'Narcos': A Serial Deception of the US's War on Drugs

The show lionises the US's involvement in Pablo Escobar's fall, but the untold story is its involvement in his rise and in that of the vast drug business in Latin America.

There’s no doubt Netflix’s Narcos is an absorbing and addictive show – Pablo Escobar’s colourful life has all the ingredients for an entertaining story. While I enjoyed watching the show, like my Colombian friends, I too was saddened and angered by the inaccurate portrayal of the US’s role in catching Escobar.

The show, which has run for two seasons now, charts the rise and fall of Medellin’s drug king Escobar. He starts off as a small-time smuggler of consumer goods and then discovers the big business of supplying cocaine to the US.  As his wealth grows, so does his power and he escalates from simply bribing politicians and influencing the Colombian government to countering the administration with his own contingent of men and weapons. Eventually, the US and Colombian governments cooperate in bringing him down.

Escobar’s story is only one part of the larger story of Colombian politics: the social divide between the oligarchic elite in Bogota and their poor fellow Colombians in the country’s interiors, the guerrilla wars waged between the left and right; the corruption and violence that plagued Colombian society; the US’s interference in domestic politics by way of waging a war on drugs and communism; and finally, the American military-industry-intelligence complex, which propelled the US into Colombia after the end of the cold war.

The politics behind Narcos

After watching Narcos, I ended up reading Mark Bowden’s book Killing Pablo – the true story behind the hit series Narcos, which details the competitive ‘turf war’ that emerged between the US’s various law enforcement agencies in the American hunt for Escobar.

According to Bowden, Escobar became an ideal trophy target for all the American agencies that were looking for a new role in a post-Cold War world order. Practically every American law enforcement organisation wanted to go after Escobar – the CIA, NSA, FBI, the US army, navy, airforce, marines and special forces. So when the US government announced its war on drugs, this entire contingent jumped into the fray, armed with large budgets and Rambo-esque confidence. These US forces were so intent on catching Escobar that at one point there were about 17 spy planes flying over Medellin to track Escobar’s movements. In fact, the government had to assign a separate airborne warning and control centre to keep track of the American airplanes in flying over Colombia.

But Narcos, although entertaining, is an inaccurate portrayal of the US’s role in catching Escobar.

The show is narrated from a narrow American point of view that distorts the reality of the actual events through its presentation of false information, one might even say its misleading propaganda. To begin with, Colombians on the show are portrayed as the bad guys while the agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are cast in a positive light. However, the truth is that it was not Colombians but American drug consumers who were the real villains. Colombia’s drug business was driven by the demand coming from the US. Something that is true even today as Americans from all walks of life, be it Hollywood actors, politicians or students, continue to demand and consume illegal drugs. As long as there is a demand and consumers with money, there will always be suppliers. Even President Richard Nixon, who declared the war on drugs, admitted in his June 1971 address to the Congress, “as long as there is a demand, there will be those willing to take the risks of meeting the demand”. In this statement, he publicly proclaimed that all efforts of interdiction and eradication are destined to fail.

But Narcos, and the American media and administration, have succeeded in demonising Escobar as “the most powerful criminal in history” while neglecting the real culprits – American consumers. This has not only given Colombia a bad name but also resulted in the distortion of the global discourse on drugs. The most notable example of this distortion is the simple fact that Escobar’s death did not stop or even reduce drug consumption in the US. The Cali cartel took over where Escobar’s Medellin cartel left off (a development followed closely in Narcos‘ second season) and now the Colombian drug cartels have handed over the mantle to Mexican ones.

Confiscated drugs and cash as depicted on the show. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Confiscated drugs and cash as depicted on the show. Credit: Youtube screenshot

The drug business

Selling drugs is still a huge business in the US. In 2012, the US market for illegal drugs was over US $100 billion, according to a Rand Corporation report. This figure included $40 billion in marijuana, $28 billion in cocaine, $27 billion in heroine and another $13 billion in meth.

The US market for illegal drugs was over $100 billion in 2012 , according to a Rand Corporation report. According to a 2012 study by the Organisation of American States, Andean coca leaf producers get only 1% of the retail value of cocaine in the US, while drug traffickers get 20-25% and the remainder stays within the US retail business. Colombians and Mexicans involved in the business receive mere crumbs for serving US consumers.

The business generated from the war on drugs is equally massive. It is estimated that the US spends around $50 billion a year on drug enforcement operations. And with the DEA having its own fleet of planes and boats, it’s no surprise that its chief is called the Drug Czar. It’s not just planes, boats and cash either. The agency’s work also generates a lot of business for corporations, contractors and equipment suppliers, making it a very profitable war for them. In order to keep making profits, these interests continue to successfully lobby the US Congress to continue this war on drugs.

US involvement in South America 

The DEA and other US intelligence agencies have also frequently used this anti-drug position as an excuse to infiltrate the security forces of several Latin American countries. The US has forced countries to militarise their drug enforcement operations and redirect their resources to this cause over other pressing domestic law and order issues.

Such interference in domestic matters has led the US to cultivate military dictatorships in several of these countries. A classic case of American meddling is its dealings with Manuel Noriega, who became president of Panama. The CIA was known to have helped Noriega with drug trafficking and money laundering through its covert operations. However, as Noriega became too much to handle, the US invaded Panama and incarcerated him. Something similar happened in Nicaragua, where an American journalist discovered that the CIA was participating in the Nicaraguan drug business and using drug money to aid the contras (opposition) against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Hollywood even made a movie about this, Kill the Messenger, which was based on the journalist who uncovered the scam.

In Bolivia, the US tried very hard to prevent Evo Morales from being elected the country’s president by labelling him a coca-leaf producer and thus linking Morales to the drug trade.

Apart from meddling in Latin American politics, the US has also undertaken other measures such as air spraying harmful chemicals over coca fields in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, purportedly as a part of its war on drugs. But such actions have damaged agricultural land and the surrounding ecosystem. The US needs to respect the Andean tradition of using coca leaves for religious, nutritional and medicinal purposes and distinguish between the coca leaf’s many uses, including cultural practices and recreational cocaine snorting.

The real Pablo Escobar. Credit: Reuters

The real Pablo Escobar. Credit: Reuters

Trading firearms for drugs

Drug trafficking is not a one-way business. In return for sending drugs into the US, Latin American countries get American dollars and illegal guns. According to a report by the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute titled, ‘The Way of the Gun: Estimating Firearms Traffic Across the US-Mexico Border’, over 200,000 guns are smuggled from the US and into Mexico every year. On average, there are more than three US gun dealers for every mile of the 1,970-mile border between the two countries. Mexico has just one gun shop for the entire country while there are 51,300 retail gun sellers in the US. A significant proportion of American gun sellers depends on the illegal demand from Mexico. It has been reported that over three-fourths of the guns used in the gang fights in El Salvador are of US-origin. Thousands of people continue to die in Mexico, Central America and Colombia thanks to the illegal guns smuggled from the US, the largest manufacturer and supplier of firearms in the world. If we use the same logic as the US’s attitude towards drugs – eradicating the centre of production as the only solution – isn’t it logical to extend this argument and say that US gun production needs to be shut down to prevent deaths in Mexico and Central America? It is probable that more Latin Americans have died from US guns than Americans from Latin American drugs.

According to a 2010 study by US Homeland Security, between $19 billion and $29 billion in cash is smuggled to Mexican drug trafficking organisations and other criminal groups from the US each year. Western banks such as HSBC have even been caught for laundering money in Mexico, and in HSBC’s case, gotten away with it by simply paying a fine to the US justice department.

Is legalising a solution?

Many people, including Americans, admit the failure of the war on drugs. Clearly, illegal drug consumption is a social problem within the US and requires domestic policy solutions such as the legalisation of drugs. Waging a war on drugs in Latin America is just a ploy to mislead the world and distract from the US’s domestic problem.

The US could learn from Uruguay which has shown the way to successfully legalising the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana. US states of Washington and Colorado have already legalised the sale and consumption of marijuana to an extent and seen a boom in their economies.

A new series brought to you by the US government

Like Netflix, the military-industrial-intelligence complex in the US too has produced a series – of wars – that have destabilised and interfered in the affairs of Latin American countries and generated profits for the US.

The first season was the war on communism during which the US overthrew many democratic governments in Latin America, propping up military dictatorships in their stead.

The two American DEA agents on the show. Credit: Youtube screenshot

The two American DEA agents on the show. Credit: Youtube screenshot

Then came the war on drugs which meddled in Colombian politics. The US sent hundreds of agents, soldiers and contractors to Colombia, gave them all diplomatic passports, thus making the US’s Colombian embassy the largest in the world. The Americans were interfering freely in the matters of the Colombian police, armed forces, judiciary, Congress and administration, going so far as to order them what to do and what not to do. They corrupted the Colombians with ‘visa and asylum for collusion and collaboration’. The Americans are now vitiating Mexico and Central America with the same drug wars.

Up next: terror and corruption

The third season started after 9/11, what we’ve come to know as the war on terror. However, South America did not end up being the targeted audience for this series; the neocons had their hands full in the Middle East.

The fourth and latest iteration is the war on corruption. Papers leaked by Edward Snowden show that the NSA (whose core mission in national security in the US) spied on Brazilian firm Petrobras, which is now at the centre of a corruption investigation in Brazil, resulting in the impeachment of the now former president Dilma Rouseff. Outraged by the revelations, Rouseff had cancelled her state visit to Washington DC in 2013.

During Rousseff’s impeachment, there were even reports that the NSA’s investigation into Petrobras was what triggered these proceedings by prompting a Brazilian judge to look into the corruption allegations brought forward. The judge, according to some Brazilians, started a selective crusade against the Workers Party, Rousseff and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had stood up against the hemispheric hegemony of the US and successfully killed the US initiative to create a free-trade area in the Americas.

For context, Lula had directly challenged the US by his audacious rescue of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez when the latter was briefly overthrown in a coup in 2002. Not to mention Lula’s unsuccessful attempt  to undo the US-supported coup in Honduras that took place in 2009.

Future possibilities 

This war on corruption has already yielded commercial dividends for the US. The current Brazilian president, unelected right-winger Michel Temer, has put an end to Brazil’s Resource Nationalism policy by dismantling Petrobras’ monopoly in pre-salt oil production. And US corporations are picking up the dismembered parts of the Brazilian giant for next to nothing.

Another Latin American victim of the ‘war on corruption’ is Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who, like Noriega, seemed to have gotten on the wrong side of Uncle Sam. The Latin Americans believe that the leakage of the Panama Papers with information on selected targets and the aggressive investigation into Latin American FIFA officials are also part of the destabilisation of the region in the name of the ‘war on corruption’.

It is unsurprising that recent reports from US media organisations allege that several Venezuelans are narco-traffickers. This is just the US’s preparation for the imminent regime change in Venezuela.

Although I am looking forward to watching the upcoming seasons of Narcos, there is also the fear that the warlords of Washington DC are planning another series of their own.

Rengaraj Viswanathan has served as India’s first consul general in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and as ambassador to Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.