“El Chapo is in jail. Pablo Escobar was killed. And what happened to the drug trade? Is it over?”
Narcos star Wagner Moura, an expert on the history of the war on drugs and the life of the egomaniacal Colombian cocaine lord whose reign of terror once amassed a fortune of $30 billion, wants to know.
“The War on Drugs is a big flop,” he continues, heatedly. “Especially for those of us who live in countries that export and produce drugs. Those are the places where those wars are taking place, and still happening. The amount of people who are being killed in that war, I’m sure it’s bigger than the amount of people who are dying of overdoses.”
“I’m not saying addiction isn’t a big problem,” he continues. “I really think it is. But it should be treated as a health problem, not as a police or military problem... I always thought drugs should be legalized and now, just by doing [Narcos], it reinforced that.”
Moura echoes what drug reform advocates have shouted for years over the din of political hysteria in the U.S., and what is often ignored in favor of draconian drug policies and bloody overseas campaigns: supply depends on demand—and America’s demand for and addiction to drugs has hardly diminished in the 45 years since President Nixon first declared his “war.”
Even the deaths of criminal figures like Escobar, the head of the infamous Medellin Cartel who was fatally shot by a mystery assassin while fleeing the Colombian National Police in 1993, have done little to curb the power of cartels in Latin America. Moura, a native Brazilian who has spent the last two years studying and embodying Escobar for the hit Netflix series, knows this well.
“Killing and sending drug dealers to prison is not solely the problem,” he says. “This is not the point. After you incarcerate the drug lord, of course it represents a defeat to the drug cartels, but it’s not gonna end them.”
Tell that to the American DEA agents who made it their mission to hunt down and kill Escobar, no matter the moral or human cost.
The questionable tactics and allegiances Americans employed in their pursuit of Escobar is one of about a thousand intertwined historical threads explored in Season Two of the Netflix show, which picks up hours after Escobar’s dramatic escape from La Catedral, his self-made luxurious “prison” home, after Colombian police and military blast their way inside.
Escobar flees into the jungle, then emerges, unscathed, despite the dozen or so policemen’s guns pointed at him—a testament to the mythic power his reputation still wields. And in his hometown Medellin, where Escobar is regarded as a folk hero, he finds not only shelter and protection but rabid adoration, thanks to his habit of benevolently handing out cash to locals.
And that’s the thing about Escobar that Moura, who was nominated for a Golden Globe last year for his performance, captures so deftly: that contradiction between the myth—as cops wait to ensnare Escobar in the jungle, for instance, one nervously yammers on about the kingpin’s supposed ability to deflect bullets and rise from the dead—and the paunchy, middle-aged man.
As Escobar the figure of terror, ego, and brutality, Moura is terrifying, moving with a calm, deadly precision. And yet, as Escobar the doting father, fiercely loving husband, and loyal son—one with an amusingly incongruent affection for nautical-themed sweatshirts—Moura makes him seem normal, even endearing at times.
And hence the strength of Narcos Season Two, which does away with some of the frillier touches of Season One (DEA agent Steve Murphy’s marital woes come to mind) and smartly transforms into an engrossing character drama instead, focusing on the collapse of Escobar’s empire and the fallout among his family, friends, and foes in the last 18 months of his life.
While Season One spanned the first 15 years of Escobar’s rise to power, Season Two narrows in on the last 18 months of his life, time spent in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game that sees the once-invincible kingpin begin to unravel.
“Pablo is losing his power, his family, and his money,” Moura explains. “It wasn’t the Pablo we were used to, the powerful man. Sometimes I really didn’t know how he would react to those situations, so I just kind of put myself in those shoes and thought, ‘What would I do?’ It was not easy.”
Moura went to drastic lengths to embody the role before production. He gained 40 pounds, left his family behind for a year to live in Bogota (they joined him in his second year there), enrolled in Spanish classes, and read every book about Escobar he could get his hands on in an effort to bring nuance and authenticity to the story of a man who still looms large in modern Colombians’ lives.
“My friends in Colombia, they all remember the bombings in Bogota and they all know someone who was killed in that war,” Moura says. “It’s a very recent scar in their history. I’m 40 years old and everybody my age lived that.
“At the same time,” he continues, “Colombians in general are kind of sick of narcos. They’ve become such a modern country and it’s amazing how they’ve reconstructed in the last 25 years. They are the second-biggest economy in South America. Bogota is a very culturally cool city. So for them, when they show their passport and people go, ‘Oh, Colombia, cocaine, Pablo Escobar!’ It’s like, ‘Ugh, come on.’”
Moura, who is Brazilian, remains hyper-aware of his responsibility to retell Escobar’s story accurately, in a way that doesn’t exploit the recent deaths of Colombians for American entertainment. Most Colombians he bumps into, he says, “really enjoy the show.” And he stresses the importance of not burying the past, but confronting and learning from it instead—especially through art.
But when asked if he’s relieved to be leaving Escobar behind for good, Moura lets out a long sigh, then a laugh, transparently giddy to have finally shed the weight (literally—he’s lost 34 of those 40 pounds already) of a figure as ignominious as Escobar.
“Doing Narcos is a very, very important part of my life,” he begins, dutifully. “I dedicated so much of my life to it. I moved to Colombia and even took my kids to live there with me, but at the end of the day, I was kind of sick [of it.] It was hard to live with that character. It’s a great character for an actor to play, but it’s not a nice energy to deal with every day. Killing and other bad things... I was really relieved to wrap it.”
Moura promptly went on a “severe” diet, threw himself back into his favorite sport, Jiu Jitsu, and moved his family back to Rio de Janeiro, where he says he’ll be taking a much-needed break from acting. His next project will be his directorial debut: a biopic of a ’70s Brazilian revolutionary that confronts scars in his own home country’s recent past.
“In Brazil we had a dictatorship that lasted from ’64 to ’85,” he explains, “and an amnesty law that basically forgave all the military [officers] who tortured and killed people. And we kind of don’t talk about it. I think it’s important to talk about it. Films, theater, music, and art exist to put a mirror in front of us, [not only] on our individual perspectives as human beings but also on society, history, and our political lives.”
And while he’s left Escobar behind, Moura still sees the injustices that fostered his rise in modern-day Latin America. In Rio, he sees it in the favelas, where the “only face of the state” the poor see is police, rather than in funding for hospitals or schools. He stresses that poverty is part of what left Medellin vulnerable to the rule of a seemingly Robin Hood-like figure like Escobar.
“These guys cut in places easily, places where poor people live, places that are historically forgotten by the state,” Moura says. “We are talking about citizens that pay taxes but don’t get the same civil rights that rich people have... They’re left vulnerable to patterns of a major economical and/or military force that could come in and just dominate the place.”
It’s a personal issue for Moura, who was appointed a UN Goodwill Ambassador in 2015, and who advocates against child labor and modern slavery—an issue that “touches me deeply,” as he said in an International Labour Organization release about the appointment, “because I grew up in rural Brazil and could see firsthand how poverty forced people to work in harsh, exploitative conditions.”
He’s come a long way since his youth in the small town of Rodelas, starring in Brazil’s highest-ever grossing movie, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, in 2010. Still, he says, his time on Narcos represented something new, and entirely special for him: “the feeling of being Latin American.”
“We are very isolated in South America because we speak Portuguese,” he says with a laugh. “Culturally, it was very important to me to feel for the first time that I was part of something bigger than just being Brazilian.
“One of the things I loved about Narcos was that we had actors from Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, from all Latin America. Just by being there, talking about something that resonated a lot with me, the drug trade, and being in Colombia…” he trails off, nostalgia already seeping into his voice. “It was very important to me.”