“I am Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria. My eyes are everywhere” with this introduction to the powerful Colombian kingpin, the one who ruled the world’s most complex and far-reaching drug trade, the Netflix series Narcos begins. It is in this scene itself that Pablo Escobar establishes his philosophy, one that underlines his cocaine trafficking and the fate of Columbia in the years to come. ‘Plato o Plomos’ (silver or lead), he offers to a group of police who stop him trading illegally, meaning that he would either buy his way in and if that does not work, he would simply proceed to eliminate his opponent. This fictionalized biopic retains many real names, locations and incidents and traces Pablo’s story from his rise as a local smuggler to one of the deadliest and most wanted criminals – responsible for the death of thousands of police, politicians and innocent citizens of Columbia. It was in his reign that Columbia earned the infamous sobriquet of the murder capital of the world.
If you would ever look up to Google for the staggering amount of money he was able to make illegally trading cocaine in the United States, you would perhaps be more forgiving of the likes of Nirav Modi or Vijay Mallya closer home. The series covers Pablo’s entire journey from opening the cocaine labs in the jungles to building the Medellin cartel (his drug empire) and offers interesting information on the politics of Columbia and the United States in the backdrop of rising narco-terrorism.
However, Narcos is not just about your knowledge building. What it brings to its audience is a deep insight into the mind of a dreaded criminal. In the cycle of violence that had gripped Columbia in Pablo Escobar’s reign, we are allowed to analyze and interpret Pablo Escobar’s psychology in each of the actions that he takes from the very beginning towards the end. Let us take one example.
In the first season, a humiliated Pablo unleashes a bloodbath in the country, beginning with the assassination of the President, all because he denied entry in the Parliament. For a person whose drug business was making him one of the richest men in the world, turning his operations on the government and the oligarchs of the country was a move that could have gone against his interests.
In fact, it was a move that changed his position in the eyes of law from merely an illegal drug trader to a political terrorist. In doing so, he also brought upon himself the wrath of his partners. But Pablo did it anyway. For him, it was a point he wanted to prove against the establishment.
What this incident makes us understand is that underlying his violent reaction was his hurt ego, and if you would go deeper still, a complex feeling of deprivation and unfairness of not been included and recognized in the ‘men of always’, the socially powerful circles of Columbia that he always desired to be a part of, and which all the money in the world that he had could not give him.
Throughout the series, we are privy to his sky-high aspirations, his misconstrued understanding of representing the marginalized, his greed and ruthlessness as he tastes blood, and simultaneously, his random acts of kindness towards some people. His fears, insecurities, mistrust and loneliness that is so delicately conveyed somehow humanizes his character.
And when I use this term ‘humanizes’, it doesn’t mean I am attributing human virtues of kindness to the man. It simply means that in his straightforward violence and greed for power, the complexities of his mind which dictated his actions are also woven. Pablo indeed embodies a complex contradiction in which the love for his own family is boundless, but he has absolutely no qualms in destroying so many other happy families.
In one of the early scenes, he saves a mother and child from getting hacked to death by his followers. Later, he asks his men to hunt down another woman and her child, a witness of one of the heinous crimes he had committed. Little wonder then, that in his last days before his death, he lived a lonely man, despised and feared by the people he claimed to love, hunted by the system that he had wanted to wreck. We almost begin to feel sorry for him, and that is where the problem starts.
On one hand, it is important that Narcos is doing what a few would attempt, and fewer would be capable of, trying to understand the psychology of a man who was a murderer and a criminal. On the other hand, the fear remains that a portrayal of the sentiments, thoughts and personal history of someone like Pablo Escobar may lead to sympathy for his actions, and justification for his crimes.
Not totally, of course. But it gets you thinking. He would not have been the dreaded terrorist if he had a more stable childhood. His actions helped many poor people, and he was their saviour. He was a good father to his children. The list would go on. So would it be better to obscure the personal details of all the people like Escobar, who have committed terrible crimes against humanity?
Will it do to simply vilify them, hate them, and know them only through the crimes they committed? If we restrict ourselves at that, we would never know what motivations drive a person to violence. We need to understand how the people who have experienced poverty, deprivation, and injustice are forced to fall into crime. We need to know what propaganda was used to brainwash a group of people to commit atrocities on their fellow human beings.
Yes, we need to know what Hitler thought when he was ordering the murder of the so many of his own citizens, and how a man like Pablo could amass such a mass following. So basically, what shows like Narcos are doing, is the right thing. As an audience, however, it is we who need to understand that in spite of the circumstances, every person makes a choice to do a particular action, and that person alone stands responsible for the choice he or she made. A heartbreaking account of someone’s unjust past life does not necessarily justify her injustices on others in the present.
Similarly, a vision for the greater good, however convincing it may be, does not make up for the destruction a person discharges in the present. I don’t know how my mind went to the old Bollywood classic Deewar while watching Narcos, but no other example would serve better to make my point. Angry young man Vijay (Amitabh Bacchan) has many reasons to give to his subdued young brother on why he joined the underworld, highlighting especially the abuse that their mother had to deal with while bringing up her sons on her own.
Ravi (Shahi Kapoor) however remains unimpressed, even though the audience is. He knows that taking to a crime that would also affect innocents and justifying it as a ‘give-back’ to the society where a few have been unfair to you does not mean justice. It is nothing but your personal vendetta. The movie’s end (idealistic as it is) indeed proves that he was the wiser one.
Neither brilliantly devised theories nor tragic backstories ever justify violence and repression, and all the memoirs and biographies on the criminals of history should not make you do so. Thank you Narcos for bringing me clarity on this!