Don Pablo is returning to Netflix for the second season of Narcos this August. With this in mind, now it the ideal time to reflect on the authenticity of events in the premiere season and delve into what is fact, and what’s embellished for TV purposes.
If you hadn’t gathered already, this story is teaming with spoilers. If you haven’t watched the premiere season, firstly why? and secondly, please avert your eyes.
Before going through specific details, it’s worth addressing the main arc of events:
The show begins with Pablo Escobar and his cousin Gustavo as the spearheads of their own cocaine smuggling empire. In reality they were actually understudies of Alfredo Gomez Lopez – a Colombian mob boss – and were tasked with ensuring the police remained in the dark about his operations.
Lopez also introduced Pablo and Gustavo to the production of cocaine. Cockroach – who initially partnered Pablo and Gustavo – is a fictional character created for the show.
Shortly after, Pablo strolls into a police checkpoint to bribe Colombian officers on his payroll after having his truck confiscated. The details are distorted though. Pablo was actually arrested by officers that refused to accept a bribe. In true Don Pablo fashion, he had the officers murdered in their homes down the line.
He did in fact smile for the line up photo though.
Astonishingly – as suggested by Narcos – Pablo managed to smuggle 15 tonnes of cocaine into the US a day, and was racking up a staggering $420 million every week. As a result of this, Pablo spent approximately $2,500 a month on elastic bands for his cash. His accountant Blackbeard; who was interrogated for details regarding Pablo’s accounts however was created for Narcos.
The scene where Pablo’s compatriots bury millions of dollars of drug money around farmlands in Columbia is also accurate. In fact, its been revealed that almost a billion dollars of Pablo’s revenue was eaten away by rats in warehouses and buried stashes every year.
At the height of his popularity in Columbia, Pablo ran for congress and for a time was successful, although the reality differs from the show.
Pablo wasn’t extradited from congress on his first day. In reality he attended many assemblies and had a significant part to play in important decisions; such as the appointment of President Belisario Betancourt. He also attended the inauguration of Felipe Gonzalez – the Prime Minister of Spain.
In the show, Pablo’s illicit activities are brought to light and reinforced with the aforementioned mug shot. The DEA were responsible for the photo falling into the hands of Lara Bonilla, who denounced Pablo in humiliating fashion.
Again, this isn’t in keeping with the actual events. The line up photo was in fact exposed by Guillmero Cano; an editor of a Columbian newspaper, who revisited his archives.
Lara Bonilla was murdered in his car as depicted on the show, by order of Don Pablo.
Towards the end of the season Cesar Gaviria, moves against Pablo and demands that he surrender to Colombian authorities (1991). This is correct, although Pablo’s fear of extradition seemed somewhat understated.
He bribed the government with $20 billion (the Colombian foreign debt) to avoid extradition and was all consumed with the perilous prospect.
The details of Pablo’s prison; La Catedral are accurate to an extent in terms of amenities, e.g. soccer field, gambling room and cafeteria, although the on goings are skewed in the show.
According to Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden, upon raiding the building troops found a gynaecological chair in a private room, where Pablo would take young girls delivered to the prison.
In the show, women are shown being brought to Pablo’s compatriots in La Catedral, with him being absent from the decadence.
In the final episode of the debut season, Pablo is found to have breached the rules of his agreement with the Colombian government by continuing to order killings while incarcerated.
His paranoia consumes him and he murders two long term associates he suspects of betraying him. One of them with a pool cue – in one of the shows most infamous moments – the DEA is then informed of Pablo’s breach of the arrangement by a rival cartel.
This is all conjecture unfortunately and the truth is far less intricate. In reality the DEA became aware of his ordered killings simply through lack of subtlety on Pablo’s part.
Pablo did kidnap the Vice Minister of Justice, Eduardo Mendoza upon arrival of the Colombian troops as depicted in the show.
However, Narcos decided to ignore the fact that chief of the national prison system; Lieut. Col. Hernando Navas was also held as bargaining power. A stand off ensued after mutual stubbornness, with Pablo refusing to release the hostages.
Pablo used a tunnel within the facility to escape from La Catedral, using the commotion and hysteria as cover. This is almost entirely true.
The Vice Minister and Prison Chief were both recovered inside the prison by troops, during a shootout that saw 6 people killed. The tunnel was discovered shortly after.
Now for specific details:
A poignant moment in the show is the Death of Pablo’s partner and cousin, Gustavo during episode 8. The show romanticises this moment dramatically, with Gustavo defiantly refusing to give up the location of Pablo. The Ochoa’s and Cali cartel torture and beat him to death as a result, while Gustavo barks declarations of vengeance on the them and their families.
In reality, the cartels simply kidnapped Gustavo and shot him in the head as an act of retribution.
A glaring omission from the show is the constant referencing to extremist group M19 with no mention of FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Columbia). FARC was a guerrilla movement ever-present throughout the 1960’s, known as the ‘Peoples Army.’ Strange considering FARC were far more prominent than M19 during Pablo’s ‘reign’ over Columbia.
DVA agent Javier Peña is shown as being a constant thorn in the side of Pablo throughout his illegal activities from the very beginning, when in reality, Peña didn’t arrive to Colombia until 1988; by which point Pablo was already in La Catedral. His presence throughout the series prior to this moment is completely fabricated.
Pablo’s young wife Maria is entirely absent from Narcos, unless her character is embodied by Elissa – the dance teacher ‘with a secret.’
Colonel Carrilo is also a fictional character and seems to be an amalgamation of a number of police officials that plotted against Pablo. Mainly the leader of Narcotics Enforcement, Jaime Ramirez Gomez.
What we can gather from this series is the essence of Pablo Escobar, in terms of his empire, and his extravagant lifestyle. We also gain insight into the level of authority and influence he possessed over the Colombian people and political hierarchy.
However, the gritty realities are overly-romanticised in a most scenes, as is custom with historical dramas. Also Pablo’s ruthless nature in Narcos isn’t nearly representative of the real Don Pablo, as described in multiple eye-witness accounts.
Regardless of its caveats though, Narcos as a whole is intricate, well paced and covers the main elements of Pablo’s story better than any other effort to date.