Narcos Continues Without Pablo Escobar As The Battle Turns To The Cali Cartel

After two seasons covering the wild, labyrinthine and monstrous legacy left by Pablo Escobar, Narcos begins the slow crawl out from under his shadow.


A third season is a difficult time for any show. Though all of the characters and beats of the series have been well established, Season 3 still has to be different enough to engage fans while feeling like the same show.

Pedro Pascal in Narcos season three

That challenge is especially difficult for one of Netflix’s most addicting and compelling dramas, Narcos. After two seasons of exploring the complicated anti-hero that was Pablo Escobar, last year the show ended with Escobar’s death.

The series creators have already confirmed that future seasons of Narcos will explore different Colombian cartels and how the cocaine trade affected Colombia, Latin America, and the United States. However, Narcos was originally a series created around one historical figure, and continuing this critically-acclaimed story without that figure is a tall order. What is an Escobar-free season of the Escobar drama supposed to look like? During a panel for the series, Decider found out how the series adjusted to this challenge and created one of the strongest arcs of television of the year.


In its third season, Narcos is trading out Escobar to focus on the Gentlemen of Cali. The Cali Cartel was composed of four members — Gilberto Rodríguez Orejuela, Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, José Santacruz Londoño, and their New York-based money laundering extraordinary Hélmer Herrera, aka “Pacho.” At the beginning, the Cali Cartel specialized in high-valued kidnappings before they moved into marijuana trafficking and later the much more profitable business of smuggling cocaine.

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“During their height, they were able to control 85 percent of the cocaine that arrived in the United States as well as 90 percent worldwide,” Chris Fiestl, a former DEA agent who was consulted for the show and who was a main source for William Rempel’s book, said. “They took control of many of the U.S. cities to include New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles — you name it.”

The Cali Cartel carried out its crimes in a different way than Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. Whereas the Medellín Cartel was known for violence, the Cali Cartel was more subtle, working to ensure they were as close to a legitimate business as possible. This transition, between the outspoken and clearly nefarious Medellín Cartel and the underhanded Cali Cartel is a huge source of tension for the law enforcement officers in Narcos Season 3.

Medellin Cartel headed by Pablo Escobar

“Between the four [heads of the Cali Cartel], they owned well over 6,000 pieces of property. At one point, at their height, they were responsible for 40 percent of the economic development in Cali. So these guys were specialized in rapidly reinvesting money back into Cali, in construction, buying properties, and so on and so forth,” Fiestl said. In their heyday, the Cali Cartel owned over 400 drugstores and invested in banks as well as a world-renowned soccer team. “I think we’ve seen from Seasons 1 and 2, Pablo and the Medillín cartel were very involved in violence, threats, and coercion. Cali was very low key.”

“I think it’s more interesting. It’s more complex,” director Andrés Baiz said of Season 3’s focus on the Cali Cartel. Baiz, who has directed eight episodes of the series, is responsible for some of the show’s most thrilling episodes to date. This new season’s focus on Cali is especially important to the director because he was a teenager when the Cali Cartel was in power.

Baiz described it as living in a bubble. “Living in Cali during those times was actually great. Cali was booming economically, and we had one of the best soccer teams in the world,” he said. However, there was a dark side. “Every sector of the community was involved in drug trafficking in one way or another.”

Juan Pablo Gutierrez/NETFLIX

“It’s easy to make an analogy with drugs,” Baiz said of the Cali Cartel’s rise and fall. “The more intense the high, the harder the fall. When Cali happened it was the same thing. Once the bubble was popped, we realized we were living in lies. We were living in this fake reality.”

The director also discussed who the series has been received in Colombia. According to Baiz, there is some controversy around Narcos because many of the characters are not portrayed by Colombian actors. However, he thinks the series has ultimately been a good way to introduce a more global audience to Colombia’s rich history.

“One thing I think the show has done really well is that it has opened eyes of the world to what we lived through. You know, the problems and the conflicts and the political situation and how much we struggled and how many people died in the struggle,” he said. “The perspective shifts. Now it’s like ‘I admire your country.’”

A large part of Narcos’ success as a drama comes from its dedication to facts and history. Even though not every character has a real life counterpart and many of the situations are imagined, the well-researched series takes care to stick to the facts. “There’s a lot of fictionalizing that’s not fiction,” said Rempel. “The truth of it — the greater truth — is still all through it. And that, from the standpoint of a writer, who stuck to the facts for the most part, it’s great to see it treated dramatically with such respect for the facts and the truth of it.”

True to Narcos’ form, even the characters in this new season will blend fact and fiction. Pedro Pascal will return as Agent Javier Pena, even though the real Agent Pena wasn’t very involved in the take down of the Cali Cartel. “The actual Pena didn’t retire until Netflix started paying him,” Pascal joked.

But even more interestingly, this new season will introduce Jorge Salcedo (Matías Varela), a former head of security for the Cali Cartel who was instrumental in bringing down the organization. The complicated man is the primary subject of Rempel’s book. According to Rempel, “He embodies that dilemma that Colombia’s gone through.”