When it comes to drug lords, there's no matching Pablo Escobar. More than two decades after he was gunned down, his vast wealth, megalomania and ruthless violence still mesmerize, as evidenced by the attention surrounding Netflix's upcoming series Narcos about the cartel boss.
The biopic promises to be an authentic portrayal of Escobar, so it's only natural that Brazilian director and executive producer Jose Padilha chose to film the 10-episode series in Medellin, Colombia, the murder capital of the world during the drug kingpin's heyday in the 1980s.
Filming the series here would have been unthinkable a few years ago, with Colombians still blaming Escobar for their country's hard-to-shake association with drug trafficking. But as memories of Escobar's terror campaign fade, and with the homicide rate at a decade low, Colombians are starting to view their violent past more dispassionately. So much so that cinema-loving President Juan Manuel Santos agreed to pick up $2-million (U.S.) in production costs so Netflix could film in the country.
The series, which debuts Aug. 28, is based on the account of Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, now retired Drug Enforcement Administration agents who were assigned to bring the drug lord down. It's one of several projects reviving interest in the man known as the "King of Cocaine," including last year's film Escobar: Paradise Lost, starring Benicio del Toro. At least two more movies about Escobar are in development.
Because of the lingering sensitivities about the bad reputation Escobar gave Colombia, Netflix executives and Padilha flew to Bogota last year to meet with Santos before filming.
The president, whose family brought the Cinemark movie chain to Colombia, immediately embraced the project, said Claudia Triana, head of the state-funded Proimagenes film promotion agency. But Santos urged Padilha not to romanticize a criminal who promoted himself as a Colombian Robin Hood despite ordering thousands of people killed, from presidential candidates to passengers on a commercial jetliner he had blown up.
Triana said that no matter where the series was made it would have presented the same image of Colombia, so it was preferable to have it filmed here to make foreign members of the cast and crew more sensitive to the toll Escobar's bloodbath had on society.
Netflix, with local production partner Dynamo, got the big subsidy to film under an initiative Santos' government launched in 2013 to market Colombia as South America's premier shooting location. The administration pays for up to 40 per cent of filming costs to foreign producers who hire local crews and spend at least $600,000 in the country.
While some officials feared the series would portray the country negatively, Triana said resistance to filmed depictions of Colombia's violent history has eased in part because of wildly popular soap operas known as "narconovelas" that present an unvarnished view of the drug wars.
Still, Congressman Rodrigo Lara said he's skeptical that Colombia's complex history can be accurately rendered in a series whose trailer teases audiences in English: "There's No Business Like Blow Business," using a slang word for cocaine.
"When you take real events and convert them into several episodes for a TV series, the need to entertain and keep the audience hooked is always going to predominate," said Lara, whose father, a justice minister, was slain by Escobar's hit men in 1984.
Escobar's son, who changed his name to Sebastian Marroquin and moved to Argentina after his father's death, also questions how accurate the Netflix depiction will be.
"I'm not very convinced by stories sold as truthful that use my father's name without authorization and purposefully ignore the main keepers of his memories: his family," Marroquin said in an e-mail. He is the author of a book and documentary about his relationship with his father.
Pena and Murphy, who were technical consultants for the series, said Padilha and the actors worked hard to provide an accurate look at what was then the world's largest manhunt. Brazilian actor Wagner Moura, who stars as Escobar, studied Spanish in Medellin to approach the capo's thick regional accent. Pedro Pascal and Boyd Holbrook, who play Pena and Murphy, embedded with real-life anti-narcotics agents at the DEA's academy in Quantico, Va.
Huge quantities of cocaine still flow out of Colombia and violence continues at chronically high levels. Last year's homicide rate, while the lowest in a decade, was still almost six times that of the United States.
But the possibility of Colombia becoming a narco state, a real threat during Escobar's time, has lifted, said Medellin writer Hector Abad Faciolince, allowing Colombians to view the drug trade more objectively.
"A few years ago we Colombians were overzealous when it came to displaying our sores, our vices and our wounds," said Faciolince, whose father, a human rights activist, was killed by right-wing paramilitaries during an especially violent period that coincided with Escobar's reign. "Now we handle it better because it seems that the worst is behind us."