Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar (IMDB)

‘Narcos’ and the Trap of Tropicalism

How the Netflix original series Narcos “otherizes" Colombia and Latin American through its single-story focus.

Carlo Bernard, Chris Brancato, Doug Miro

There is a plethora of narco-themed entertainment available to stream on Netflix. From La Reina del Sur (Queen of the South) to Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal (The Drug Lord) to El Chapo, there’s no shortage of fictionalized accounts of the narco life and aesthetic. Not to fall behind this trend, Netflix released its own original series that focuses on the rise and fall of Escobar in August 2015, aptly titled, Narcos.

Narcos differs from the numerous Spanish-produced, narco-themed series in that its central dialogue is in English and the Spanish dialogue is subtitled. That Narcos is intended to attract an Anglo audience that may otherwise find off-putting all the subtitled Spanish dialogue is further evident in that the central narrative is framed around the point-of-view of the white DEA agent, Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). Each episode begins with Murphy explaining to an (assumed) uninformed audience how the drug trade developed and operated in Colombia in the ’80s and the role the US government played in all of this.

Narcos is adept at interspersing archival footage of Escobar with fictionalized characters, providing the series the feel of a docudrama; it feels real enough to some critics that they have declared it a true portrayal of the Colombian drug war. However, for all its intent and purpose to represent Colombia, Narcos participates in the “otherization” of Latin America.

To address the issue of otherization, the notion of “tropicalism” is useful here. Latina/o studies scholars Frances Aparicio and Susana Chávez-Silverman (indebted to Edward Said’s Orientalism) define “tropicalism” as “the system of ideological fictions with which the dominant (Anglo and European) cultures trope Latin American and US Latino/a identities and cultures” (Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad, Aparicio and Chávez-Silverman, 1997:1). To “tropicalize”, then, is “to imbue a particular space, geography, group or nation with a set of traits, images and values”, which are intimately connected to the history, politics, economics and ideologies of the dominant culture (ibid: 8).

The first episode of Narcos begins with the following description of magical realism (lifted fromWikipedia without attribution): “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.” All but the words “too strange to believe”, now highlighted in red, fade from the screen and are followed by the (unfounded) explanation, “There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”

On the third episode, Murphy again reminds audiences of the strange land that is Colombia: “There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia. It’s a country where dreams and reality are conflated… where, in their heads, people fly as high as Icarus…” he says in reference to Escobar having been elected into Congress for a brief period of time. The conflation of Colombia with one of the more popular literary genres of Latin America serves to exoticize the region. The character of Murphy for its part functions as a mediator tasked with translating the situation in Colombia to the presumed Anglo viewers, and his narration perpetuates long-held stereotypical views about Latin America, depicting Colombia as backward, dangerous and full of threats (e.g., “But in Colombia, when money’s involved, blood inevitably follows”; “In Colombia, nothing goes down the way you think it will”).

One of the more troubling aspects of Narcos is the absence of Colombians. Not only is the story told from the perspective of a DEA agent and his partner, Javier Peña (played by Chilean-American actor Pedro Pascal), but Colombian characters mainly appear as expendable others. For example, although Murphy describes the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara (Adan Canto), as “the most important political figure in Colombia” because of his unrelenting criticism of Escobar and the drug trade, he only appears in one episode before he is killed. Women, however, are mere objects of pleasure and information to be exploited by both DEA agents and sicarios (hit men) alike.

Narcos does zero in on the lives of some of Escobar’s most loyal sicarios, who spend their time bragging about guns and the number of people they’ve murdered. The series here reproduces the notion that poor, brown men are irrationally violent, and thus have to be feared and contained for the benefit of society. Moreover, the victims of the drug war (shown in gruesome archival footage) remain unnamed and unidentified throughout the series, which reminds me of the question feminist scholar Judith Butler poses in 2016’s Frames of War: “when is life grievable?”

The first episode of Narcos, which features Murphy recounting with moral outrage that between 1979 and 1984, “there were 3,245 murders in Miami”, and that he enlisted to go to Colombia because “those fuckers [narcos] stepped in our soil”, answers the question. For the show, it is American lives and not Colombian lives that count as human lives in the first place, and are thus cast as grievable and worth fighting for.

Narcos‘ representation of Colombia as a violent and primitive landscape that both repulses and attracts Murphy facilitates, to borrow from Aparicio and Chávez-Silverman, “the popular acceptance and justification of imperialist interventions, invasions, and wars” (Tropicalizations: 8). In other words, the presence of the DEA in Colombia is framed as good and necessary, which works to legitimate US foreign policy. At some point, Murphy observes that he and Peña “represented America. We thought of ourselves as the guys who could get shit done” (emphasis in original). The DEA here is the institution that is responsible for toppling Escobar and his empire, while Colombians are but mere witnesses. Furthermore, the fact that Colombians are written out of their own drama serves to dispossess them and Latin Americans in general of their voice and “potential for economic, political, and cultural agency” (ibid: 9).

A final bone to pick with Narcos is its Pan-American casting. This type of casting works when a work is self-aware and the stakes are low, as it does so well in the myriad of Telemundo’s soap operas and the CW’s Jane the Virgin. However, casting a Brazilian actor (Wagner Moura) who had to learn Spanish to play the role of the most infamous narco in a show that is ostensibly about Colombia seems misguided. The absence of Colombian actors not only perpetuates the erasure of their voice and agency, it also confirms the stereotypical notion that all Latin Americans and Latino/as look and sound the same; that they appear as substitutable others in Narcos is not supposed to be a problem for the intended Anglo audience, for whom the subtitles are what matter. Further, for any Spanish-speaker viewer, the distinctive non-Colombian accents of Moura, Luis Guzmán, Ana de la Reguera and so on make the show fall flat.

The second season of Narcos begins to move away from Murphy’s tiring exposition and provides more visibility to Escobar’s domestic life and to President César Gaviria’s (Raúl Méndez) efforts to capture the drug kingpin. It remains to be seen if season 3, which premiers on 1 September 2017, will continue broadening its single-story focus. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie notes this single-story narrative is dangerous because it paints an incomplete and reductive picture of complex situations and people. Here’s hoping that Narcos will strive to offer a more nuanced and multidimensional portrait of Colombia and the drug trade in its upcoming episodes.