“Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe
There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia”

When we think about the devastation and harm that drugs can cause, often the focus is on consumption – the ways in which addictive drugs blight the lives of individual users and the inner city communities where they live.  Or perhaps the damage that punitive legal sanctions and law enforcement can have on the drug consumers, their families and neighbourhoods.  The same goes for fictional accounts of drug use.  From Trainspotting to The Wire, the spotlight has been on drug users, dealers and law enforcement.  Less attention has been given to the localities where drug production takes place. The Netflix original series ‘Narcos’ goes a long way to readdress this imbalance.

Seen through the eyes of DEA agent Steve Murphy and based on real life events in the Colombia of the 1980s, it depicts the rise of Pablo Escobar from small-time cigarette smuggler to leader of the Medellín drug cartel.  In the process, he became the seventh-richest man in the world and made the Forbes’ list of international billionaires for seven straight years.  One may expect fiction based on real life to take some poetic licences and watching Narcos one often is incredulous that such events could happen.  Surely incidents have been exaggerated for dramatic effect?  Except even a cursory inspection of Wikipedia confirms things that seem ‘too strange to believe’ did actually happen.  That Escobar made $420 million a week from cocaine; that he smuggled 70-80 tons of cocaine into the US every month; that after a bloody war with the Columbian state, which he effectively won, he was allowed to build and reside in his own luxury prison, staffed with his own guards; or that he arranged for the storming of the Colombian Palace of Justice, killing 25 Supreme Court Justices and destroying criminal records that may have led to his conviction.

“In the United States, the Mafia makes witnesses disappear so they can’t testify in court. In Colombia, Pablo Escobar made the whole court disappear.” –  Steve Murphy, Narcos

However, there are some problems with the Narcos analysis of events. The narrative centres on the slow corruption of DEA agent Steve Murphy.  At the beginning of the tale, he is shown as a naïve agent chasing American flip-flop wearing pot-heads in Miami.  After his first encounter with a Colombian drug dealer, he is shown in remorse after having shot a young man.  In Columbia, he undergoes a transformation.  At the end of the first series, he brandishes a gun in a taxi driver’s face and then shoots out his tyres in response to a minor traffic accident.  He smirks while his ‘gringa’ wife looks on in horror.  The implication here is that those from the nonviolent Anglo north become tainted by the savage Latino south.  It further implies that before Escobar the only drug problems in the Anglo North were a few hippies selling weed.  There is a small grain of truth to this last point but this is not because of anything that Escobar did.

Both the American and European Anglo North are historically implicated in the international drug trade.  During the nineteenth century, Britain and other colonial powers fought two ‘Opium Wars’ (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) to force China to accept narcotics, against its wishes, from British merchants.  This led to many in China becoming addicted to opium and resulted in significant improvements in Britain’s balance of payments to the detriment of China’s – this was the reason the wars were fought.  The eventual international prohibition and regulation of narcotics only came about because of American lobbying in the early twentieth century to restrict a drug trade that was dominated by the European colonial powers.  It was hoped that this would in turn favourably improve Sino-American economic relations and China’s trade with the U.S.  Again trade and balance of payments lay behind moves to restrict drug use.

V0037611 The Anglo-French fleet gathered in the bay of Hong Kong

Image: The Anglo-French fleet gathered in the bay of Hong Kong, March 1860, prior to their assault on Beijing, Wellcome Library, London

At the beginning of the 1970s, the so-called hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine were virtually unheard of on the streets of America and Europe.  But Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” for local political reasons.  Nixon was in the middle of what would now be called a culture war, with widespread political dissent over issues such as the Vietnam war and Black Rights.  Nixon as the defender of traditional and conservative values used drugs to “provided both an explanation for why the country seemed to be becoming unhinged… and at the same time, it offered a sort of a target that government could use to reassert its control”.  But one of the net effects of the ‘war on drugs’ was a switch away from narcotics that were bulky and difficult to smuggle, such as herbal marijuana, towards drugs that had much higher profit to mass ratios, such as cocaine.

To return to Narcos, despite the somewhat simplistic analysis of the Anglo North and Latino South drug relationship, there is much that it gets right.  It shows in graphic detail the consequences of industrial scale production of cocaine for an impoverished region.  The banality of daily torture, terror and murder on a massive scale is revealed as Escobar’s billions is poured into the Colombian economy transforming a poor country into “a bustling, cosmopolitan hellhole”.  It also shows the duplicity and indifference of the American state to the murder of thousands in Columbia and Miami until a link was found between Escobar and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Narcos is definitely worth viewing.  But perhaps the biggest problem with the series is only hinted at in passing.  The Anglo North, rather than tackling the socioeconomic causes of a growing illicit drug demand, focuses instead, almost exclusively, on restricting supply and seeking to halt the flow of narcotics.  At the same time, the prohibition-based international drug control system, while doing relatively little to control drugs at the source, almost simultaneously stimulates ‘the growth and development of the global illicit drug trade’.  You may also like to reflect while consuming the series, that the casualties of the war on drugs are still mostly dead brown bodies and incarcerated black ones.

Narcos is available on Netflix