What Netflix's 'Narcos' Gets Wrong About the Drug War

Great drama is screwing up how we understand the economics of cocaine.


It’s entertaining as hell, but at times it feels as if Narcos is content to sell you back your memories of older, better crime dramas rather than break new ground. Some swagger from Blow, a Scorsese-esque narrator explaining the grunt work of criminal enterprise, cut it with the hubris of Scarface and the charisma of Tony Soprano. If mobsters didn’t exist, screenwriters would have to invent them. The beats are as well-set as any comic book movie, and for their audience just as popular. But how well can we really understand the colloquially named War on Drugs when most of us are more familiar with Walter White than with the hard economics of the cocaine trade?

For U.S. drug policy experts, the answer is, “not well.” What’s more, a public misinformed for the sake of a good story can actually be harmful to improving policy.

Dawn Paley, whose book Drug War Capitalism digs into the financial and economic forces driving what we think of as the War on Drugs, sat down to watch the first half of Netflix’s Colombian cocaine drama before sharing her review with Inverse.

“What we see, and what Narcos accurately depicts, is that as these groups get a higher profile it becomes harder to move their product,” she says. “So there’s really no strategic, tactical reason for cartels to exist. I criticize, in my book, the notion of drug cartels as being these spontaneously formed criminal networks when a lot of the time the cartels are akin to a media creation. The idea is floated in another book that the cartel was essentially an invention of the U.S. Justice Department as an excuse for going after these massive cases. It wasn’t these men smoking cigars and going, like, ‘Let’s name our cartel.’

“Narcos makes for great drama, but generally it’s the thirst for drama which has kept us from understanding the drug war at all. It’s not an accurate depiction. You go down there, into these areas, and what you see on the ground are a lot of soldiers and police.”

Narcos has gone out of its way to establish that this is a narrative based on the firsthand account of DEA agent Steve Murphy, who investigated Pablo Escobar and now, retired at 58, has settled in Washington D.C. (Murphy deferred interview requests to the show’s public relations liaison, who has not responded to recent messages.) But if the show is to be believed, Murphy’s entire investigation was essentially conducted second-hand.

“This guy doesn’t even speak Spanish. I think we can extrapolate from that that well, if this is his version of what took place, it’s not the most reliable source,” Paley says. “The U.S. Ambassador is repeatedly presented as this beacon of the moral upstanding United States when we know the U.S. Army is collaborating with paramilitiaries and narcos in different ways. I mean, go back to Nicaragua and what did Washington do? It oversaw Iran-Contra. Narcos hand-picks events. It’s presenting versions that tend to reinforce the dominant U.S. perspective on what the drug war is about.”

Paley also poked holes in the show’s DEA agents measuring their job performance by how easy it was to buy cocaine stateside.

“The idea that it’s one man, it’s Pablo or El Chapo — like, dude, it’s not one man,” Paley says. “You need corrupted U.S. border guards and police and Colombian officials. Plus the demand is off the hook. The more difficult it is to get cocaine in the U.S., the more expensive it is on the street, and making it scarce is only making it more expensive, so everyone involved at higher levels ends up making more money.

“Most of the money in the cocaine market is made in the U.S. and it stays in the U.S. It’s generated between the wholesale, mid-level and by the street sellers. According to a 2010 UN report 85 percent of that money is generated in the U.S.”

Former DEA agent Sean Dunagan, now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, has not yet watched the show but agreed that our pop culture, though selling itself on a gritty realism, was far astray from his experience. These days, he’s so convinced we’ve mismanaged policy he’s given to writing essays about how the DEA made the situation worse. In Narcos, the murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena is a watershed moment that ends with all federal agents on a do-not-touch list for fear of reprisal. In Dunagan’s view — which does not subscribe to new evidence that suggests the CIA was actually complicit in the murder — Camarena’s death was a “natural and predictable” consequence of our public policy decisions.

“Nothing we did or conceivably could do had any impact on the amount of drugs in the country or who was using them,” Dunagan says. “The invisible hand of the market is going to make sure producers and consumers meet. You’re talking about a tremendously large global trade. We were intercepting such a tiny percentage of the drug flow, I just didn’t see any possibility of success.”

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