No Pablo? No Problem!
There must be a certain joy in writing villains and in turning them into sympathetic characters.
You see, as swarthily handsome and possessed of thespian subtlety Pedro Pascal is, playing lead hero Javier Peña as a U.S. DEA agent, the most interesting character here isn’t the crusading good guy, but the lives and loves of the brutes that compose the Cali Cartel.
The previous two seasons of Netflix’s Narcos focused on the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the Medellin Cartel’s charismatic leader. Now, with Escobar gone, we pick up the story in the aftermath, where the power vacuum has enabled his rivals to step in and seize the many stray strands of the drug trade for their own, weaving it into a thick Gordian knot that resists almost every effort of untangling.
Welcome to the city of Santiago de Cali, in southwest Colombia, where the salsa is sharp and the cocaine is incorporated.
With the wherewithal of superb financial sleight-of-hand, offshore manufacturing, and an enticing “get rich or die tryin’” employment scheme that enabled them to pay off everybody (and I do mean almost everyone in the Colombian setting is on the take), the cartel is able to expand almost exponentially, unchecked and unrestrained by any natural predators that criminal organizations are prey to.
Instrumental into turning Colombia into a “narco-democracy” and plunging the rest of the world (stats at the time estimate that 90% of the planet’s cocaine came from Cali) into a powder habit, Agent Peña and his companions uncover layer after layer of corruption, as they pursue the “Gentlemen of Cali.”
“Sir, what was Escobar like,” asks a noob DEA analyst just assigned to the Cali detail. “Never met him,” replies Agent Peña with a dead stare and just a smidge of incredulous, “were you surprised, mofo?” veteran swagger.
There are four godfathers of this new super cartel, and Agent Peña needs to tackle each of them differently, like videogame bosses. He needs to battle through their minions. Sometimes, as in the case of the cartel’s head of security Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), he recruits them into the fight and turns them on their unwitting former bosses.
Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela (Damian Alcazar) is the eldest in the family and the undisputed leader of the Cali Cartel, a hoary headed patriarch who plans his life down to a T to avoid capture, and to dovetail his time between his three wives.
Notably, Gilberto is the architect of the cartel’s impending “surrender” to the Colombian government, where a disarmament agreement has been setup for the godfathers that will let them give up the narco-trafficker’s life in exchange for retaining all their “legitimate” and legal businesses and properties. Smart, guy, that Gilberto.
Then there’s Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela (Francisco Denis), Gilberto’s younger brother and the second in command. Miguel is not a fan of the cartel’s forthcoming “surrender” but he hasn’t exactly been vocal about not favoring it, either.
Hélmer “Pacho” Herrera (Alberto Ammann) is the third godfather and likely the most murderous of the bunch. Pacho is in charge of transport routes and he has a huge chip on his shoulder, owing to being outwardly gay. He’s thankful to the Orejuela Brothers for being supportive of his life of crime despite being a declared homosexual; taboo in the predominantly Catholic Colombia.
The last drug lord is José Santacruz Londoño (Pêpê Rapazote) or just Chepe, who oversees the group’s manufacturing operations in New York City. Traditionally macho and casually brutal, Chepe’s time in NYC has just sharpened his love for violence and world domination via cocaine.
This third season is slow to pick up, owing to the introduction of an ensemble cast, but it does hit it’s groove by episode three, actually making you care, if not root for the ups and downs in the fortunes of the princes of powder.
Pascal imbues Agent Peña with shades of tempered zeal and reluctant compromise, knowing full well from his time spent in pursuit of Escobar that the road to winning the war against drugs is one of attrition and slippery slopes.
He is warm to informants but holds his subordinates at a cool arm’s length. His undercover apt Latino moustache disguising a Texas accent, rising when he’s let his guard down.
“Sir, may I ask? What was Escobar like,” asks a noob DEA analyst just assigned to the Cali detail. “Never met him,” replies Agent Peña with a dead stare and just a smidge of incredulous, “were you surprised, mofo?” veteran swagger.
Season three also reveals how vast the super cartel’s empire was, the kind of compelling storytelling that takes you through difficult facts and reveals them through meat-and-potatoes show-and-tell.
What is the price of the war against drugs? How does a secret empire, with its intricate security system and network of bribes, fall into disarray? How deep and how high does the conspiracy to keep narcotics traffickers in power and in operation go? All these juicy scenarios are answered in season three.
One thing I can assure you: the reprisals are brutal and bloody, the drugs flow and the profits are monumental.
Narcos season three is available for streaming on Netflix.
All art by Sam Dedel