Wagner Moura and Paulina Gaitan in Narcos "The Men of Always" (2015 / IMDB)

The Hidden Gender Roles in ‘Narcos’

Narcos has a "no girls allowed" quality that threads throughout the show -- to its detriment.

The business of international drug trafficking as depicted in Narcos is many things: greedy, brutal, interminable, and of course, bloody. Presented in an action-movie format brimming with police raids, firefights, chases, and executions, it’s also exciting. Based somewhat on real events, executive producer Eric Newman has said the show depicts a 50/50 mix of reality and fiction, adhering to historical chronology, around which dramatic conversations and relationships are constructed and interwoven. This drama revolves around a predominantly male cast that operates on a code of traditionally masculine values to constitute and reinforce their identity.

An example in episode seven of season three, where DEA agent Javier Peña describes how General Serrano became involved in the police force, illustrates the value system at play. “One day, a group of mounted policeman rode into [Serrano’s] village”, Peña narrates. “It reminded him of the holy knights he had read about. Religious warriors on a mission from God. He knew then that he would be one of them.” Peña’s voiceover dramatizes a scene where mounted policemen ride into town, photographed in slow motion from a low camera angle. Serrano as a young boy looks on in awe. This origin story establishes the police as soldiers of purpose, imperial cowboys fighting majestically for a valiant cause.

The show’s masculine preference is particularly evident during its third season, where the expanded cast includes four Cali godfathers replacing Escobar and two new DEA agents replacing Steve Murphy – all male roles. As with past seasons, the women playing domestic partners to the principal male leads remain largely ignorant of their lovers’ affairs. Women who do intersect more directly with the War on Drugs become casualties or mourning widows, while others eke by as prostitutes. Unsurprisingly, these characterizations prevent the women from becoming three-dimensional characters in their own right.

Narcos uses the contrasting “office” world of the cops-and-robbers drug trade and the comparatively docile domestic sphere to intensify conflicts for its male characters. In doing this, the show illustrates an absurdity: men adept at leading complicated and often lethal drug operations while still emotionally ill-equipped to navigate domestic issues.

Jorge Salcedo personifies this most directly. Throughout the third season, Jorge argues with his wife Paola about whether to remain the head of cartel security or to leave the country, as if it were the family’s decision to make and not beholden to the Cali godfathers’ whims. His struggle begins as early as the first episode, foregrounding his conflict as central to the dramatic heart of the season.

Jorge at least recognizes the futility of the situation. When Jorge tells Paola that the cartel has asked him to stay on for six more months, he tells her, “What could I tell [them]?” Paola scoffs at him, going as far as to say, “I don’t think you really want to leave this job. You like working with them.” and thus deliberately baiting him. Throughout the season, Paola will repeatedly and expectedly take this stance, preventing her from achieving true dimensionality as a character.

In episode six, Jorge tells Paola he has begun working with the American DEA. He assures her that Peña’s team have promised to help them get out of the country to safety. Paola is not relieved; she’s angered. “They’re going to kill all of us. You’re insane. What were you thinking?” she exclaims, striking him. Jorge is at a loss. His wife never seems to approve of any move he makes, even when he decides to collaborate with the “good guys”. The moment is meant to tighten the claustrophobic atmosphere of doom that closes in on sympathetic Jorge. However, the scene falls flat, playing as more of a spat between lovers, one in which one is never satisfied despite the other’s efforts to present alternative options to a situation.

Jorge comes home to find Paola packing the bags and moving their children to her parent’s house in episode seven. Jorge objects, as any atypical activity will be noticed by the increasingly paranoid cartel and could potentially jeopardize the DEA’s success. Paola is determined, however, and fights back with a cutting remark. “I’ll call you in a few days. The girls will want to hear from you.” When Jorge tells her that they’ll soon all be on a plane heading to America, Paola sees another empty promise. “Who told you I want to live in the US? What happens if the Americans fail?” The implications of death are clear, though given the show’s track record, the brutal cartel forces would likely find and murder Jorge’s family anywhere in Colombia. Paola doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation, but only because Jorge has not wanted to place her in further danger. By deliberately keeping her uninformed, Jorge shouldn’t then be surprised when she acts in a way that seems hasty to him.

Jorge isn’t the only character who must deal with the ramifications of his work life in his personal affairs. In the season finalé, when Cali accountant Guillermo Pallomari is advised by his lawyer to leave the country, Pallomari protests that his wife is “…very attached to her work. You know her, she’s stubborn. She built her business from the ground up. I can’t leave without her,” he says, tearing up. His wife is far from demure and Pallomari is afraid of her reaction if he tells her about the potential change to his life. Later, when agent Peña offers him his only option with passage to the United States, his wife protests, saying “We can’t leave for at least a week,” again underscoring several situational absurdities: one, that her earnings could possibly be near those of an accountant for one of the most successful drug cartels in history; and two, that her business means more than her very survival. It’s hard to believe that these women are as unaware of the impending danger as the show depicts them to be, particularly when clear alarm is raised by their spouses, men who normally conduct themselves much more calmly.

This gender dynamic is independent of power or location, as illustrated with one of the Cali godfathers, Chepe, who also deals with his own domestic disputes while overseeing his post in New York City. A scene in episode six begins with Chepe’s lover crying at the mere thought of having to leave the city. After watching a news broadcast in which his alias is identified, Chepe decides not to leave after all. At once, his girlfriend turns on him, her voice full of vitriol. “Do me a favor and fix this. Do you hear me?” While this abrupt turn justifies Chepe’s decision to remain in New York (although it’s a decision he seemed to have already made), his girlfriend has less room to move, given only meager dialogue with which to unnaturally pivot.

Women are also portrayed in the show as being ill-equipped to navigate the drug world. In season three, there are only a handful of instances when a woman ever holds a gun, let alone shoots one. In episode nine, Jorge Salcedo equips his wife with a submachine gun. “Paola, don’t freak out. It’s only a precaution”, he tells her. Paola is frozen just looking at the gun, and her awkward handling of the firearm portends she won’t be able to execute on any potential threat. Amplifying this disconnect, Jorge hurriedly shows her how to turn the safety on and off, as if the gun is a simple household appliance. When he takes the gun back, Paola wipes her hands on her blouse as if she’s handled something dirty. Her disgust is only heightened by the considerable caliber of the firearm itself.

Other instances more blatantly bar women from entering the masculine War on Drugs. In episode nine, when Maria Salazar sees that Jorge is being accosted by Miguel’s henchman, Miguel dismisses her firmly with, “Go to your room,” reducing her status to that of a child. Christina Jurado, wife of a Cali accountant, is the only person on the show who develops a problematic cocaine habit and is unable to weather a drug that gives few others on the show much issue. Narcos‘ only female drug trafficker, Judy Moncada (a fictitious character), holds her own in season two until she is almost killed in a car bomb. Near the end of the season, Moncada is ceremoniously escorted onto a plane after Don Berna betrays her, a send-off that is one of the few times anyone is spared. While Moncada retains her dignity by marching off across the tarmac, the scene nevertheless has a “no girls allowed” quality that threads throughout the show (she is absent from the third season, whereas Don Berna appears momentarily).

These observations are pernicious because they largely exist as subtext. Narcos‘ fourth season, releasing in 2018 and focusing on Mexico’s War on Drugs, gives the show’s creators the opportunity to include more female roles and to give them more dramatic nuance overall. Perhaps it’s historically true that many of the key roles in the drug conflict had been occupied by men, but in prior seasons Narcos has had little issue with finding places for female cast members. It is, after all, 50 percent fiction. The addition of several prominent male roles in the third season has created a lopsided tendency toward males that the show can and should rectify, moving forward.