In the Shadow of Narcos

20 years after Escobar, a film festival in his home city looks forward to peace in Colombia.

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The Moment that tips you off to the fact you’re witnessing prestige television happens early on in Narcos, and uses one of Netflix’s favorite techniques: Like House of Cards and Jessica Jones, Narcos addresses the audience directly in a conspirator’s purr right from the first scene.

It begins en medias wiretap in 1989, as protagonist Murphy’s disembodied narration explains the challenges inherent in pre-Internet, pre-cellular phone signal intelligence. The scene ends at a bar in Bogotá as the Colombian police’s special anti-narcos walk up and, without a word of warning, open fire on the narcotraffickers mingling with the civilians. “But don’t call me a bad guy just yet,” Murphy says as the footage pauses on the gruesome image of one of the narcos going down.

About that bar: It convinced me right from the first scene that I was watching a show that cared about Colombia, or at least cared enough to film in it. The disco lights, the little green address placard on the outside corner of the building, the 150cc motorcycles parked out front in a neat little row, the claustrophobic-to-a-North-American closeness of the people, the layout that leaves a perfectly clear open air view from the street. I’ve sat in that bar and at least a half a dozen others like it in Cali and Medellín and Bogotá, drinking bad beer to wait out the rain.

Then, as I knew it would, the Moment ends in a hail of lead, and I remembered I was watching TV.

Narcos is a dramatization of the rise of legendary coke lord Pablo Escobar, who reigned over Colombia like a monarch until he was thoroughly gunned down on a rooftop in 1993. Escobar was arguably the most significant historical figure in Colombia’s post-colonial history. Like Chicago in the shadow of Al Capone (who gets name-checked in the show and mentioned nearly every time I say I’m from there), Colombia gained “ill fame” in the shadow of Escobar.

Don’t get me wrong, Narcos is an absolutely captivating and excellent show, but it is also likely the only thing most North Americans know about the country. The week after I got back, I poured a coworker a cup of the Colombian coffee I’d brought back from the mountains.

“It’s pure Colombian,” I said.

“Does that mean there’s cocaine in it?” he joked.


Three of the students in César Mora’s acting workshop once again took their places to begin working through the short scene they had attempted four times already. Mora, a short, stout man with a face remarkably like Eli Wallach’s, was physically dwarfed by nearly all of the students gathered in the basement workroom of the Parque Biblioteca. It made his manner with the students—confrontational, interventional, but intense and complimentary in equal measure—all the more amusing to watch. The students on the sidelines listened with the air of a group that knows there is something important going on, even if they’re seeing the same thing play out over and over again.

Actor César Mora at the Parque Biblioteca

The three students were reading from a script that called on their characters to berate one another as they dragged a stalled automobile up a hill. Tellingly, the man at the wheel, a transit police officer, was taking it easy.

workshop-2.jpgMora would stop students mid-line to explain how to improve their delivery, their mannerism, their technique.

The veteran of telenovelas and Spanish-language film stood before a room of students gathered for a conference on journalism later that day, calling for a new diversity of roles and stories in Colombian cinema. He ought to know. Even Mora has at least one film credit where he’s played in a story revolving around Pablo Escobar.

“Some in the actor’s guild are tired of portraying these violent roles,” he said after his talk. “Privately owned television channels don’t care about content, they care what they can sell. So, as ‘narco-terrorism’ is what sells the most, it’s what we see the most.”

Mora’s workshop was part of La Comuna 13’s Fifth Annual Film Festival. It’s impossible to grasp what the film festival really means to its attendees without taking a long and ugly look at the history of La Comuna 13.

With a population of about 200,000, Comuna 13, (roughly “Ward 13”) is a section of Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city and Escobar’s hometown. It was the site of two devastating raids by the national government in the early 2000s targeting armed groups like the left-wing Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) and other right-wing militias who oppose them and wreak just as much havoc on innocent Colombians. Such raids are peppered throughout the history of Colombia’s 50-year ongoing guerrilla war. The annual festival’s goal is to recognize that traumatic past and to provide the means of dealing with it to members of the community through film, music and journalism.

Many of the people who attended the film festival were residents, and had started to live in Comuna 13 in the ’60s and ’70s as a result of the violence in the countryside. The brick houses of the community climb up the sides of the surrounding mountainside. Houses huddle close together, divided by no more than the staircases that lead higher and higher, or end in blind alleyways.

According to residents and court rulings in its aftermath, “Operación Mariscal” (“Operation Marshal”) in May of 2002 resulted in 41 persons detained, “numerous” illegal searches, 39 wounded civilians, and nine deaths. There are also officially 45 missing persons cases arising out of the incident that remain unsolved, but other reports claim there could be as many as 300 or more.

In October of that same year, then-President Álvaro Uribe sent five battalions, including tanks and helicopters, to bear down on the community of about 200,000 people. “Operación Orión” took place over five violent days, resulting in at least 16 deaths, more than 200 injuries. Houses collapsed under the crossfire between government forces and armed groups. Helicopters strafed the roofs of homes. The police action is under review by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights to determine if the police action violated human rights, as residents of the Comuna have claimed for years.

Remember: Many of the young 20-somethings enjoying the screenings and attending the workshops we encountered and interviewed for this article remember this incident firsthand.

In 2008, the leader of one of the paramilitary groups involved in the fighting, alias “Don Berna,” was extradited to the United States to stand trial for narcotics trafficking. Whatever ideologies the rebel groups or right-wing militias may espouse, it’s important to remember that in the post-Escobar power vacuum, they’ve all become narcotraffickers. During his questioning, Don Berna revealed that some 300 bodies of disappeared persons were secretly interred in a landfill high atop one of the hills that overlooks Comuna 13.

It is called simply “La Escombrera”—the Dump.

Now, as the Ward 13 Film Festival unfolds, the government has begun excavation of the Dump.

“The people (of Comuna 13) aren’t waiting to see if we find anything or not,” said Andrés Felipe Berrio Gomez, 28, a lifelong resident of Ward 13 and an aspiring musician and journalist. “Unfortunately, they’re accustomed to pain. I believe the people aren’t hoping for anything. It’s almost like it’s normal, unfortunately.”

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