Narcos review: What happens when the Cali cartel goes straight?

The drugs drama returns with true stories that beggar belief

At the centre of the new season of Narcos (Netflix from Friday) is an unlikely premise: the largest Colombian drug cartel decides to quit cocaine. This is roughly the true story of the Cali cartel, the organisation left standing and thriving after the unlamented death of Pablo Escobar – although when it comes to Colombian drug runners, Narcos' showrunners know, true stories tend to burst the dam of credibility.

It is the heady era of the late 1990s, a period conveyed most persuasively by non-ironic use of Billy Ray Cyrus, and the four lynchpins of the Cali cartel have been made an offer they will not refuse: a phased withdrawal from the cocaine trade, over six months, in exchange for negligible jail time and minimum forfeiture of their unimaginable wealth. The disappointment that ripples discretely through the palatial gardens of Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela (Damián Alcázar) as he makes the announcement are matched by the viewers. No one tuned into Narcos to see drugs barons struggling go straight.

"Things won't be like Escobar, they can't be," Pedro Pascal's brooding DEA Agent Peña investigator is assured. There go any residual hopes of seeing Wagner Moura somehow resume his magnetic performance. Other losses feel like gains; such as that of Peña's former partner, a handsome blond hat stand named Murphy, who inexplicably narrated the first two series. But Moura's Escobar leaves a conspicuous absence.

It is filled, in part, by a fittingly capitalist approach to the division of labour. The Cali cartel, we are told, were "Cocaine Incorporated… like a Fortune 500 company", which suits the sheen of the 1990s. As with Escobar's, it's a family business, run by two brothers, Gilberto and Miguel, and their enforcers Chepe Santacruz and Pacho Herrera (a menacingly silken Alberto Ammann).


Pacho, ruthlessly violent and out-and-proud in an immensely homophobic culture, is its more absorbing character, flaunting his power by dancing erotically in a dive bar with his male lover, then ghoulishly dispatching his enemies.

If director Andi Baiz savours such displays, it is because the Cali cartel was stubbornly inconspicuous. It's telling that one early event, which threatens to ruin their plans for a frictionless surrender, was otherwise invisible: the fatal dumping of chlorine gas into a neighbourhood's sewer system.

As ever, Narcos focuses on the individuals, less the blandly tormented DEA officers, but on engaging figures like Jorge Salceda (Matias Varela), a minor character in history who becomes a major player in the narrative. Head of security for the Cali household, with ambitions to go legit, here is a man of conscience sinking deeper into the rot. It's a dilemma Narcos and its viewers know too well: once you slip into these riveting vats of sin, it's almost impossible to get out.