Five months ago, I wrote a piece on the Discovery documentary “Finding Escobar’s Millions,” and in it, I touched upon the growing phenomenon of interest surrounding notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Since then, it seems the interest in Escobar and shows centered on drug cartels has only grown, evidenced by the recent success of “Narcos” and other “Narcos”-related TV shows. Most recently, the new Netflix series “Amo” has started its own fair share of controversy.
“Amo” is being dubbed the “Filipino Narcos” due to its focus on the ongoing drug crackdown in the Philippines. It centers around a high school student named Joseph (Vince Rillon, “Fallback”) who slowly gets drawn into the dangerous underworld surrounding the drug trade in Manila. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Filipino drug war has claimed over 12,000 lives, “mostly from poor families in urban centers across the country.” Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign has been relentless, endangering not only suspected drug users, but also anyone who dares to speak out against it.
Critics of “Amo” believe that its portrayal of the gritty underworld surrounding the drug trade inadvertently (or for some, purposefully) acts as pro-Duterte propaganda. According to the BBC, some officials from the Human Rights Watch believe that it belies the reality of the crackdown, especially undermining the brutality and ruthlessness of Duterte’s forces. Some have even tried to convince Netflix to remove the show from its catalog. For its part, Netflix has essentially stated they’re leaving it up to the audience to decide whether or not they want to watch “Amo,” and the show’s creator Brillante Mendoza has argued against the view that the show is pro-Duterte propaganda (though it is worth noting Mendoza is a public Duterte supporter).
Colombians themselves are not necessarily the biggest fans of “Narcos,” but for slightly different reasons. According to a journalist from France 24, many Colombians feel that “Narcos” paints a stereotypical, damaging view of the country in order to gain viewership. However, Escobar’s son himself has stated that he believes that “Narcos”’s main harm is glorifying the life of his father and his henchman.
“Narcos,” “Amo” and “El Chapo” (another “Narcos”-esque Netflix series) are neither the first nor the only shows to be criticized for what some believe is glorification of violence and the drug trade. Violence has been a draw for viewers for a while and will continue to be so for years to come. Films and TV shows such as “The Godfather,” “Scarface” and “The Wire” have captivated audiences for decades due their gritty, realistic portrayal of criminal underworlds. While the aforementioned shows are closer to “Narcos” and “Amo” in tone (meddling the truth at points for dramatic effect), they do act as accurate representations of real, brutal conflicts. That’s why these shows are marketed towards adults. Adults should be able to separate entertainment and fact and realize that not everything in them should be taken at face value and that certain aspects of the real-life situation are dialed up for the purposes of entertainment.
It is true that younger viewers of these shows may be attracted to the fast, action-packed lifestyles that these shows portray, but adults should be able to recognize that they also show the destructive effects of said lifestyles. Just as mature viewers should look beyond the glitz and glamour of “The Wolf of Wall Street” to see the true effects of Jordan Belfort’s actions, they should see beyond the money and violence of shows such as “Narcos.”
Men such as Escobar, while unequivocally monsters, were also human. While it is tempting to portray such evil men as caricatures of evil, the reality is that they were rather complex characters who sometimes managed to do some good. Escobar, for example, is seen as a Robin Hood figure by some, gifting some of Medellin’s poorest neighborhoods with cash and building valuable infrastructure, such as soccer fields and improved street lighting. Showing the human side of such people should not be equated with glorifying them. In the case of a current conflict such as the Filipino drug war, viewers should not necessarily avoid watching a show like “Amo,” but should also inform themselves about the conflict and the creator’s potential biases in order to have a more nuanced view of the topic.
While it is not realistic to expect the majority of viewers to do supplemental research, people should not work to ban shows that depict such conflicts. There are perfectly reasonable and potentially completely accurate arguments against such shows, but it would be more productive to hold a conversation about where a show falls short and educate a wider audience about a topic rather than try to ban a show.