Watching ‘Narcos’ in a Transformed Medellín


This review by Ernesto Logroño appeared in The New York Times.

Considering how ostentatiously he lived, Pablo Escobar has a resting place that is curiously modest. Mr. Escobar, the world’s most notorious drug lord, is buried among relatives next to a row of scrawny pines, under an emerald green plaque that lists only his name and the dates he lived.

After he was gunned down in December 1993, his grave became a site of pilgrimage for destitute Colombians who revered him as a magnanimous figure who had served the country’s have-nots by building houses and handing out cash. Over the years, as gratitude for his largess toward the poor has faded and Medellín has done much to overcome its bloody past, local visitors to his grave dropped to a trickle.

But with the recent burst of television series and movies about the man and the violent era he came to personify, people are once again flocking to Montesacro Gardens, a hilly cemetery on the outskirts of Medellín.

“Each day, we get 40 to 50 people,” Federico Arroyave, Mr. Escobar’s grave keeper, said on a recent sunny afternoon. “Just tourists.”

The Netflix series “Narcos,” a bilingual crime drama, has found a rapt audience in the United States and much of Latin America since its debut, in late August. It followed an acclaimed television series produced in 2012 in Colombia called “Escobar, el Patrón del Mal,” or “Escobar, the Lord of Evil.”

Last month, Tom Cruise spent two weeks in Colombia shooting scenes for “Mena,” a movie about the American pilot Barry Seal, a drug smuggler who became a Drug Enforcement Administration informant. Meanwhile, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem will star in a movie about the kingpin’s romance with a journalist who became a D.E.A. informant years after his death.

Mr. Escobar’s rags-to-ruthless-billionaire tale is engrossing, to be sure. But for many Colombians, including me, this sudden intense interest in that period feels like a bad hangover at a time when the Colombian government and the largest guerrilla group, the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are negotiating a peace deal after five decades of war.

The Netflix series has been particularly jarring for Colombians. For starters, the actor who plays Mr. Escobar, Wagner Moura, a Brazilian, speaks with a thick accent. The story is told from the point of view of Steve Murphy, a swashbuckling D.E.A. agent, whose rendition of events is lacking in nuance and rich in clichés.

“This is part of our history, whether we like it or not,” said Francisco Pulgarín, the director of Medellín’s city-run Film Commission, which has a policy of not assisting crews working on drug trafficking films. “We don’t want to support projects that deal with this chapter, which for us is closed.”

Officials in Medellín have not whitewashed its brutal past. In 2012, the city opened the House of Memory, a museum that invites visitors to reflect on the long, complicated history of brutality in Colombia. The low point for Medellín came in 1991, when much of the city was run by drug cartels. That year the morgues received 6,809 homicide victims.

“The state was on its knees in the war with drug traffickers,” said Luis Fernando Suárez Vélez, the deputy mayor who oversees security initiatives. “The lesson we learned is that you have to fight drug trafficking head on.”

City officials were elated to announce this year that for the first time in decades, Medellín is no longer among the 50 cities with the highest homicide rates in the world. It has reduced poverty by investing in education, housing and infrastructure.

Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, now has a growing fashion industry, a lively culinary scene, funky hotels and a thriving night life. Its year-round springtime weather and culture of hospitality has helped it market itself as a tourist destination, and it routinely attracts large international conferences.

That is not to say that Medellín is perfectly safe, uniformly prosperous or drug-free. Violent street crime remains common. Wages for many residents remain low. And the drug trade continues to play an insidious, if less visible, role in the region’s politics and economy. Yet residents say there’s much to be proud of.

Tom Cruise’s arrival was happily embraced by city officials, who decided to bend the Film Commission rule on narc films. They helped the producers obtain filming permits, sorted out logistical issues for the crew and invited Mr. Cruise to meet the mayor. “Having an actor of that scale here for 15 days in the city, walking on the street, going to restaurants, that allowed us to demonstrate how much Medellín has changed,” Mr. Pulgarín said.

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