Ad­dic­tive view­ing

The Times (South Africa) - - Big Night In - By AN­DREW DON­ALD­SON

● THE red flags went up with the ar­rival of a third sea­son of the true-life crime se­ries, Narcos, now stream­ing on Net­flix. Here was a pe­riod drama based on the life of Colom­bian co­caine traf­ficker and Medellin car­tel boss Pablo Es­co­bar. Given that our main char­ac­ter was shot dead at the end of sea­son two, what would now drive the plot?

We for­get, though, that na­ture ab­hors a vac­uum. With Es­co­bar out of the pic­ture, it wasn’t long be­fore an­other bunch stepped up to the plate: the Cali car­tel. One mon­ster has been re­placed by a fam­ily of mon­sters.

The third sea­son is thus more of an en­sem­ble work and opens some years af­ter Es­co­bar’s death. It is now the early 1990s, and US drug en­force­ment pol­icy is be­ing shaped by the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The Cali car­tel — broth­ers Gil­berto and Miguel Ro­driguez (Damian Al­cazar and Fran­cisco De­nis), Pa­cho Her­rera (Al­berto Am­mann) and Chepe San­tacruz-Lon­dono (Pepe Ra­pa­zote) — con­trol the pro­duc­tion and traf­fick­ing of 80% of the world’s co­caine, an op­er­a­tion that em­ploys 700 000 peo­ple. In ad­di­tion, these were the guys who wrote the book on money-laun­der­ing.

Un­like Es­co­bar, the “Gentle­men of Cali”, as they were known, pre­ferred a low pro­file. As DEA agent Javier Peña (Pe­dro Pascal), this sea­son’s nar­ra­tor, in­forms us in the first episode, not for them the flashy “Robin Hood” an­tics of Es­co­bar, or his “sig­na­ture”style ex­e­cu­tions that left no one in doubt as to who was boss. With the Cali car­tel, the bod­ies sim­ply van­ished. End of story.

But now things are chang­ing. Gil­berto Ro­driguez has de­vised an “exit strat­egy”: he pro­poses that, in six months, the car­tel shut down their co­caine op­er­a­tion and hand them­selves over to the au­thor­i­ties.

In ex­change, the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment, cor­rupt and in the car­tel’s pocket, lets them keep the con­sid­er­able spoils of their trade, which, af­ter serv­ing brief nom­i­nal sen­tences in min­i­mum-se­cu­rity, coun­try club-type jails, they can hap­pily en­joy as free men. And the spoils are con­sid­er­able, bil­lions of dol­lars.

Un­til then, Ro­driguez sug­gests, they in­ten­sify busi­ness and rake in as much cash as pos­si­ble.

Not all car­tel mem­bers think this an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion. One man, in par­tic­u­lar, is pro­foundly un­easy; Jorge Sal­cedo (Ma­tias Varela), the mild-man­nered head of Cali se­cu­rity, fears (cor­rectly, as it turns out) that mat­ters are about to get ex­tremely messy in the com­ing months, and wants out im­me­di­ately. He is, how­ever, per­suaded to stick around, and it’s here that the third sea­son comes into its own re­gard­ing edge-of-seat ten­sion.

Cre­ators Chris Bran­cato, Carlo Barnard and Doug Miro may have laid on the artis­tic li­cence a lit­tle too thickly with Sal­cedo, and it’s doubt­ful the car­tel’s se­cu­rity boss would have been such a lik­able char­ac­ter in real life, an ev­ery­man with an aver­sion to vi­o­lence, who es­chewed firearms for a walkie-talkie.

It also strains cred­i­bil­ity that, as a se­cu­rity hon­cho, Sal­cedo may now be un­aware he’s get­ting in over his head.

This is a mi­nor con­cern, one that’s swept aside once the blood­bath starts. The bod­ies are no longer dis­ap­pear­ing, and the con­tin­ued skil­ful use of archival news footage, blur­ring the line be­tween doc­u­men­tary and en­ter­tain­ment, serves as a star­tling re­minder that these events ac­tu­ally took place.

The se­ries is beau­ti­fully shot. Colom­bia’s in­ner city seed­i­ness is con­trasted with the vul­gar lux­ury of the co­caine barons’ pala­tial coun­try homes, which in turn is jux­ta­posed with the wilder­ness of the coun­try­side. The real jun­gles, how­ever, are the cham­bers of bu­reau­cracy in Bo­gota. Here it is all greased palms, treach­ery and be­trayal as the lev­els of cor­rup­tion are peeled back like lay­ers of an onion.

NEW MON­STERS The third sea­son of ‘Narcos’ deals with the Cali Car­tel, who filled the gap left by Pablo Es­co­bar

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