Loving Escobar, Hating Narcos

By Robert A. Karl

Stumbling across the Colombian narconovela Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal on Netflix was a minor highlight of my recent sabbatical at DRCLAS. For one, it provided the perfect antidote for Narcos fatigue. Like Netflix’s better-known narconovela, Patrón del Mal was a big-budget production filmed on site in Colombia. Unlike Narcos, however, Patrón del Mal isn’t weighed down by a gringo savior narrative. It has the added benefit of featuring Colombian actors speaking with authentic Colombian accents. The second season of Narcos I watched out of a sense of professional responsibility, to defuse the questions about the show that would inevitably come my way. Patrón del Mal was a treat to enjoy on my smartphone on my bus ride from Arlington to DRCLAS in neighboring Cambridge.

The show’s resonance ran deep for me. Watching Patrón del Mal in early 2017, during implementation of the FARC’s historic peace treaty with the Colombian government, was a distinct experience from watching it in 2012, when the show debuted. As much as I enjoyed the portrayals of Patrón del Mal’s various drug lords, I found myself most captivated by figures like Guillermo Cano Isaza, the fearless editor of the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador; and Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento, the crusading leader of the New Liberalism movement, which once expelled Escobar from its ranks. Cano and Galán’s deaths at the hands of cartel gunmen in 1986 and 1989 exemplify all that violence has taken from Colombia. Yet seeing them portrayed in Patrón del Mal is also a powerful reminder of the kind of political projects that may soon be possible in Colombia, of the potential of this moment in the country’s history.


Robert A. Karl. a 2016–17 Santander Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS. is assistant professor of history at Princeton University and the author of Forgotten Peace: Reform, Violence, and the Making of Contemporary Colombia.

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