My wife and I had been pretty much ignoring Netflix’s Narcos series because it didn’t quite interest us enough to justify expending our valuable TV-watching time. And as a long-time opponent of the war on drugs, I wasn’t sure I was ready for a series where DEA agents were the heroes. A few weeks ago, we finally decided to give it a try on the theory that a series that ran six seasons (half Narcos, half Narcos: Mexico) probably had something going for it.
As it turns out, my hatred of the drug war didn’t prevent me from enjoying Narcos. That’s because it mostly focused on Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín drug cartel, who was responsible for thousands of murders. Using drugs may be a victimless crime, but murder certainly isn’t, so I had no problem with them going after Escobar and his cartel.
Focusing on the murders is actually pretty common in movies and TV shows about the war on drugs, and I think it’s a tell: If they showed the actual war on drugs — cops dragging away drug users and low-level dealers — the cops serving as protagonists would look like violent asinine busybodies. Nobody wants to watch that. So the cops are pretty much only shown going after murderous drug dealers, because that’s a lot more heroic than busting street kids, factory workers, and college students.
It’s a different story when it comes to Narcos: Mexico. We’ve only seen the first season so far, but it’s already pissing me off. It’s set in the 1980s, before the events of Narcos, so it can show how the drug war “began” with the DEA confronting the Guadalajara Cartel run by Félix Gallardo.
Like its predecessor, Narcos: Mexico has narration from a DEA agent:
Now, a lot of people don’t want to hear this story. They want to pretend it never happened. But fuck that. It happened. Look, I can’t tell you how the drug war ends. Man, I can’t even tell you if it ends. But I can tell you how it began. Or at least when we realized we were in it.
Sometimes you need somebody to wake you the fuck up and tell you the shooting has started. In this story… that guy’s name is Kiki Camarena
That’s DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who we immediately see getting hauled off by cartel enforcers. The story then backs up to when Camarena was working in the U.S. and decided to take a new position down in Guadalajara, Mexico. Camarena’s abduction is not much of a spoiler since his murder in 1985 is a matter of DEA history.
Do you smoke pot? I guess it’s okay if you do. There are laws now that say it’s cool. I don’t agree with them. But it’s not up to me.
I’m not sure who’s narrating all this, but damn right it’s not up to him. That’s my whole problem with the war on drugs — drug warriors sticking their noses in where they don’t belong. Is anybody forcing them to do drugs? No? Then fuck all the way off.
As for Camarena, he’s depicted as smart and likeable, but to my eye, he also comes off as a bit of an asshole, in a narc kind of way. In the third episode, we hear the story of why he has a black eye in his DEA identification. His wife Mika explains:
Mika: The week Kiki got accepted into the DEA, we’re at this wedding. Actually, we crashed it, but Calexico’s so small, everybody knows each other. So we have a few drinks, everything’s fine. Then this kid comes to the table to tell his mom he can’t go to the bathroom because there was a guy in there smoking pot. So, brand-new federal agent here is like, “I got this,” heads off the the bathroom.
Listener: So what happened?
Mika: Well, it wasn’t one guy, it was four. So, he says to them, “We can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.”
Kiki: Turns out the easy way was to beat the shit out of me.
Mika: All this for a joint, right? So I ask him, “Was it worth it? Are you happy now?”
Kiki: And I said, “I had them on possession, but now I have them on assault, so damn right it was worth it.”
What a colossal asshole! He crashes a wedding he was never invited to, and then he disrupts the wedding by starting a fight trying to arrest some of the actual guests, all because they are committing the victimless crime of smoking pot. I’m not saying he deserved what eventually happened to him, but neither did he deserve a paycheck from the taxpayers.
The show doesn’t just make me angry, it also makes me sad. There are so many murders. At one point, the show depicts the 1984 DEA-led raid on the 2500-acre Rancho Búfalo marijuana crop, conducted by Mexican Marines. Counting both sides, at least a dozen people were killed. Over some weed. What a stupid, stupid thing.
The drug war killings keep happening over and over, in both incarnations of Narcos. From cops and politicians murdered for trying to fight the traffickers, to random people forced to take sides between the traffickers and the police, to all the victims of Pablo Escobar’s reign of terror, the death toll from the drug war is in the thousands.
At times I found myself wondering how much the people of Mexico and Columbia resented the Americans whose drug consumption funded the cartels and paid for all the violence. Of course it didn’t have to be that way. None of it had to be that way. If it weren’t for the war on drugs, Americans could have been buying their weed from domestic growers or peaceful Sinaloan farmers.
And Enrique Camarena wouldn’t have ended up another life sacrificed to the war on drugs.
The initially unnamed DEA agent who narrates the story keeps calling the death of Enrique Camarena the first shot in the drug war. He may be right as far as Central and South America are concerned, but the war on drugs started here in the United States over a century ago, when Congress passed the Opium Exclusion Act of 1909. It was, and still is, a war against the American people.
It’s essentially a religious war — morally and philosophically indistinguishable from the early Christian church’s brutal suppression of blasphemy, the Taliban’s war against modern music and trimmed beards, or whatever they’re whipping people for in Saudi Arabia these days. It’s not as bad as the Nazi Holocaust or other historic atrocities, but it’s a similar kind of callous evil, and with tens of thousands dead — hundreds of thousands if we include wars between the traffickers — it could get there yet.
The DEA narrowly avoid being the villains of Narcos and Narcos: Mexico only because the drug traffickers are even worse. Of course, the cartels would never have become so powerful without the crazy profits that became possible when drugs were outlawed. Outlawing drugs didn’t stop the production and sale of drugs. It just ensured that outlaws would be in charge of drug production and sales.