that Escobar blew up.

      • Do these liberties make a material difference to the story? Not at all, And as for the Palace of Justice, it’s never been proven who did it, so they obviously had to go with someone.

        The show is being acclaimed globally and the actor that played Escobar praised. So yes, it’s a matter of preference, but your view is by far the minority. I think its blinded by the fact you know so much about Colombia. It fits in with the ‘victim’culture whenever Escobar is mentioned and makes for a reasonable story.

        • You’re probably right that I’m in the minority, Dave. Thanks a lot for all your comments. I really enjoyed the discussion. I wish I could have more like that with more of the people who read my articles.

  2. Thanks for your comment Cameron, though I would respectfully disagree regarding not watching something which damages the country’s image. To me, the problem with Narcos is not that it presents a negative image of Colombia, but that it doesn’t present Colombian history realistically enough. If you’re going to create a series about such an awful point in the history of a country as misunderstood as Colombia, you should use Colombian actors. It’s one thing for, say, Tom Cruise to portray that Nazi general who tried to kill Hitler. There are enough other depictions of Nazi history out there to balance out inaccuracies in that movie. But if you’re an English speaker who wants to understand the Escobar days in Colombia, Narcos could easily be your only source of information, which is a shame.

  3. Being an Expat in Colombia and travelled for 5 years I totally agree Mike. Thanks for the info because I refuse to watch something that only continues to damage this countries attempts to improve the image and rather than the rich culture and positive stories. Hold on to the violent past. How about the creativity, the culture the myths. Great Article thanks!


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