Drugs

Narcos Season Three and the Lies We Tell About the Drug War

In popular culture the war on drugs is seen as us versus them, good versus bad, legal versus illegal. So why do our banks launder cartel drug money?

Narcos: on-trend and clearly lucrative. But does it tell the whole story?
Photo Credit: Juan Pablo Gutierrez/Netflix

o Narcos is back for a third season, which takes us beyond the death of its hitherto protagonist Pablo Escobar into the world of his rivals, the Cali Cartel. An interesting shift is afoot if a remark from showrunner Eric Newman is anything to go by: “Unlike Escobar, who had positioned himself as an outlaw, Cali was very much a part of the system.”

Narcos season three calls the Cali Cartel “the biggest drug lords you’ve never heard of’ – with good reason. The Rodríguez Orejuela brothers Gilberto and Miguel and Jose Santacruz Londoño are not the household names they could, should – and soon will – be.

The Cali cartel split from Escobar’s Medellin syndicate years before his death, to become the trader of what some estimate as a 90% share of the global cocaine market, spearheading the supply into Europe during the “yuppie” boom of the 1980s.

But unlike Escobar, the Cali cartel didn’t wage war on the system – they became part of it.

First they dominated their region, and then national politics – even compromising a Colombian president. They didn’t want to attack the state, as Escobar did with cartel gunmen and rogue police; they wanted to be the state. Their financial affairs were so well managed that Gilberto Rodríguez founded and directed the First InterAmericas bank in Panama – he did so effectively enough to become Escobar’s banker while also trying to kill his rival. Meanwhile, the expertise of the cartel’s counter-intelligence systems baffled the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The series seems, estimably, to want to follow not the story of one man, but the ever-expanding business he created. In doing so, Narcos season three will also illustrate a key point about the nature of cartels: the way in which they morph and mutate from generation to generation.

The famous Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, now awaiting trial in a New York jail from which he is unlikely to be tunnelled out, was a mutation of both Escobar and Cali. He was the last of the baron bosses, a “Godfather” revered as well as feared on his terrain. But he had moved beyond Escobar to find an accommodation with the state: his network of protection within the Mexican state made him the state’s best bet in trying to keep a perverse “pax mafiosa” – mafia peace – against even more vicious drug syndicates.

The latest cartel mutation is Los Zetas, from north-eastern Mexico. This is a narco-militia so brutal that – in contrast to Guzmán’s baronial status – its name is barely even mentioned within the expanding territory under its control, from the Rio Grande valley down the Gulf into Central America. They rule with raw terror, not patronage. They forge into Europe, regardless of what is licit or illicit, be it cocaine, sex-trafficking, migration or oil – all that matters is business and ultra-violence to secure it.

The Zetas are Escobar’s great grandchildren, the Cali cartel’s grandchildren, and Guzmán’s defiant sons.

Along with Narcos, the past few years have seen a flurry of films and books about narco-traffic. When I wrote a book about the drug war in Mexico in 2010, it was one among few. Now, narco-traffic is on trend and clearly lucrative.

Sadly, the narratives developed in those shows mean that audiences in the US and Europe understand it as a cops-and-robbers thriller, obscuring what narcos actually are: astute, ever-adapting businessmen in the legal and illicit economy, supplying products on which our society is more dependent than ever. The fight is seen as a just war against criminal organisations who are at war with us. Our good guys, their bad guys.

But here’s the problem: it’s not true. The idea that there is some kind of line between “us” and “them”, or the “legal” and “illegal” economies, is a fantasy and a lie. The world of narcos is not some exotic underworld horror show, because there is nothing underworld about the money.

Ask yourself: what happens to the money? If Escobar’s and Guzmán’s is a multi-billion dollar business, where is it?

Escobar and Guzmán could not drive around spending hundreds of billions out of the back of a truck. No, you have to bank it, and to do that, you have to find a bank willing to take your money. Escobar found the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and it was busted. Guzmán found Wachovia and HSBC, which have been caught and admitted laundering his money. Yet no one goes to jail.

The New York Times articulated it rather well: “Federal and state authorities have chosen not to indict HSBC, the London-based bank, on charges of vast and prolonged money-laundering, for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system.”

Without “criminal” money, the “legal” economy collapses. The man who infiltrated Escobar’s Medellin cartel to bust BCCI for the FBI, Robert Mazur, put it thus when we met: “The only thing that will make the banks properly vigilant to what is happening is the rattle of handcuffs in the boardroom” – not just in the Narcos’ palaces. “It’s simple”, said the whistleblower at Wachovia, Martin Woods: “If you don’t see the correlation between the money laundering by banks andpeople killed in Mexico, you’re missing the point.”

Series three of Narcos is unlikely to join those dots – it is, after all, a series about Colombia, not Wall Street or Canary Wharf. And even this is important: Colombia has just agreed a peace that ends the world’s longest-running war, between its government and the Marxist Farc. A war entwined with Escobar’s, and funded by Farc with narco-traffic.

And yet despite the peace process, cocaine production continues to increase exponentially in Colombia. And the power and terror of yet a further generation of neo-cartels known in Colombia as “bacrim”, bandas criminales.

The Narcos series is infinite.

 

Ed Vulliamy is a writer for the Guardian and Observer, and author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline
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