Narcos: Trafficking in Stereotypes

By: Kevin McDonnell

NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, N.Y. – It seems that every day new stories emerge in American news that focus on the prevalence of drug cartels in our society. Whether it be President Trump or the trial of the infamous drug lord El Chapo, the allure of drug crime stories seems inescapable. This interest is bolstered even further with Netflix’s production of both “Narcos” and “Narcos: Mexico,” released to the subscription service for a first season late last year.

While the drama and action in these shows are certainly fascinating, it pains me to say, as an avid fan myself, that drugs might not be the only things these shows are trafficking in, but stereotypes as well. You do not have to travel far to see negative stereotypes of Latino, Latina and Latinx people within American society. Unfortunately, our media conversation lately has been obsessed with the narrative of immigration as a policy issue and with it comes age-old conversations that often center around “nativism.” The thing with stereotyping, especially within news, is it’s all too easy to reciprocate and reproduce. Not only is it often rooted in recurring and historically racially-based narratives, it aided by our implicit biases which are born out of the representations of people we have been exposed to over time.

In the case of “Narcos”, it’s easy to recognize with adept clarity the major problem with the two versions of the series. While both adaptations take on historical dramatizations of the rise of the major drug cartels through the lens of an individual DEA agent, it supports a narrative of inherent criminality associated with people of color. Now before we get ahead ourselves let’s make one thing clear: I am not stating that representing convicted criminals as engaging in criminal activity is the issue at hand. Rather, in a media market already overcrowded with content predominantly focused on all-white casts and stories, it can often seem like the only stories that truly capture American audiences outside of those narratives are ones in which people of color are represented in a poor light. This is only further supported by a historically lackluster approach by American news organizations to cover the region of Latin American with depth.

That is not to say that all the things that the “Narcos” franchise does are seemingly horrible. In one major point to its credit, the show is filmed almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles. It would’ve been easy for the show to distend our disbelief and portray the events in English, but filming it in its native language adds a contextual element that certainly adds for richer storytelling. While the show often offers what are considered traditional portrayals of masculinity, the character of Pacho Herrera, a homosexual leader of the Cali cartel, redefines representations of what it means to be gay and the confines of masculinity. If nothing else, we should look to “Narcos” as an example to view all the shows we watch critically and understand the role media can play in shaping our worldview for better or for worse.

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