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The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

WIS Parent Provides Insight on Cartel Era in Medellin and Netflix Hit Series ‘Narcos’

A small street in Medellin, Colombia, with local establishments and old buildings. (Pedro Szekely/Flickr)

As the sun shines down on Medellin, Colombia, the locals enjoy yet another day of beautiful weather in the ‘city of eternal spring.’ There are many sounds in the air like the clinking of beer bottles and endless chatter coming from bars, the laughter of small children running around in the park and the boom of reggaeton music playing non-stop at every corner. This is what Medellin is like today. However, it is not perceived that way by many foreigners due to its dark past, which was riddled with violence and a huge drug war, led by drug lord and ​​narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar. 

Escobar’s infamy grew from the megahit Netflix show, Narcos. Bernardo Alvarez, a WIS parent who lived in Medellin, has avoided the series because it would be too painful for him to watch it.

“I’ve had this aversion, of watching any of [Narcos or similar series] because we lived through it, it was my home city […] kind of like if that was happening in Washington DC when you guys were growing up,” he said. 

The extreme violence shown in Narcos is just the start of what really happened in the depths of Medellin. “Colombia was so bad. There were bombs going off, it was literally a warzone,” Alvarez said. 

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He described that during his childhood in Medellin, he encountered a lot of standard crime. One night, after coming home from a restaurant, his whole house was robbed.

However, in addition to the normal crime found in large metropolitan areas, Alvarez had some terrible things happen to him and his family. “Two of my uncles were kidnapped, and asked for ransom,” he said. “One of them was kidnapped by the Escobar cartel. He was held captive for 31 days.”

That alone was an especially terrifying experience as family, like cousins and uncles, are highly valued in Latin American culture, according to Alvarez.

This wasn’t the only confrontation Alvarez had with kidnapping. He almost got kidnapped himself. “Out of nowhere, in front of us a big black SUV pulls [up], blocking the road while another one blocks the way behind us,” he said. “The driver of the car immediately, with one hand, shoved me into the floor to hide me.”

After that, the driver put the car in reverse, going as fast as 50 miles per hour, the wrong way down a highway. 

“Somehow he got us to an exit, took me to my dad’s office and stuck me in a big safe for about two hours until my dad came,” Alvarez said. “The next day I was on a flight back to Miami. They tried to kidnap me.”

Alvarez also mentioned that if you lined up 15 of his friends, all would have similar stories. It was traumatizing experience after traumatizing experience, and slowly it became the norm in Medellin. The city was scattered with dead bodies, and the city was known to be the most dangerous one on the planet.

“When I was growing up, in the news, you would see two cities constantly in the news,” Alvarez said. “One was Bagdad, because there was a war in Iraq and the second one was Medellin.” 

Narcos demonstrated the levels of corruption there were in Colombia. “There was so much corruption that It was impossible to stop [Escobar],” Alvarez said.“Corruption went all the way up to the president.”

Every single cop in Escobar’s province of Medellin was paid off. Escobar controlled a lot of the media, and if a journalist stood up against him, they and their family members would be threatened for their lives, if not killed.  

The show follows two agents from the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), hired to take down Escobar. Throughout the show, these agents are always coming to the rescue. To some extent, that is true.

Alvarez explained that those two DEA agents did help in dismantling the Medellin cartel, but on the other hand, “there were times where the DEA helped a lot and times where it hurt a lot.”

The involvement of the US government is always portrayed as positive on the show. In reality, this was not the case.

“We [Americans] are very quick to point fingers, and say, ‘Oh yeah, Pablo Escobar, that’s the Colombians fault,’ but the truth is there were hundreds of corrupt DEA agents,” he said. This is a point the show doesn’t address. 

Furthermore, it is important to note that the corruption didn’t stop at Colombian borders. 

“Out of college I got a job at a small, abandoned airport in Florida to teach paragliding […] one night, the owner of the airport began to tell me that the Escobar cartel used to fly three planes a week to this small airport […] and the Florida police troopers would unload and escort the cocaine to Miami,” Alvarez said. 

This is just one of many examples of American government systems being corrupted by Escobar. 

Also, in some moments throughout Narcos, it’s common to begin to feel empathetic for Pablo Escobar. When he is about to get caught, the viewer might begin to feel sorry for him. 

“I am in the TV business so I know how to do that,” Alvarez said. “It’s basically pulling at people’s heartstrings. In this case, I don’t think that’s justifiable.”

It’s important to not look at Medellin and Colombia as a grim place because of its challenges in the past. Watching things on TV can make you have this one-dimensional opinion. To combat this, Alvarez feels people should do some outside research on the Colombian drug crisis before watching the show. 

“We need to learn to watch things on this topic through a lens of finding context about who [Pablo Escobar] was,” Alvarez said. “He was a psychopath.” 

By Derin Kirtman 

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Derin Kirtman
Derin Kirtman, Print Publications Editor/MS News Adviser

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    TalhanMay 4, 2022 at 2:35 pm

    Very interesting and very well written.
    I enjoyed reading it and will read and watch more on this topic.
    Thank you Derin !