Five Colombian alternatives to Netflix’s Narcos

Netflix Narcos
Netflix's Narcos offers a bold, if sometimes inauthentic vision of Pablo Escobar.

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]etflix’s Narcos is nothing if not ambitious. With ten hours of largely Spanish-language drama shot almost entirely on location in Colombia, a multinational cast and a Brazilian lead actor, it’s hard to imagine how Narcos ever got greenlit.

But Netflix is famous for taking risks.

Thus we have Narcos. On the one hand, it’s probably the most extensive U.S. production ever filmed in Colombia. On the other, it’s thorn in the side of those who wish the world would finally drop its fixation on Colombia’s cocaine past and acknowledge the country’s massive progress since the Pablo Escobar era.

[quote]One of the most pervasive themes in modern Colombian film is a looming, inescapable past.[/quote]

Indeed it is that progress that allowed Netflix to film in Colombia in the first place. And it is drawing more and more international productions to the country, particular in the wake of a 2012 law granting substantial incentives to film in Colombia.

Colombia deserves a major international production focused not on the nation’s infamous drug industry but rather on its natural beauty, its incredible people, its rich pre- and post-cocaine history or any number of other topics.

But the fact of the matter is that drugs are still a big problem in Colombia.

Even Colombia’s own film industry is rather fixated on the country’s drug-fueled conflict, at least in the background. Well-regarded Colombian films like La Vendedora de Rosas (The Rose Seller), Los Colores de la Montaña (The Colors of the Mountain) and La Virgen de los Sicarios (Our Lady of the Assassins) all deal directly or indirectly with the country’s drug violence.

One of the most pervasive themes in modern Colombian film is a looming, inescapable past colliding with an unpredictable, intimidating future. Protagonists are usually trapped somewhere in between.

It’s a metaphor for the country’s present situation: still plagued by a reputation for drugs and violence, struggling to show the world a better face.

So Narcos probably doesn’t warrant some of the criticism it has received for reviving — and, more problematically, glamorizing — Colombia’s most notorious criminal. But it certainly deserves to be called to task for its shallow, often inaccurate depictions of Colombian culture and life.

The most obvious example is casting Wagner Moura, a Brazilian actor, as Pablo Escobar in a role that requires him to speak Spanish throughout the show. Moura gives it a good shot, but Escobar’s thick Antioquian accent is so distinctive and iconic that it would be tough for anyone but a Paisa to pull it off.

It’s also tough to get a good sense of geography since Narcos often films Bogotá for Medellín. And despite the fact that Bogotá scenes were actually shot in the capital — meaning that the cast and crew knew full well what the chilly, often dreary weather is like — characters walk around in short-sleeved shirts and wipe their brows.

Whether or not you were able to make it all the way through Narcos, here are five other shows, documentaries and movies you can watch on Netflix that depict Colombia’s drug conflict more accurately, or at least with real Colombians.

Sins of my Father (Los Pecados de mi Padre)

We all feel embarrassed by or ashamed of our parents at some point. But none of us has anything on Juan Pablo Escobar – a.k.a. Sebastián Marroquín – who offers an unprecedented intimate look at what it was like to grow up in the center of Colombia’s cocaine trade in this award-winning documentary.

The son of Pablo Escobar currently lives in Buenos Aires under a false name. His story, in his own words, is a powerful reminder of the flesh and blood repercussions of the drug conflict.

Cocaine Cowboys

It’s not technically a Colombian film, but this documentary tells the story of the cocaine trade from the smugglers themselves.

Cocaine Cowboys paints a picture of 1970s and 80s Miami as a city living its glory days, with lavish parties, unbelievable houses and glamorous nightlife all fueled by the cocaine trade.

That’s a wholly unrealistic depiction for the millions of people whose lives were destroyed by cocaine-fueled violence and addiction. But Cocaine Cowboys at least offers insight into the deranged minds of the people who fanned those flames.

Pablo Escobar: El Patron del Mal

Think of Narcos as a quicker, dirtier version of this expansive and mostly well-acted Colombian TV series. El Patron del Mal delivers production values that sometimes skirt telenovela territory, but plotlines are consistently entertaining and the accents are spot on.

It’s also a somewhat more complex depiction of Pablo Escobar than Narcos, presenting a family man, a success story and a nightmare but never a true hero. And being a Colombian production, El Patron del Mal just “gets” the quirks and intricacies of this deeply Colombian story, not to mention the complex emotions it inspires.

El Cartel de los Sapos (The Snitch Cartel)

More than a few reviewers have called El Cartel de los Sapos the Colombian version of Scarface. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the movie does offer an interesting fictional look at Colombia’s cocaine trade in the post-Pablo Escobar era.

Two best friends rise from small-time crooks to drug barons with the North Valley cartel, which operated out of the Valle del Cauca. But a DEA agent eventually tracks them down, leaving them with a tough choice: snitch or face extradition and imprisonment in a U.S. jail. It’s a fast-paced — if shallow — action flick.


Metastasis isn’t about the cocaine trade per se, but the Colombian remake of the wildly popular Breaking Bad works as an interesting, sometimes bizarre translation of that U.S. show’s darkly satirical take on the methamphetamine epidemic.

Crystal meth isn’t nearly as big of a problem in Colombia as it is in the United States, but it’s certainly worth pointing out that cocaine isn’t the only problem drug in the country.

Netflix’s Narcos is not without its merits. If nothing else, it proves that filming a major production in Colombia is totally within reach for international studios. And as Colombia further opens itself up into a post-conflict era, expect more films and shows like it to pop up.

Let’s just hope that those shows, movies and documentaries build on the successes of Narcos and learn from some of its mistakes. And maybe before too long we’ll see an international production about Colombia that leaves its infamous past behind.


  1. Netflix true crime series Narcos spurs huge demand for Colombian women.

    Produced by Netflix, the show “Narcos” takes on the infamous Medellin drug cartel which follows the rise and fall of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar and the Drug Enforcement Agency agents hunting him. The story is told largely from the points of view of Escobar (Brazilian actor Wagner Moura) and U.S. DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), on opposite sides of what would become an all-out war.

    Many critics of true crime dramas have always complained they are promoting crime and violence by glorification, an unintended consequence of American entertainment industries. These shows can have other interesting consequences. The Foreign Bride industry has seen a huge spike in demand for Colombian women. This can be viewed as positive or negative, depending on social perspective.

    Foreign Brides, sometimes referred to as “mail order brides”, a term the industry completely rejects, have become a billion dollar a year business. According to industry leaders, Colombia represented only about 3% of the market three years ago. Since the popularity of Narcos, many companies have seen near tenfold increases in men seeking Colombian wives.

    A Foreign Affair (AFA), a company that helps men find women through international tours, says tours to Colombia are now selling out. AFA arranges group tours where 10 to 20 men travel together to Medellin, Cartagena or Barranquilla. During the tour, they attend arranged Social events where the men meet hundreds of beautiful Colombian women looking for marriage. Women can also place their profiles on the AFA web site, in the hopes of finding a husband.

    Kenneth Agee, the marketing director for AFA says, “Because of the show we are doubling our tours to Medellin for next year. Narcos has brought a lot of attention to the intense beauty of Colombian women. Although the show is often very violent, the women of Colombia come across as very family oriented and loyal. These values seem harder and harder to find in this world. I would have to agree, because of the interest in Narcos, we even added an excursion to where Pablo’s self-built prison was located, in the hills overlooking Medellin.

    The crowning of 2015 Miss Universe Paulina Vega put Barranquilla, Colombia on the map. Barranquilla now has recognition for being home to some of the most beautiful and talented women in the world. Not only is Miss Universe from here, Grammy Award winning pop singer Shakira, and actress Sofia Vergara also call Barranquilla home. Vergara stars on the ABC series Modern Family as Gloria Delgado-Pritchett. She’s been nominated for 4 Golden Globe Awards, 4 Prime time Emmy Awards, and 7 Screen Actors Guild Awards, all stemming from this role. In 2014, she was ranked as the 32nd Most Powerful Woman in the world by Forbes.

    David from Mesa AZ says he met more qualified women in one week than he has during the last 10 years. In 2010, Lisa Ling and the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) filmed a one hour show on the AFA tour called “Online Brides – Our America with Lisa Ling.” Even Lisa Ling was surprised by the beauty and sincerity of the women from Barranquilla.

    Janet Davis, head of a women’s rights group says “AFA is just taking advantage of women from these third world countries. This is no different than Pablo trafficking in narcotics, but these companies traffic women.” Proponents refer to a Report (INTERNATIONAL MATCHMAKING ORGANIZATIONS: A REPORT TO CONGRESS) that these marriages have much lower divorce rates and abuse rates compared to traditional domestic marriages. This data makes international dating similar to a woman in the US joining eHarmony to look for a husband.

    23-year-old Viviana, from Cartagena, says “I come to these events because I know the men attending are serious about marriage, they are faithful and are good to family. For Colombian women, it is the most important thing, good husband and good family.

    Kenneth says, “It has not been all rosy. Narcos has brought us some problems. In Cartagena, we have several Penthouses we rent out. One was originally owned by “Don Diego” head of the Norte Del Velle Drug Cartel, the other by Pablo’s people. Over the past year, the properties have been tracked down by individuals thinking they will find large qualities of cash hidden, thus we sometimes find holes all over the walls after a tenant leaves.

    For Narcos fans, those who love the gangster genre, or just those who just like seeing beautiful Latin women, there’s good news; Netflix’s has confirmed Season 3 and 4.

  2. Wow, right on the money. As a Colombian who grew up there, Netflix Narcos is more for entertainment value than true real event. The casting is good but the actor casted for Pablo ruins it. However, love the song they play at the beginning of every episode.


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