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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In the Shadow of <i>Narcos</i>

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.

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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.

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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.”

The film festival isn’t just about the past, though. It’s also about looking forward to what many Colombians hope will be an end to the 50-year war with the FARC. The conclusion of this peace process is closer to happening than any of the aspiring actors and filmmakers at the festival have ever seen in their young lives.

At the end of September, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos joined FARC Commander Timoleón Jiménez in Cuba to announce an agreement on one of the major sticking points of the ongoing peace talks that could mean the beginning of the end for the war.

The public support for the peace process itself has been bitterly divided, though it may again be gaining momentum among Colombians: A recent poll determined that just over half of respondents reported optimism about the process as of October, the highest number of optimists since June of 2014. Santos survived a 2014 run-off election against an anti-peace process candidate with only the barest of majorities.

“The country is polarized artificially,” said Fabio Lopez de la Roche, a professor of political studies and public relations at Colombia’s National University in Bogotá. “Uribe has sold Colombians on hatred toward the FARC. It’s a society that oftentimes hates, but doesn’t know why it hates.”

The peace process, which began in 2012 under Santos in his first term, has excited fearsome bile from his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, who may in fact be the one Colombian who most hates the FARC, but whose bellicose tenure is most responsible for weakening them enough to bring them to the negotiating table.

A guest speaker in Comuna 13 for the festival, Lopez posits that the announcement of the particulars of the “transitional justice” talks suggests that the country is closer to demobilization than it has ever been before. Lopez took the stage with other journalists at one of the festival’s headline events to speak of the critical role community journalism plays as the country extricates itself from war and cleans up the aftermath.

“Personally,” Lopez said, “I think the peace process is at a point of no return.”

Mora’s workshop and Lopez’s talk were held at the Parque Biblioteca, a public library in Comuna 13 situated on a hill overlooking the San Javier neighborhood, with one of the usual breathtaking-yet-mundane-for-Colombia vistas of the hills surrounding the city. Earlier, the library hosted another of the festival’s events: The screening of El Abrazo de la Serpiente (The Embrace of the Snake), a black-and-white film that heavily fictionalizes the experiences of two different Caucasian men who separately venture into the Colombian Amazon in search of a lifesaving MacGuffin, meeting the distrust and helpfulness of indigenous people along the way.

It’s a captivating, beautifully composed film that nonetheless makes the grievous error of exoticizing the indigenous peoples when in reality it is absolutely the two white guys, their desperate errands separated by a century of history, who are the ones so clearly out of place.

Eldemir Dagua, 28, of Pueblo Nasa, attended the film festival as an aspiring journalist. Of indigenous descent himself, Dagua attended Lopez’s talk and spoke about his hopes for Colombian peace, but also the persistent problems that will still exist in the wake of whatever deal the government strikes with the FARC.

“My community celebrates the fact that the accords could be the end of the conflict, but they know this doesn’t necessarily mean peace,” Dagua said. “They believe that in order to be able to talk about an end to the conflict, they ought to talk about the exploitation of natural resources in indigenous territories by multinational corporations. And they believe demobilized guerrillas can’t live in the community with them, that they’ll just keep committing crimes.”

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A concept reiterated often during the festival was that of “resistance.” In this climate of contentious near-peace, festivals like the one in Comuna 13 resist violence and forgetting what lead to it. Every young person involved with the festival has something to say about remembrance, resistance or the problems the area of the city has faced in the past and still faces in the present.

Jonathan Zuluaga, a festival organizer who drove us up into the Villa Laura neighborhood for a late-night screening, said some of the current tension in the Comuna has come out of the local power vacuum that resulted from “Don Berna’s” extradition to the United States.

“Many persons who made up part of the FARC or ELN entered the neo-paramilitaries,” he said. “The result of their demobilization was that they gained control over Ward 13 with an economic monopoly, from extortion of business and public transit to control over households and community relations.”

Villa Laura is a neighborhood of Comuna 13 accessible by long, steep, narrow streets leading up the side of one of the outlying hills. Gaining the summit required Jonathan to slow down at the hairpin curves and patiently allow other vehicles to pass us before he backed up a short interval, threw the car into first gear, and gunned it up to the next hairpin. It’s probably the closest thing to respectful Midwestern driver’s etiquette you’re likely to see in the country.

Atop the hill, we stopped at what appeared to be a random street, a row of two-story homes across a narrow street from a restaurant, a bar, and a convenience store that had a row of gambling machines that drew their usual group of local devotees—and which of course all had their own residences stacked on top, with balconies overlooking the street where drying clothes fluttered in the night breeze, under the buzz of street lamps.

As we awaited the arrival of more pairs of hands, Jonathan spoke about the ambivalent attitude Medellín’s residents have toward the men with guns whose presence has earned the city its rough reputation. Jonathan’s words were familiar to anybody who reports on how criminal enterprise weaves itself into a community.

“The gangs and paramilitaries won the acceptance of the community because of their ability to solve problems in a more expedited way, though an imposed one,” he said.

Narcos portrays this conflicted, layered attitude Colombians have toward gangsters. Escobar was a lot of bad things, but he also was more than happy to bribe the populace with housing and humanitarian aid to polish his public profile.

But, said Zuluaga: “Life is risky when they get really notorious.”

He’s not wrong. We all know what happened to Escobar in the end.

Within an hour, Jonathan and other volunteers had erected a freestanding awning and placed chairs for the audience. The young organizers pushed some trash aside and inflated a projection screen large enough to completely block off the street, which was about two tight lanes wide. The unexpected obstruction confounded several motorcyclists who came puttering up the hill, straining their engines only to find the way shut. Some made the best of it and stuck around.

An old woman—perhaps 50, perhaps 80—passed by in her poncho with her motorcycle helmet in one hand.

“Are they playing a movie?” she shouted to us, and when we said they were, she thought it most amusing.

Another old woman, Maria del Carmen Rora Suarez, 74, has lived in the Villa Laura neighborhood for 30 years. In that time, she said she saw many changes in Villa Laura, not the least of which are the automated escalators that carry people up and down the steep streets of one of the highest parts of San Javier.

“It’s spectacular!” she said of the film festival as Zuluaga and others finished erecting the inflatable projection screen, raindrops pattering softly on the pavement outside the tent where she sat with friends and neighbors. “It’s become something special for everyone who lives here, for those who work on [the festival] here.”

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A young man, among other attendees, watches a music video clip produced in
Comuna 13 by the locals.

For her, the presence of a film festival in her neighborhood is something that gives young people something more to aspire to.

“It’s important for the young people here to be more interested in something like this, something good,” she said.

A younger resident of Villa Laura who said she’d been invited, Deisin Giraldo, cradled a toddler as she said the festival was a good way for people to come together, but wasn’t so sure what else it would accomplish.

The films were introduced with a rousing sizzle reel. One was a rap music video that got the crowd singing lyrics. Another was a drama that began with the filming of a film-within-a-film, centered, on the crew depicting a mob hit on a random street.

Another, Ella (Her), starred Deisi Marulanda, a 16-year-old girl from Bogotá whose experiences in acting workshops recommended her to producers for the role. Short and slight, with the tanned complexion, round face and thick dark hair most North Americans would associate with a South American country, she was as camera-ready as any young actress: Dressed to the nines, praising Medellín during her first-ever visit.

Ella follows Marulanda’s character as she tries to help her boyfriend around the city. The particular twist here is that he’s been murdered, and she’s transporting his body. Does that kind of a stark story affect her in any way?

“In Bogotá, in Ciudad Bolívar where I live … I’ve seen cases where they abuse a girl and the girl goes on, and so the situation [in the movie] wasn’t hard for me,” she said, though she admitted that she had some difficulty with the “more emotional” parts of the film because she didn’t quite know how to properly evoke those feelings.

At all of the events, including the screening in Villa Laura, there were several dozen mostly young people in attendance, but holding the screening up in the community was a good move. There in the light rain, with the city lights of Medellín spread out like a glittering carpet below, the barflies leaning out the storefronts and the local residents leaning out their second-story windows to watch the screening, the sizzle of grilled food from the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant mere feet from the screen, it was well and truly Colombian.

As it is a suspected crime scene, access to The Dump is heavily restricted. Repeated messages to the Prosecutor General and the Mayor’s Office of Medellín yielded no response, so we attempted to walk up to the place and try our best to photograph it without permission. On our walk there, Andrés Felipe Berrio took us past community fixtures like La America Cemetery, through the low-lying row houses of San Javier and the historic 90-year-old open air market of the 20 de Julio neighborhood. We plead our case to police at the local department as old ladies in front of the building participated in what must have been the most well-guarded yoga class in Medellín.

When guards at the hilltop turned us away, we decided to go visit another organization involved in the festival and the community: rap group and event organizing company Son Batá. It required an arduous climb into El Salado, a neighborhood high up on an outlying hill. There, in an otherwise nondescript brick house dangling over the edge of hill, Jhon Fredy Asbrilla, 27, and a crew of musicians were mingling and talking productions.
The group promotes non-violence through music, and has begun to gain some notoriety outside its home city. Like the film festival, it began as an anti-violence resistance movement in the wake of Operation Marshal and Operation Orion.

“Better to make noise than to be heard shooting,” he said, quoting the reaction in the community at first at the suggestion of learning to play instruments and spit rhymes. “We realized that hip hop culture distanced people from the conflict, and became a sort of shield against getting involved in the use of force.”

With support from the YMCA and some modest income from event promotion, Son Batá’s roughly 30 participants are trying to make Comuna 13 into a home for artists. Their videos played on a loop on a flat screen TV in the house’s main room. People worked sound mixing boards in back.

“We want the arts to be tools for Comuna 13’s remembrance,” Asbrilla said. “This goal arose out of our discovery that art and culture can be that shield against violence.”

You can see the entirety of Comuna 13 from the front stoop of Son Batá’s HQ in Salado. Flatlanders like me can’t ever get used to the disconcerting feeling that “forward” is also “down” as we look down streets that are staircases and see front stoops that are second-story terraces. Fortunately, the way back down included some of the outdoor escalators.

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As the festival looks forward to another year, as the peace talks approach a conclusion as soon as this March, as Medellín bustles along and its nightlife sways with sensual music and enchanting lights and groups like Son Batá harness youthful energy and put it into a sort of countrywide art therapy, the contents of The Dump await their revelation. And outside the country, portrayals of Colombia like Narcos, no matter how deftly executed, are mostly stuck in the darkness of the last century.

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The Pazamanos Foundation recognizes the work of 13 “heroes” who have helped
greatly in bringing peace, education and culture to the Comuna 13. Here, a portrait of
Julián Marín, a Human Rights advocate, decorates the wall behind the police station
of the “Las Independencias” neighborhood.

Mora said there’s hope, though. Commercial television may chase blood and woe, but he spoke with passion about Colombian filmmakers’ growing ability to craft prestigious drama, his hope for public television and in particular community and activist cinema like the kind on display in Comuna 13.

“Community cinema is the cinema of the future, the cinema of life, the real and concrete cinema of this country’s history,” he said.

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The chilling coda to Narcos is Rodrigo Amarante’s song “Tuyo.” In addition to playing over the opening credits, Escobar belts it out at a bar at one point early on:
“I am the fire that burns your skin / I am the water that kills your thirst / The castle’s tower, I am. / The sword that guards the stream.”

Fire and water, tower and sword. The show’s coal-black thesis is that Escobar was Colombia’s alpha and omega during his bloody, complicated reign. An entire political era—of violence and of recovery—has passed since then. That this is the enduring image of the country as an earnest new generation stands poised to grasp peace is another national tragedy in itself.


Kenneth Lowe is a media relations coordinator for state government in Illinois. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Álvaro Márquez is an emerging documentary photographer from Cali, Colombia. His work is focused on culture and human rights and has been featured in local solo exhibitions.

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