Glamorizing the Nightmare Trade How a TV show is making a drug criminal way too cool.

Wagner Moura plays Pablo Escobar in Netflix's mega-hit TV series Narcos.

Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard of the TV show Narcos. The show is reportedly the most popular on Netflix. Its three seasons have captivated viewers worldwide and turned Pablo Escobar into a 21st-century pop culture icon.

With season one released in 2015, the Netflix original series follows DEA agents Javier Peña and Steve Murphy as they work in Colombia to take down the powerful drug lord Pablo Escobar. Season three, which was released this past September, continues to follow the evolution of the drug trade, despite Escobar’s demise.

The series, which captures Escobar’s cocaine empire at work, and the drugs, sex, and violence that accompanies it, has created increased awareness and interest in Pablo Escobar’s story. With the initial release of Narcos, media across the country latched on to the show’s popularity to produce content about the Colombian drug lord and the cocaine trade. The Wall Street Journal released Cocainenomics in partnership with Netflix to tell the story of cocaine as a business through interactive maps, graphics, and photos, alongside reporting and video interviews with DEA agents. Every major publication wrote articles riding on the popularity and interest created from the show. It was as if the United States had just awakened to events that had occurred almost three decades ago.

Since its release of Narcos, Netflix has added more content focused on Escobar and the larger drug trade, seemingly to capitalize on our demand for the violent, cocaine-filled content. This year, the video streaming service released both a movie and a Netflix original TV series focused on one of Escobar’s top hit men. Netflix has also released three shows and a movie in the past year inspired by or about powerful Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, arguably, the Pablo Escobar of this decade.

With the initial release of Narcos, media across the country latched on to the show’s popularity to produce content about the Colombian drug lord and the cocaine trade. The Wall Street Journal released Cocainenomics in partnership with Netflix to tell the story of cocaine as a business through interactive maps, graphics, and photos, alongside reporting and video interviews with DEA agents. … It was as if the United States had just awakened to events that had occurred almost three decades ago.

The proliferation of Escobar’s story is worrisome as the drug lord, responsible for the deaths of thousands, has become a romanticized pop culture icon, whitewashed of his bloody legacy. A recent article from The Miami Herald details the Colombian drug kingpin’s evolution from “narco-terrorist to marketing success.” From a “Pablo Escobar Ice Cream Shop” in Kuwait to the extensive variety of Pablo Escobar-related items on Amazon and eBay, the influence of Narcos can be easily seen. According to the article, even Walmart has capitalized on the drug lord’s popularity. The retail giant’s web page includes more than 20 different T-shirt and jacket styles with Escobar’s image, including one which depicts Escobar in a Santa hat with the words “Let it Snow.” In more extreme cases, the prolific narco-terrorist has even become “Saint Pablo Escobar,” with his face replacing the traditional image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on merchandise online.

Escobar’s emergence as a pop culture icon is a telling indicator of the show’s reception. Not only does it illuminate the worldwide influence of Narcos, but it also gives insight into what viewers are taking away. Despite the violence and sheer brutality depicted in Narcos, it is clear that audiences are not walking away with an understanding of the terror of the drug trade, instead being swept up by the romanticized and captivating life of one of its major players. Which is why you might have seen or heard of a Pablo Escobar costume these past few Halloweens. Many, if not most, Colombians view Pablo Escobar as a terrorist, the worst criminal in the country’s history. Dressing up as the famous drug kingpin would be akin to dressing up as Osama Bin Laden for Halloween … and you would not do that, would you?

Narcos presents a gripping tale, a story about a man larger than life. It is easy to romanticize something seemingly so distant and far away. The show takes place in the 1980s, a fact that the viewer is constantly reminded of from the style of dress to the grainy original news footage used in the show. These elements make it clear that Narcos depicts a different era. Moreover, being set in Colombia, with the actors speaking in Spanish, the American viewer is further distanced. It is easy to feel that Narcos is a mere depiction of a historic event in a land far, far away.

Despite the violence and sheer brutality depicted in Narcos, it is clear that audiences are not walking away with an understanding of the terror of the drug trade, instead being swept up by the romanticized and captivating life of one of its major players. Which is why you might have seen or heard of a Pablo Escobar costume these past few Halloweens.

But as far away and romanticized as the issues portrayed in Narcos may seem, it is important to remember that what we see on the TV screen is still happening today. The drug trade is alive and well and its existence perpetuates a trail of blood and destruction that is ravaging our southern neighbor.

In fact, 2017 is on track to be one of Mexico’s deadliest years in decades. The month of May was the deadliest recorded in 20 years since the Mexican government began releasing crime data in 1997. According to government statistics for that month, one person was murdered every 20 minutes in Mexico. That is two people for the duration of one episode of Narcos.

From January to June, Mexico has seen 12,155 homicide cases, making 2017 the deadliest first half of a year. A rising demand for heroin from the United States, coupled with a continued power struggle within one of Mexico’s most powerful cartels, has caused a surge of violence as Mexico continues to contend with the drug trade.

The year 2017 is on track to be one of Mexico’s deadliest years in decades. The month of May was the deadliest recorded in 20 years since the Mexican government began releasing crime data in 1997. According to government statistics for that month, one person was murdered every 20 minutes in Mexico. That is two people for the duration of one episode of Narcos.

A little over a decade ago, the Mexican government launched its war on drugs, sending the military to combat cartels and sending the country into an increased cycle of violence. Between 2007 and 2014, some of the drug war’s most violent years, there were more than 164,000 reported homicides in Mexico, over 60,000 more than the civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. According to Reuters, between 2007 and 2012, at the height of the Mexican war on drugs, total murders rose by 112 percent. While not every homicide during this period was directly related to cartel violence, the drug war’s effect on these statistics is undeniable.

Mexico’s war on drugs has created a head-on collision between the state and Mexico’s drug cartels. This clash has transformed the drug trade into an industry dealing with much more than drugs. With government efforts to crack down on drug trafficking, cartels have diversified their streams of income as drug trafficking has become more difficult and more expensive. Mexican cartels rely heavily on extortion, human trafficking, pirating, and oil theft, in order to maximize revenue and remain one step ahead of the government. The diversification of Mexico’s drug cartels has created a network of highly organized and powerful criminal groups driving violence in the country.

Meanwhile, by and large, the United States turns a blind eye. A title of an article from Newsweek proclaims: “Crime in Mexico: Murder rate reaches record high and nobody is talking about it.” The author is right. Who in the United States is talking about it?

Despite the fact that the violence is occurring south of our border, we also bear the burden. It is our insatiable appetite for drugs that has created a complex, violent, and pervasive network of crime operating to serve consumers in the United States. Failed American drug policies have maintained a steady consumer base that drives the Mexican drug trade. Currently, rising demand in the United States for opiates such as heroin has caused increased opium poppy cultivation in Mexico and an increase in the violence seen today.

Narcos is much more than just the story of Pablo Escobar; it is the story of the drug trade. While the situation in Colombia has improved dramatically since the time of Escobar, the drug trade has not died. Instead it has moved closer to the United States and taken root in Mexico. The cartels have expanded their criminal activities, the violence has intensified, and drug trafficking remains as strong as ever.

While there may be little hope for progressive American drug policies that significantly curb American demand or real headway by the Mexican government to eradicate cartel activity, there is hope for Netflix viewers to understand the larger picture as they watch Narcos. Narcos is much more than just the story of Pablo Escobar; it is the story of the drug trade. American demand for narcotics did not just end with the fall of Escobar. While the situation in Colombia has improved dramatically since the time of Escobar, the drug trade has not died. Instead it has moved closer to the United States and taken root in Mexico. The cartels have expanded their criminal activities, the violence has intensified, and drug trafficking remains as strong as ever.

While an episode or a season may end, the war on drugs is far from over. So while watching Narcos, enjoy the show with a critical eye, taking away more than a mere glorification of the drug trade and romanticization of a major criminal’s life. The violence and drug trafficking portrayed in Narcos exists in real life and has very real effects on the lives of millions. So sit back, relax, and enjoy Narcos, but remember that the issues covered in the series extend far beyond the TV screen.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!