Every story needs a bad guy and when it comes to cartels they aren’t exactly in short supply. While there has been occasional landmark shows that have realistically portrayed what it’s like on the front line of the war on drugs / the war on trying to manufacture and SELL them like The Wire in the US and authentic mini series in the vein of the amazing Top Boy from here in the UK. It would not be that much of a stretch to suggest that Breaking Bad was the defining moment where the narcotics narrative was truly taken into the mainstream in a tv show in the sense that people from all walks of life fully submerged themselves into. As gritty and as real as The Wire was, it was, frustratingly, not one of those shows that you would find everyone talking about round the water cooler the next day at work. Breaking Bad changed that and as such, deserves it place in the upper echelons of tv shows that were game changers in their field. The type of show like a Sopranos or a Game Of Thrones that the masses will forever class as “next level.”
As is generally the case. If a show is a resounding success it doesn’t take long for other writers and producers to want in on the act and it has been no surprise at all to see the various drug cartel related shows that have followed Walter White and Jesse Pinkman’s escapades. Most notably the excellent Netflix produced “Narcos” which took things out of America and into Colombia where, for a time, the REAL action took place in cartel land as it followed the story of the most famous drug kingpin of them all, Pablo Escobar. Documenting his dealings with the Colombian authorities, the war America and it’s DEA had waged on him alongside his troubles with the rival Cali cartel. Now having just ended it’s third season andtaking it’s next installment to Mexico where gangs like the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas have went on to make the Colombians committed atrocities look tame by comparison.
As had Breaking Bad create the necessary buzz for Narcos to reach it’s target audience, in turn Narcos (and it’s frequency of using subtitles) has now opened the gates for some hidden Spanish speaking gems from Latin America that were most likely never intended for a wider audience in the West. However, through being in the right place at the right time have found themselves with a new breed of viewer desperate to get their cartel fix after feeling the loss of their favourite shows coming to an end. Focusing on both Colombia and Mexico you have the the much more in depth “Escobar : El Patron del Mar” Which was a Colombian telenovela which, clocking in at an unbelievable 74 episodes is only for the hardcore but through the sheer volume of episodes delves way deeper than Narcos was ever possible. Newly added to Netflix has been another Colombian based show “Surviving Escobar” which tells the tale of Escobar’s most infamous sicario, Popeye and his fight for survival after the Meddelin Cartel was broken up. Further north there has been a series of Mexican related cartel shows that have popped up. Most impressively “El Chapo” telling the tale of what is regarded as the modern day Pablo Escobar. Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera. Currently incarcerated in America, Guzman, like Escobar, has an almost Robin Hood mythology to him. Loved by the man in the street but hated by the authorities. Well, the ones that weren’t on his payroll of course. With two seasons filmed so far, this show looks like having a bit of mileage in it before it reaches the point of his capture.
While there are other films and shows dedicated to the head of the Sinalo Cartel, “El Chapo” is the stand out of them all. Special mention however has to go to the also newly released Netflix documentary “The Day I Met EL Chapo” which takes the viewer through the interesting and also downright surreal events of last year when Mexico’s most famous soap opera star, Kate del Castillo along with Sean Penn, under the radar of the DEA ,managed to meet up with the in hiding Guzman while still on the run from the authorities having escaped from the maximum security federal prison, Altiplano.
Ironically however, with all eyes looking towards Colombia and and it’s now modern day equivalent in Mexico. When it comes to Latin America drug cartels one of the most powerful, explosive and exciting “narco” shows to date seemed to fly under the radar. The HBO International Emmy winning Chile release from 2012, Profugos (retitled as Fugitives for the English speaking world) is just that show. With it, Channel 4 created history by making it the first Chilean tv show to appear on a UK network. Profugos follows the fortunes of 4 Chilean underworld figures running (and fighting) for their lives after a drug deal goes disastrously and dangerously wrong. It’s as fast paced as it is violent in this gritty and raw South American tale of double crossing drug cartels, dirty cops and even grubbier politicians with the underlying remnants of post Pinochet Chile woven neatly into the narrative. All the while set to a backdrop of the stunning beauty of the country of Chile be that the harsh and unforgiving Atacama desert, the urban hustle and bustle of the capital, Santiago or the magnificence of the Chilean range of The Andes mountain region.
In a slight nod towards Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Profugos centre’s on a group of hoods (carefully selected on the basis that they barely know each other) while one of the group is actually an undercover policeman. When things soon go wrong it doesn’t take the group long for them to realise that they have a rat in their midst. With this there is understandably trust issues between them yet perversely they know that they need to rely on each other to evade capture from the police on their tail as well as staying alive at the hands of the rival cartel hunting for them.
The four man team consists of the chain smoking Oscar Salamanca, one of the older guard revolutionaries who stood against the brutal General Pinochet regime that ruled the country. Not universally popular with the group, from the offset Salamanca appears to be the appointed boss as is the orders from Kika Ferragut the matriarch of the Ferragut Cartel who has planned the deal from her prison cell. Vicente Ferragut, Son of Kika and freakishly similar to Dave Silva circa Valencia takes his place representing the Cartel. Openly gay, this does not always play well in the homophobic Chilean underworld. Alvaro Parraguez who goes by the name of El Tegui is the undercover police officer who has spent so much of his career under, it appears he can’t come back from it, if he indeed even wants to. So much so that his bosses no longer can confirm if he is to be trusted any more. Last but not least that leaves us with Mario Moreno. The pot bellied, tracksuit top wearing cocaine snorting psychopath with a hidden dark past due to being a collaborator and torturer extraordinaire for Pinochet and now thug and gun for hire mercenary, whichever side. A curious looking man that would look just as suitable as an extra sat in the cafe in Eastenders as he does stood in a Santiago basement gleefully slicing up an opposing cartel member. The type of character that you wouldn’t say no to when running for your life from all sorts of danger but equally someone you’d rather much avoid if possible.
A ruthless quartet, including Tegui who despite being a policeman is not averse to doing what needs done to remain one step ahead, who bring chaos to whatever part of Chile they pass through in their quest to reach the safety of the Argentinian Chilean border. Despite this they are not with our their morals and their empathy which is displayed along the journey in a manner of ways. Well not, Moreno. He’s just a fucking nutcase. If you’re with an ex torturer for a dictator you shouldn’t be holding your breath waiting on them doing something like walking an OAP across the road or holding the door open for someone.
With a potential homage to Breaking Bad (minus a chemistry teacher in baggy underpants) the series begins at breakneck speed with showing the main characters in a high tempo chase, one of them bleeding from a gun shot wound. After setting the scene the rest of the episode goes about going back in time showing the audience how the men in the car arrived at this sticky situation of one close to death with a squad of police cars and vans closing in on them as they question whether they have been double crossed, triple crossed. There must be a mole amongst them but even so which one of them is it and that aside, who is he working for, cops or cartel? Are the police after them or in on the deal with the rival underworld organisation responsible?
While some tv shows are guilty of easing you into them to the point that by the end of episode one you’re left questioning if you’re willing to give it a go in the hope that it will grow on you Profugos episode 1 is the equivalent of shoving an uzi into your face and not affording you any decision in the matter. You’re coming along on the journey with it whether you like it or not! Setting the scene for the explosive end of episode finale which sees the predicament Salamanca, Vicente, El Tegui and Moreno are left in it takes you through how they got there. Traveling from Chile to Bolivia to procure an oil tanker full of liquid cocaine that can’t be detected by sniffer dogs which eventually will be converted into two and a half tonnes of pure coke in what is for the Ferragut Cartel, the deal of a lifetime. With the contents eventually ingeniously transferred into 3,360 bottles of wine all that remains is for the drop to be facilitated with the “European buyers” at Valparaiso docks back in Chile. That however is when things go very, very wrong.
With snipers, including the cold blooded La Rioja an ex paramilitary woman who has killed more people than you’ve had hot dinners this year, assembled on a nearby roof top placed there by by rival cartel leader, Cacho Aguilera and undercover police officers on the ground posing as the buyers it only ever has the ingredients of potential disaster and such is realised with countless dead on the ground amidst sniper fire and explosions. Crucially however, none of the quartet representing the Ferragut family are included in the death toll and somehow manage to escape the docks amidst as frantic chase from the police still standing. This wasn’t part of the plan of Aguilera’s or Marco Oliva the corrupt head of narcotics who is as ruthless as he is dirty. With the crew escaping this sets about a cat and mouse chain of events that stretches from the underworld all the way to the President himself.
Profugos is a masterclass in weaving a tale of death, love, betrayal, mystery, honour and comradeship with more twists and turns than a four thousand mile walk through The Andes. A 13 episode season that drags you along in such an intense fashion as if you were in on the deal with them in the first place. You might need a lie down by the time you’re done with it.
Series one available from Channel 4 online now