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The point of Narcos was never Pablo Escobar. For its first two seasons the series rooted itself firmly in the rise and fall of Escobar, the most notorious of maniacal drug kingpins, and a performance by Wagner Moura as Escobar was as emphatic as it gets.

But Narcos was always planned as a vast epic about the drug trade – what fuels it, who runs it and how every lame attempt to curb it goes awry. Two years ago when I spoke with Jose Padilha, the Brazilian director, producer and screenwriter who is an executive producer on Narcos, he said it's about, "What cocaine is – it's cheap to make, it's a natural product and it makes the human brain go haywire. The American approach to dealing with the cocaine problem is basically fighting cocaine by fighting supply. So yeah, you wage war on the Medellin Cartel. You kill Pablo Escobar. And then it goes to Cali. Then you wage war on Cali. And then it moves on and then it goes to Mexico. It's always there."

The third season of Narcos (starts streaming on Netflix Friday) is about the Cali Cartel. Escobar is dead, Bill Clinton is now president of the United States and the "war on drugs" grinds on and on. Escobar was small-fry when compared with the reach and wealth of this cartel. They delivered hundreds of tons of cocaine into North America every year. This small group (really only four players) of slick, secretive businessmen had learned from Escobar: Don't make noise and don't taunt the politically powerful. They just do business, quietly and ruthlessly. That's how they became, at one point, suppliers of 90 per cent of the cocaine consumed in the United States.

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As the story evolves – and it is not necessary to see the first two seasons in order to appreciate the story and heft of the third – it becomes increasingly gripping and sometimes terrifyingly cynical. Early on, a character says to Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) the main agent investigating the Cali Cartel, "The drug war? We lost it. You were there."

Javier was there in the first two seasons and is now the lead character on the side of the authorities. He also provides the world-weary voiceover that connects the plot lines. The DEA and the CIA want the drug supply from Colombia curbed. But this cartel is as cunning as it is ruthless. As Javier tries to figure out why it's so difficult to penetrate the cartel's operations, he realizes that they own all information in Colombia. Every possible source of info is bought. Phone calls are monitored by phone company staff. Every cab driver reports who is going where and whom they meet. Over footage of the lush beauty of Colombia, Javier says, "It was like the Soviet Union with nice weather."

The men running the Cali Cartel are a strange bunch – as understated as Escobar was flamboyant. As the season starts, an announcement is made: they want to wind up their operations and just live on their vast wealth. This is, of course, not a plan they all agree upon. Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann), who is gay, wants to settle some scores. Too many people mocked him and he wants revenge before any business is concluded. He's a terrifying figure, this Pacho, a menacing man who needs attention but hates it.

The viewer's path into the Cali Cartel is through Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), who is in charge of security for the four bosses. He's not a bodyguard or a brute. He leaves the brutality to others. He's just the savvy guy who oversees the elaborate process of knowing where everybody is, what they are doing and how their wives are spending their time. He's a cautious man. He doesn't even carry a gun. Jorge has announced he's stepping away from the job to open a legitimate business. One of the bosses asks him to stick around for the final six months. He has no choice and that creates the one weak link in the cartel's armour. Much of this is based on fact, by the way, and the real Salcedo became a key figure in court cases years later.

What propels the series along is the continuing and superbly nuanced combination of thriller and scathing political narrative. It is even more male now, this thriller – there is is a fearsome tension in the slowly burning male rage of the cartel bosses as they see their master plan being undermined. Once into episode two, there is hardly a scene that is not ripe with the jeopardy of betrayal and a sudden killing.

At the same time there is a beautifully florid quality to it. When I spoke to Padilha, he reminded me that Colombia's culture, climate and landscape are alive with magic realism and that the fiction of Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez defines the term. When I asked him to elaborate, he laughed, shrugged and said, "The place is, like, kind of crazy."

But there's nothing crazy about the narrative that emerges in Narcos – the Cali Cartel got its long arms into the United States by using Mexican criminals and bandits to transport drugs and in so doing, created both an adversary and a successor in the mass-drug trade. Which takes us to a contemporary story and the politics of today. Narcos is highly recommended as a terrific thriller and and a timely political parable.

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