This month alone, we’ll be treated to the third season of Netflix’s now Pablo Escobar-less drama Narcos, to Javier Bardem’s take on that same Colombian druglord in Loving Pablo, and to the second season of Univision’s own drug trade-related banner series, El Chapo. In other words, narco-dramas are still all the rage. From Hollywood and multi-national telenovela production companies to indie producers, everyone is all too eager to jumpstart any kind of project that can capitalize on what seems like a never-ending thirst for stories about drug cartels.
That said, not all narco-dramas are created equal. More than any other buzzy contemporary genre, these shows and films betray quite easily the many biases that characterize any discussion about the so-called “war on drugs.” Homegrown projects coming out of Colombia and Mexico, for example, feel very different than those coming out of the United States. Where the former, which tend to break and tweak known telenovela molds in the process, look like attempts at grappling with a bloodied history that can still be felt on the streets, the latter often privilege an north-of-the-border point of view that aims for a kind of global understanding of the drug trade that glorifies U.S. agencies and their efforts.
As with any fictionalized historical topic, narco-dramas must tackle head-on the conflict that comes with needing to balance entertainment value with historical accuracy, even when focusing on wholly fictional figures. Are audiences encouraged to root for the drug kingpin, or are they required to understand this world through an American DEA agent? Are they supposed to see everyone associated with the drug trade as violent thugs or as complicated characters driven by competing allegiances? These questions are never easy to answer, for they require a commitment to gray areas in regards to a topic many a government and citizenship will want you to understand as being all about black and white, good guys and bad guys, us versus them.
Looking at all of these narco-dramas together, and comparing their focuses, ends up being a fascinating cultural litmus test for what kinds of stories are being sold, by whom, and to what end.
We really could’ve listed many more, but if you’re into programming about drug cartels (or want to examine these shows’ cultural biases), we’ve assembled an exhaustive list for you to pick and choose from. From low-budget Mexican dramas shot on the fly and ambitious Colombian telenovelas that cost a pretty penny, to bilingual prestige productions making stars out of their actors and female-driven American remakes that hoped to tell new stories in this male-driven world; you can find a mere sampling of what’s out there in this ever-growing genre.
Ciudad Juarez, on the Mexican-US border, is infamous for the drug violence that has made it one of the world’s most dangerous cities, with an annual murder rate in the thousands and where bloodshed and chaos are everyday realities for beleaguered inhabitants. Yet the vast wealth and power of the traffickers has allowed them to build their own cult of personality as pop stars and film stars. This unsettling and extremely graphic documentary follows narcocorrido singer El Komander, who waves a bazooka around on stage in front of screaming fans at cartel-organized concerts. Needless to say, these are places where you wouldn’t want to spill someone’s drink.
Director Matthew Heinemann is given unprecedented access for his hard-hitting documentary on two leaders of paramilitary groups right at the center of Mexico’s war on drugs and the challenges both men face dealing with dangerous cartels and vigilante movements that are making it hard to keeps the streets safe for its citizens. Is it enough for the people of Mexico to fight violence with violence and where do the police fit into the equation? At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Cartel Land scored two wins: one for cinematography and one for directing. It was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
Netflix’s bilingual series, Narcos, focused its first two seasons on the rise of Pablo Escobar. Chronicling the Colombian drug lord’s wide-reaching operation and the DEA’s attempts to stop him, the show has since taken a broader view of the “war on drugs” in that South American country. It has not only given us a seemingly necessary American POV of the kingpin’s empire, but it turned its attention in season 3 to those in the Cali cartel who took advantage of the power vacuum Escobar left behind after being shot to death in 1993 in his native Medellin. Ambitious, thrilling, and full of stellar performances by the likes of Wagner Moura, Pedro Pascal, and Paulina García among others, this José Padilha-produced show has clearly set the bar for what a Narco prestige drama can look like.
Queen of the South
The American adaptation of the Arturo Pérez-Reverte-penned book of the same name (which had already begat the highly successful Kate del Castillo-led Reina del sur) set itself up for success when it cast Alice Braga in the leading role. Playing Teresa Mendoza, the young Mexican ingenue who becomes a ruthless drug empress, the Brazilian actress has been surrounded by a strong ensemble cast that give life to the border-crossing world of drug trafficking. Set mostly in Dallas and addressing an English-speaking audience, the high-octane USA show has been content offering a feminist spin on this tried-and-true genre, exploring what it looks like when a powerful woman is in charge, for a change.
La reina del sur
This highly successful Kate del Castillo-led telenovela was based on La Reina del Sur, a novel by Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte. It followed Teresa Mendoza, a Mexican woman whose romantic relationship with a pilot who worked for the drug cartels (and his untimely death at their hands) leads her to the South of Spain. There, she puts her business-savvy and key alliances to eventually become a leading figure in drug trafficking world—something that tests both her mettle and her personal life. A gritty take on the telenovela genre, this Spanish-language Telemundo series marked not just a turn for del Castillo’s career, but it capitalized on the continued desire to tell narco-related dramas with a twist.
Alias J.J.: Lo que pasa tras las rejas
Produced by Caracol, one of Colombia’s most successful TV companies, Surviving Escobar: Alias J.J. tells the story of Pablo Escobar’s No. 1 hitman. Jhon Jairo Velásquez, known both as “Popeye” and “J.J” finds himself in prison at the start of this gritty, violent series. Without the protection his powerful patrón offered him, J.J. (an electric Juan Pablo Urrego) must now fend for himself and gain respect among the prison population. Tracing this one man’s story, this down-and-dirty production casts a wide net to tell the story of the after-effects of the Narcoterrorismo era in Colombia from the point of view of one hell of an anti-hero.
Escobar, el patrón del mal
Brought to the small screen by Juana Uribe (a showrunner responsible for some of Colombia’s most critically acclaimed if lightheated telenovelas, including Perro Amor and El inutil), this wildly expensive TV production was based on the book, La parábola de Pablo, written by Alonso Salazar, Medellin’s mayor from 2008-2011. That source material clearly helped give this narco-drama an air of authenticity when depicting the rise and fall of that city’s most revered and reviled drug kingpin. And where other Escobar-related depictions have opted to merely hint at his humble beginnings, Uribe’s telenovela actually showed his childhood and traced how his mother’s upbringing helped him become the mustachioed drug trafficker we’ve all seen elsewhere.
This Netflix and Univision co-production hoped to give Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the infamous (and prison-avoiding!) drug lord the Latino anti-hero origin story we’ve come to expect from post-Breaking Bad dramas. Kicking off in 1985 and featuring some Hollywood-blockbuster-level shootout scenes and car chases, El Chapo stars Marco de la O as the Mexican titular character who was, back then, merely a lowly cog in the Guadalajara cartel. Soon, though, we see the savvy young man climb up the ranks as the series offers much needed backstory on Mexico’s role in the late 80s drug trafficking scene.
Chapo: el escape del siglo
Touting that most salacious of premises (“Based on true events”) this Mexican thriller dramatizes the events that made El Chapo the stuff of legend: his infamous escape. Shot in just three weeks and sourced by publicly available information, this ticking-clock flick frames the Mexican drug lord’s plight and the government machinations that he was so obviously a victim of, as one grounded not in the broader context of the war on drugs, but in personal betrayal and human fallacy.
La Viuda Negra
Where most Colombian drug stories focus on Pablo Escobar, La viuda negra took another infamous personality from the country’s drug past to dramatize: Griselda Blanco. Known variously as the “Black Widow” (having killed her three husbands) and the “Queen of Cocaine” (given her outsized influence in the drug trafficking business), Blanco made a name for herself as one of the most feared players in the U.S.-Colombian drug trade world. Starring Ana Serradilla, this Caracol telenovela gives yet another angle on an oft-told story, putting a woman front and center.
Narcos y perros
One need only look at the low-budget, amazingly B-movie-ish look of Narcos y perros (not to mention merely look at its title) to see that Fernando Durán Rojas’ film isn’t interested in any kind of authenticity when it comes to telling its shoot-em-up story. Instead, this Mexico-set action-drama about warring gangs plays more like a Western you’d catch at a drive-in. It’s no surprise it gave birth to its very own franchise, with three sequels being released not long after.
“You can be a freedom fighter on the front lines of the war on drugs. Be kicking ass and taking names—all in the name of Uncle Sam. You can make big money and get sweet love from every señorita that walks by. What do you say cowboy?” That cringeworthy proposition is at the heart of this Scott Eastwood flick where a broke American guy is recruited into joining a paramilitary group that targets Mexican cartels. Set in the dusty Texas desert, Charles Burmeister’s action-heavy film centers its action on a beautifully chiseled white guy who eventually gets some semblance of a moral compass when he realizes what the group he’s joined is really up to.
Taking inspiration from Hong Kong action flicks (including perfectly orchestrated fight choreography) as well as religious-inspired iconography (the title is Redeemer, after all), Ernesto Díaz Espinoza’s action flick follows a former hit-man for a drug cartel (Marko Zaror) becomes a vigilante to pay for his sins and find redemption. A B-movie set against the violent world of drug trafficking, this pulse-pounding project pits our karate-kicking hero against an entire criminal organization.
Ruta 35, la válvula de escape
This U.S.-Venezuelan co-production stitches together a series of stories of people who are all too eager to snitch on their previous bosses, estranged family members, and various other contacts in order to reduce their own sentences when caught by immigration officers on drug-related charges. Starring Colombian actress Danna García and featuring quite a selection of cowboy hats and garish outfits, this telenovela puts immigration at the heart of the drug trafficking world.
El Señor de los Cielos
The award-winning Telemundo series has all the hallmarks of contemporary telenovelas. Not only is it set against the gritty world of the drug trade between Colombia, Mexico, and the United States, but it pits Aurelio (played by Rafael Amaya) as both an anti-hero who has successfully built a drug empire but also as a conflicted man who’d do anything for his family. Add in botched facial surgeries, stolen identities, beautiful women, gory deaths, and even a life-threatening illness, and you can rest assured that El Señor de los Cielos is as perfect a narco-melodrama as you’re likely to find out there.