Colombia beyond ‘Narcos’

Jason Ruiz, associate professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, does a near-perfect impression of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Steve Murphy, the fictionalized American narrator of Netflix’s “Narcos.”

For those familiar with the series, Ruiz’s take on Murphy’s breathy, legato, Floridian drawl is unmistakable — and dead funny. In a voice-over shot in episode three, Agent Murphy invites the viewer into Pablo Escobar’s perspective:

“Imagine you were born in a poor family, in a poor city, in a poor country, and by the time you were 28 years old, you have so much money you can’t even count it. What do you do? You make your dreams come true.”

A man stands against a colorful wall of murals.
Jason Ruiz's research trip won funding from Notre Dame Global's Insider Project, a program designed for custom research and study trips.

Escobar was the kingpin of the Colombian cocaine empire and remains the wealthiest criminal in history. Nationally, more than 46,000 Colombians lost their lives to narco-related violence between 1983 and 1994. Cartel assassinations, many of which were directly ordered by Escobar, included several judges, governors and journalists and at least two Colombian presidential candidates.

Still, the Escobar of “Narcos” is styled as an enterprising, if flawed, American dreamer.

But to hear Ruiz, and several Colombians, describe the impact of uncritical consumption of American pop culture is to sit with dead-serious questions of nationality, race, justice and love of neighbor.

The context for this storytelling? A winter break research and study trip with five undergraduates in Cali and Medellín, Colombia.

The setting? A conference room in a white marble, one-level home whose original owner was a leader of the Cali drug cartel. Complete with lush terrace gardens and a wading pool with a walk-in ramp for cartel horses, the property entered the process of government expropriation after the war. ICESI University, located next door, agreed to steward the property and uses the space for classes, meetings, events and research.

The skyline of Cali, Colombia where tall buildings and trees stand.
A view of Cerro de Las Tres Cruces (Hill of Three Crosses) in Cali, Colombia.

A narco mansion in slow decline beside a thriving modern research university is an instructive image for the questions at the heart of this endeavor:

How does a country with a traumatic, violent past mark progress and rebuild its reputation?

In what ways does American pop culture, especially narco media, frame Latinos and Latin America in relation to the War on Drugs?

In keeping with his current research, Ruiz titled the trip with a hopeful flourish.

“Beyond Narcos: From the war on drugs to the coming peace” won funding from Notre Dame Global’s Insider Project, a program designed for custom, ad hoc research and study trips that provide students and faculty with unique opportunities for global education and research.

“The Insider Project is such a great idea,” Ruiz said. “There are no grades and no papers; you just gather students for the sake of learning.”

This learning covered two Colombian cities, several forms of Colombian agriculture, urban walking tours, lunch with Venezuelan migrants, a great deal of listening and even some salsa dancing.

Plant Stories

One way Ruiz describes his current research is by opening with a question: “When you think of Colombia, what is the first word that comes to mind?”

“For too long, that word has been cocaine,” Ruiz will say. “Colombia is a gorgeous, friendly country with a horrible reputation.”

While one plant has gained outsize association with Colombia, several others have significant cultural histories, including sugar cane, coffee, bananas, rice and cocoa. Just outside of Cali, in western Colombia’s Valle del Cauca, the main cash crop is sugar cane, and it grows year round. For 500 years, sugar cane has been a major driver of economic growth in the region.

A man on a bike rides down a dirt path surrounded by sugar cane, moutains are faded in the background.
Just outside of Cali, the main cash crop is sugar cane, and it grows year round.

On a trip to Museo de la caña de Azúcar (Sugar Cane Museum), a tour guide led groups on a history of sugar cane farming in the region, told through the mechanisms and simple machines that were used in the production of sugar cane.

The museum’s tickets contain a message to visitors. In translation, it reads: “This is your pass to a wonderful experience where you can meet and explore all the sweet universe behind the sugar cane, while doing a tour in perfect balance with nature. Enjoy.”

The museum, with its outdoor tour of human- to animal- to machine-powered sugar cane extraction devices, is aesthetically and intellectually enjoyable — up to a point. As with plantation tours in the American South, critical engagement with Colombian regional agricultural and economic history means acknowledging this development is due, in part or in whole, to the enslavement and forced labor of Africans.

Tall trees, sugar cane, and bright flowers surround an empty path through the sugar cane museum.
Vegetation at the Sugar Cane Museum.
A group of people walk down a path on a tour of the sugar cane museum.
Groups learn the agricultural history of sugar cane.

Sugar cane, like coca, and the people working closest to it, became violently appropriated by and ensnared in the stories of the product’s buyers and sellers.

Notre Dame students were introduced to the complex history of these crops — cultural, social, spiritual and political — by a series of experts.

David Restrepo, a Cali native and graduate of Middlebury College and London School of Economics, is a management consultant working in drug policy reform and innovation in Colombia and Peru. His focus is researching and developing the sustainable and beneficial uses of the coca leaf, particularly its medicinal applications.

In a presentation to the Notre Dame group, Restrepo said there is evidence of coca in use by indigenous people as far back as 6000 B.C. Coca leaf chewing has traditionally been a home remedy for indigestion, altitude sickness, toothaches and general pain relief, and an important means of cultural and spiritual connection within indigenous communities.

A man stands next to a large monitor and presents to a group of people sitting down at a table.
David Restrepo, a Cali native and graduate of Middlebury College and London School of Economics, presents to the Notre Dame group about developing the sustainable and beneficial uses of the coca leaf in medicinal applications.

Coca, whose leaves are used to synthesize cocaine, grows mainly in the countryside, but can also be spotted in urban spaces. With its small white flowers, green and red berries, and a distinctive multi-vein leaf structure, coca is a beautiful plant. It takes thousands of coca plants to make cocaine, and it is legal for Colombians to own up to 19.

Still, coca’s physical and psychoactive properties are not the whole story, according to Restrepo.

“The violent stigma that surrounds cocaine obscures the far older and wider social meanings of coca leaf itself,” he said. “For millennia, coca has been an integral part of rituals and exchanges that strengthen community bonds, agreements and spiritual connectedness.”

A pile of dried coca leaves.
Dried coca leaves.

“Coca’s ancestral culture is all about building community through the art of storytelling, thoughtful communication and shared work — all of which are crucial to maintaining the health of individuals and groups,” Restrepo said. “In this manner, coca culture stands in sharp contrast to the West’s individualism and isolation. Arguably, these latter qualities drive social malaise and trigger problematic drug use in vulnerable people.”

Cocaine remains the largest illicit market in the world, and research indicates prohibition fuels violent conflict and social decay.

“If trying to drive the coca plant to extinction has only fostered its negative uses, could coca’s positive uses stand a better chance through a path of acceptance and scientific research?” Restrepo asked.

Before ‘Narcos’

According to Ruiz, American obsession with narco media began long before Agent Murphy intoned on literary genre:

“There’s a reason magical realism was born in Colombia. It’s a country where dreams and reality are conflated — where, in their heads, people fly as high as Icarus. But even magical realism has its limits …”

While the way “Narcos” frames the story of Escobar and Colombia may be questionable to some, Ruiz pointed out these problems are symptomatic of deeply entrenched cultural ills. The socio-political climate of late 1970s and early 1980s America was especially favorable for the rise of narco media.

The Nov. 23, 1981, cover story of TIME showed a picture of Florida with the headline: “Paradise Lost?” The block letters of “South Florida” below the headline contain smaller images of drug traffickers, paraphernalia and policing efforts.

In a span of months from 1983-84, the following events took place:

  • “Miami Vice” and Oliver Stone’s “Scarface” premiered.

  • Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” campaign to encourage children to reject experimentation with drugs.

  • The DEA confiscated 4,000 pounds of cocaine in Miami, leading to Pablo Escobar’s indictments.

Nancy Reagan stands in front of a podiam as young children stand behind her in green t-shirts that say “Just Say No”.
First Lady Nancy Reagan actively campaigned against drug use by children. The children in this photograph are wearing t-shirts printed with her well-known "Just Say No" campaign slogan. Source: National Archives, Records of the United States Customs Service

“The American public then bought the War on Drugs, in large part influenced by pop culture,” Ruiz said.

“Miami Vice” began a spate of pop culture material that looks at efforts to staunch the drug trade, and it ran for five seasons. The villains were Colombians, few of whom had names or faces.

Oliver Stone shot “Scarface” (played by Al Pacino) in 1982. Main character Tony Montana of this era was a Cuban-American immigrant. In the 1932 version, Montana had been an Italian immigrant bootlegger and a gangster. With themes of scrappy American dreaming, these films are also linked by anti-immigrant sentiment, Ruiz noted.

He said these shows tap into American public consciousness by tying immigration, drugs and people of color together as security threats, and also that a focus on individual characters — whether portrayed as heroes or anti-heroes — might increase television viewership, but obscures the real issues of the drug trade.

“The problem with the kingpin trope is that it focuses less on systemic problems and more on individual choices and moral failings,” he said.

With an 18:1 crack vs. powder cocaine disparity in prison sentencing, research shows people of color are disproportionately policed and sentenced for drug offenses in the United States.

Part of Ruiz’s research on narco media and its impact pursues this question: Can we link the disparities in how drugs are policed to popular perceptions of narcotics that circulate in media representations?

A man stands next to a large monitor and presents to a group of people sitting down at a table.
Ruiz presents to Notre Dame students about Narco media.

Moreover, this history of narco media has a long prehistory. As early as the 19th century, people of color, drugs and immigration were linked in the American consciousness, but at that time, the focus was Chinese immigrants. Reporting and advertising from the era show white women having their Victorian values corrupted by the lure of opium dens in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“These fictional representations have ramifications,” Ruiz said. “They do not appear in a vacuum, and the meanings of drugs in American consciousness have had a major impact on Colombia.”

Complementing this humanities and cultural context was a political and policy-focused lecture by Ruiz’s husband.

Juan Guillermo Albarracín, assistant professor of political science and director of undergraduate studies at ICESI University, earned his doctorate in political science from Notre Dame in 2018. A native of Cali, Albarracín grew up during much of the conflict depicted in “Narcos.” His research focuses on political and criminal violence, criminal governance and transitional justice, as well as electoral and party politics.

According to Albarracín, drug trade policies — and drug policies in general — became more prohibitionist and their implementation more repressive over the past century.

Outside surrounded by lush greenery, a man speaks to a group of students.
Juan Guillermo Albarracín (right), Cali native and assistant professor of political science at ICESI University, describes the socio-economic history of the Valle del Cauca.

“The current prohibitionist international regime that regulates drug production and trade reflects the normative views and policies of the United States and has little regard for the realities of other countries,” Albarracín said.

Prohibition policies and their implementation, which include strategies such as decapitation (targeting cartel heads) and interdiction (disrupting the flow of drugs between countries), have yielded no significant overall reduction in production and consumption worldwide, according to Albarracín.

He said the costs of the war on drugs have been high and unequally distributed, with Latin Americans and minority communities in the United States paying a disproportionate share of the costs of this war.

“Drug policy would be radically different in the United States, and Colombia would be radically different, if research guided policy,” Albarracín added. “This should be framed less as a security issue and more as a public health issue, with a stronger emphasis on, and funding for, harm reduction policies and consumption prevention strategies.”

In Colombia, this would include a stronger emphasis on voluntary substitution of drug precursor crops (plants that in and of themselves are not drugs) and community development and less insistence on forced eradication.”

Neighbors in Need

On day four, the Notre Dame group delivered supplies to the Archdiocese of Cali’s office for assisting migrants. Padre Jorge Andrés Segura explained that in the last century, Colombians have more commonly been migrants, with hundreds of thousands fleeing in the 1980s and 1990s during the Colombian civil war. Many of those Colombians went to Venezuela, where the economy was then booming.

Since the beginning of 2015, however, more than 3 million people have fled Venezuela due to economic and political upheaval, and Colombia alone has accepted 1 million Venezuelan migrants. Colombia’s President Iván Duque supports keeping open borders, and Venezuelan migrants are given two-year visas and work permits when they are admitted.

In March 2018, when migrants began moving to and through Cali, Padre Jorge said many were middle class and had some resources. Now, however, this central hub for Venezuelan migrants is seeing a larger influx of lower-income, higher-need migrants, and the Archdiocese is working on the front lines with support from the United Nations High Council for Refugees, Norwegian Refugee Council, Heartland Alliance and many other organizations to serve the needs of this vulnerable population.

As of December 2018, there are more than 40,000 Venezuelan migrants in Cali alone, and some of them had formed an encampment by the river in the center of the city. Padre Jorge said the archdiocese is working with the city to find safe, semi-permanent and permanent housing for them.

The five students and faculty helped serve lunch at a soup kitchen for migrants, and several students said this was the highlight of their week in Colombia.

A woman passes out bowls of soup to a table of people.
Senior Bailey Kendall helps serve lunch to Venezuelan migrants at a kitchen run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Cali.
A man feeds his young son with a spoon.
A migrant man feeds his young son.
A group of people walk down a path on a tour of the sugar cane museum.
Irla Atanda speaks to migrants during lunch.

Irla Atanda, originally from Jacksonville, Florida, is a junior American studies major who is minoring in international development studies and business economics.

Reflecting on the afternoon spent with the Venezuelan population in Cali, she said: “Given my academic focus, I am constantly looking at the intersectionality of different social barriers.”

For Atanda, a pivotal moment was talking to a woman who had been a physics teacher in Venezuela, but fled with her son to Colombia to seek a better life.

“I will return this summer to Colombia to pursue research on highly skilled and highly educated Venezuelan immigrants and their access to, or social barriers from, the labor market in Colombia,” Atanda said. “I specifically want to focus on gender and family ties, and potentially ethnicity, and how they affect the acquisition of a job that matches skill level.”

With heads and hearts full with the beauty of Valle del Cauca, and an afternoon of salsa dancing lessons, the Notre Dame group flew to Medellín.


Medellín tour guide Carlos Palau wanted to be a television journalist when he was growing up, but when he saw reporters becoming targets of the drug cartel, he joined the National Police and took up a first post in Bogotá. He believed it might be a safer, and still noble, line of work.

But Pablo Escobar’s infamous proposition, “Plata o plomo?” (silver or lead?) soon became a daily decision. For Palau, the draw of earning nearly $1,000 USD for five minutes of looking the other way in nonviolent criminal exchanges far outweighed earning $20 per month in regular police pay.

“The day I received my police uniform, I became a target to the cartel,” Palau said. “About 80 percent of the police were corrupted. I was corrupted, too.” Eventually, the cartel’s asks of Palau escalated to violence, and he and his family sought asylum in Miami, returning to Colombia in 2009.

With Palau’s frightening, confessional tale as backdrop, the tour bus wound through the streets of Medellín to sites connected to the life and death of Escobar: the Monaco Building, Escobar’s eight-story residence; the house where Escobar was born; the rooftop where he died in a 1993 shootout with Colombian police; his grave; and La Catedral, the luxury prison Escobar built for himself in the mountains to avoid extradition to the United States — and from which he escaped in 1992.

Colorful buildings on a street with Pablo Escobar themed signs advertising souvenirs and other items.
Shops that sell items related to Pablo Escobar.

There is palpable tension in this kind of tourism, and Ruiz had prepared the group for it.

Each time he mentioned the forthcoming Pablo Escobar tour, he reached over his head into the air and mimed putting on a hat, saying, “Carefully donning our critical-thinking caps, we will examine how narco tourism frames the narrative of the cartel era.”

This preparation came in handy at La Catedral. A shouty 10-foot sign at the entrance of the property, which is now owned by an order of Benedictine monks, insists the site holds nothing of the dreadful time Colombians lived through, and upbraids visitors for their narco tourism.

The Notre Dame group learned more about Medellín’s recent history from Eafit University professors Gustavo Duncan and Jairo Campuzano-Hoyos, the latter of whom earned his 2018 doctorate in history from Notre Dame. It has been more than two decades since Medellín was known as the murder capital of the world, and advances to the city’s security, infrastructure, educational and cultural centers, and business investments are everywhere in view. New metro and cable car systems connect people from all socioeconomic backgrounds from all parts of the city, delivering them to parks, hiking trails, libraries, public art and many other experiences.

Six people lean over a railing overlooking Medellín cable cars.
Ruiz and students enjoy the view overlooking Medellín.
A wide shot of a an urban area filled with street art and cable car lines.
Medellín street art.
Colorful ribbons tied to a fence that say “Transformation”
Ribbons tied to the Monaco Building fence.

Diego Reynoso, sophomore political science and economics major with a minor in Latino studies, said: “The most surprising thing about this experience was seeing the recovery efforts Colombia is making. The fact that a country has a marketing budget to attract tourists shows just how committed Colombians are to bettering their country.”

All the same, when massive increase in tourism to Medellín is directly linked to “Narcos” — a Gringo telling of a traumatic legacy Colombians would like to move beyond — visitors speaking the name of Escobar provokes pained responses.

As Julie Mardini, a senior American studies and Spanish major, put it: “I was surprised by the strength of taboo around Escobar. I knew it was a sensitive subject, but I wasn’t expecting to say the words ‘Pablo Escobar’ on the street and have an entire café full of people turn their heads. I think that taboo, combined with the marketability of his image, makes for a strange, disorienting experience. Colombians are shocked to even hear his name, but people leave flowers at his grave.”

People stand around and listen to a tour guide at Pablo Escobar's grave.
Pablo Escobar's grave. Photo provided by Amanda Skofstad.

Even the current mayor of Medellín, Federico Gutiérrez, describes narco tourism as “predatory,” and on Feb. 22 — exactly six weeks after the Notre Dame group’s tour — he presided over the controlled implosion of the Monaco Building. In an effort to focus storytelling on the victims rather than Escobar, the space will be made into a memorial park.

Escobar’s legacy for some Medellín residents is more akin to Robin Hood’s. In the Barrio Pablo Escobar, which the kingpin funded for low-income families, a massive mural welcomes visitors with the message: “Here, one breathes peace.” One teenaged boy in the barrio shared pictures of himself with Escobar’s adult son in front of the mural and said he and his family are proud to live there. He swiped to a photo of a counterfeit $10,000 bill and said that Americans love Escobar so much they put him on their money.

A large and colorful mural of Pablo Escobar and a written message “Welcome to the Pablo Escobar neighborhood”.
A mural welcomes visitors to the Barrio Pablo Escobar with the message "Here, one breathes peace."

For Palau, giving tours of Medellín and talking about the past has been therapeutic. When he returned to Colombia, he told his mother his goal was to live longer than Escobar’s 44 years, and he is now 47.

“Now I am born again and three years free,” Palau said. “Medellín is not Pablo Escobar.”

Ruiz echoed this sentiment, saying: “While tourists often arrive with a macabre fascination with the narco era, people like Carlos, Jairo and Gustavo actively work to transform that interest into an appreciation for the resilience and beauty of the people of Medellín.”

At the conclusion of the trip, the students took a walking tour of Medellín, which finished at a mostly empty plaza with two bird sculptures by Fernando Botero.

Botero, a native son of Medellín, has donated dozens of his trademark sculptures with exaggerated body proportions to spaces of public art in his hometown. When a 1995 bombing destroyed his first bird sculpture, Botero responded by having it reassembled with the bombing victims’ names engraved on a plaque below it. In 2000, he donated an identical second bird, and the two sit side by side in San Antonio Plaza.

Botero titled them “The Birds of Peace.”