REVIEW: ‘Narcos’ state of mind

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - September 24, 2016 - 12:00am

Last week was simultaneously the perfect and most inopportune time to binge-watch Narcos. It was the week of Edgar Matobato’s testimony before the Senate probe on extrajudicial killings and all throughout the hearing the opening theme song to Narcos kept playing in my head. Matobato’s gruesome tales of murder and severed body parts seemed to have summoned Rodrigo Amarante’s “Tuyo” at will, its serpentine notes transporting the Philippine senate to Narcos’ early ’90s Colombia, a nation beset by drugs and widespread murder. He helped kill suspected drug pushers, rapists and snatchers, Matobato said. “Soy el fuego que arde tu piel. They would slice their stomachs open, he said, so the dead bodies wouldn’t float in sea. “Soy el agua que mata tu sed.” They carried extra guns and planted them on dead, unarmed bodies. “El castillo, la torre yo soy.” It’s murder testimony you can dance the Bolero to.

I don’t know if any of it is true. His testimony could very well be like Narcos — a largely fictional dramatization based on real events. Maybe the whole country’s been binge-watching Narcos. Dead bodies keep turning up in our streets despite a supposed state of emergency, as if we’re reviving Los Pepes-era Colombia like a pop culture trend ripe for resurgence. Life imitates art loosely based on real life.

It seems PNP chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa is living in his own fictional world because he flew to Colombia this week to “observe what they did to win the war on drugs.” Spoiler alert: they didn’t. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has admitted this himself and is proposing a more “human solution” to the drug problem. “We make a huge effort, we sweat and suddenly I look left, I look right and we are in the same place, the (drug) business continues,” he said earlier this year. Colombia waged a war on drugs for decades only to see its cocaine production significantly rise in the last few years.

Abject Failure

You don’t need to do much research to know that the Colombian drug war was an abject failure — you just need to watch Narcos. The Netflix series, which released its second season earlier this month, puts us right at the height of the conflict. On one side is one of the most successful drug lords in history, Pablo Escobar; on the other is a government struggling to capture its country’s biggest criminal because he also doubles as its most powerful private citizen. The results often approach the absurd. When a presidential candidate runs on an anti-drug platform, Escobar assassinates him. When the Supreme Court gathers a mountain of evidence against him, he pays off leftist rebels to attack the Palace of Justice, kill half its judges, and destroy all evidence.

Narcos has a ring of familiarity to it; after all, generations of Filipinos are trained to expect the absurd. But what it projects is a more exaggerated reflection. We don’t brazenly murder our high-profile enemies in this country (at least not anymore); we just remove them from their Senate committee chairmanship. The reflection is also upside down: here private citizens are the ones powerless against the government. We’ll never have a Pablo Escobar because we are not teeming with hectares of coca plantations. What we have is an endless supply of political saviors cultivated from lands fertile with the false hope that one person can lead us to prosperity.

President Rodrigo Duterte is the latest in a long line of would-be saviors, promising change and a better Philippines. The difference this time is that there are more dead bodies and packaging tape involved. This time, the change that has come is straight out of Narcos. In Season 2, a vigilante group called Los Pepes hits back, murdering everyone associated with Escobar and his Medellin cartel, displaying their dismembered body parts in public, and labeling them as traffickers and criminals via cardboard signs. Los Pepes wreaked havoc in the early ’90s, right when Duterte was serving his first couple of terms as Davao City Mayor. The reflection may have been cast a long time ago.

Learning from Colombia

If there is indeed any aping going on, whether intentional or subliminal, we’re better off staying faithful to the source material. Colombia is already moving away from a war on drugs they know doesn’t work. Yes, they did defeat Pablo Escobar in the end, but it was never a war on billionaire narcos, just like it shouldn’t be a war against tricycle drivers and penniless drug dependents here in the Philippines. As Colombian President Santos has said, this is a human problem. Colombia, for instance, suffers from a lack of farm-to-market roads, a condition that has made coca more lucrative than vegetable crops. Poverty is the illness. Drug trafficking is a symptom, and the failure to see it as such is an act of political malpractice.

Narcos opens with a title card that reads: “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.” Magical realism isn’t as big in this country, where strange things have been happening too often for too long to even register as “magic.” Anything can be real in the Philippines: self-sabotaged revolutions against colonial forces, historical revisionism so powerful that it turns an infamous plunderer and murderer into a hero, the concept of human rights being deemed a “western construct.” In a place where anything can be real, nothing really is. Right now we’re in a maelstrom of witness testimonies from self-avowed criminals, privileged speeches from partisan lawmakers, outrageous statements from the highest official in the land, and an ever-rising body count — a series of facts, fictions, and half-truths that blend into a single noise, often disguised as Internet discourse. Real people are dying and we’re turning into a TV show.

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Tweet the author @ColonialMental.

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