On a terra-cotta rooftop in Medellín, Colombia, Pablo Escobar lies crumpled in a pool of blood. Behind the fallen kingpin, a DEA agent and soldiers from the Search Bloc, the Colombian task force commissioned to hunt him down, pose for photos. When they're finished with the trophy shots, Escobar — or rather, the actor playing him, Wagner Moura — gets up from his slouch, smiles, and shakes a few hands.
From a nearby rooftop, paparazzi are, somewhat absurdly, snapping photos of the re-creation, hoping to get a scoop on the pivotal closing sequence for the second season of Netflix's Narcos. The fascination with Escobar has not waned since his death, in 1993. And you'd be hard-pressed to notice a difference between this scene and the Escobar kill photos that were so widely disseminated after the firefight. The guns are the same caliber. The shirts are the same style. Even the blood splatter on Moura's right arm is virtually identical.
"We tried to get the actual house," says Narcos' co–executive producer Paul Marks, "but the person who lived next door didn't want us there. I guess they are just tired of having it brought up." Instead the show filmed the scene in a nearly identical building a few doors down. In fact, apart from two traditional Hollywood-style sets — the DEA office and the U.S. Embassy — the rest of the show is shot on location. Each jungle road, sprawling mansion, and Bogotá slum is the real deal. "Shooting in Colombia makes this show what it is," says Marks. "We could never re-create this."
There are plenty of shows that go to great lengths to reimagine iconic eras — the 1960s ad world re-created so stylishly for Mad Men, for example — but few shows have done it with such horrific material in a place where the wounds are so fresh.
From the beginning, the show's creators knew they wanted to film in Colombia. That meant finding a crew willing to decamp to the country for eight months at a stretch. Instead of relying on big-name actors, they turned to a crew of dedicated up-and-comers willing to upend their lives.
Moura moved to Medellín before he was even formally offered the Escobar role, leaving his wife and three sons at home in his native Brazil. When he landed, he started roaming the streets, visiting all landmarks associated with Escobar. "I think being here by myself helped me attach with Pablo's story," says the actor, sitting in the cafe of Hotel Porton, near the Narcos set in Bogotá. "Toward the end of his run, he wasn't able to see his family. And I was here, missing my boys."
Once he officially landed the part, Moura gained 40 pounds to portray the portly kingpin, overindulging on local specialties like bandeja paisa, a basic dish of rice, beans, meat, and plantains. "I gave so much of myself to this role," says Moura just a few days removed from the kill scene. "There has been some criticism of the show here, over a Brazilian playing Pablo Escobar. But I only ever tried to capture the essence of the man. Now I'm excited to get rid of him and lose this weight."
Of course, the city of Medellín wasn't eager to welcome another production crew glorifying Escobar, who unleashed a decadelong reign of terror and almost single-handedly made Colombia the murder capital of the world. "He destroyed this country, and we were forced to exist in fear for a long time," says one local. "It's a hard time to relive."
Chilean actor Pedro Pascal (DEA agent Javier Peña) knew this history well, having visited Colombia with his family as a kid and worked there in 2011, and he had a clear understanding of the raw emotions many Colombians still feel about Escobar. "I know that some are not thrilled to be so consistently connected to this horrible man," he says, mentioning some family friends. "But I think they respect how we are telling the story."
Among the series' first hires were real-life ex-DEA agents Steve Murphy and Peña, who had been part of the team responsible for bringing down Escobar. "They call us to ask everything from what we were wearing to the kinds of weapons we used in a particular gunfight," says Murphy, who returned to the country during filming.
It often takes a team of 20 to prepare the site before a shoot, clearing away any modern fixings and covering items that have been updated. Even the cocaine has been designed perfectly: a composite of baking soda mixed with small amounts of plaster. "Most of the time, people get the look of it wrong," says production designer Salvador Parra while beaming over a handful of product. "There are no crystals in ours."
Murphy and Peña are periodically flown from their homes in the States to Colombia to check on the production, an experience they call a "stark contrast" to the years they operated in the country. Over the past quarter century, Medellín has become a bustling shopping hub with one of the finest public transit systems in the world. "It's surreal to go back," says Murphy. "I barely recognize it now. The country has made an incredible transformation into this safe tourist retreat."
In the finale of the first season, Escobar escapes the walls of La Catedral, the home prison he designed for himself as the result of secret negotiations with the government. To re-create it, the crew played down its opulence. "The audience would have a tough time believing it was a prison," says Murphy. "I mean, this guy had a two-room suite, a walk-in closet, a hot tub, and a nightclub complete with a dance floor. His wanted poster was hanging framed in the kitchen. He was thumbing his nose at the Colombian government."
What ensued after his escape was one of the most heavily publicized and bloodiest manhunts in history, culminating in the iconic rooftop photo of a dead Escobar. The agents remember the chase as intensely frustrating, with the kingpin consistently slipping through their fingers. "We would blow through a door and find a hot cup of coffee on the table," says Peña.
That was until one afternoon, when a phone call Escobar made to his son was intercepted. Soon after, a gunfight erupted, ending with the drug lord taking three bullets. All of this stands to make some dramatic television in the season two finale, and the team became obsessed with portraying it as accurately as possible. "There are a lot of false accounts out there, but I saw the body and I took the photographs the world saw," says Murphy. "It can't get any closer than our re-creation."
Now the question is, How does Narcos continue without its larger-than-life antagonist? Insiders say a number of story arcs are being considered, including focusing on the surviving Cali cartel. There seems to be no fatigue in interest for these drug-fueled narratives, with Netflix ordering a new series based on Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. But can any of these stories stand against the remarkable reign of Escobar? To quote Don Escobar: "There can only be one king."
Colombia's New Trade: Narco Tours
Many cartel-associated locations are now unofficial historical sites, a few of which were used in Narcos. Here are the most popular places in Escobar's home turf, Medellín.
The Monaco Building
In 1988, a car bomb exploded outside this Escobar-owned apartment complex, a failed murder attempt by the Cali cartel. It was once possible to see the entire complex, including a torture chamber in the basement, but the government blocked entry after neighbors complained about too many tourists.
This "prison" for Escobar was jokingly called Club Medellín, due to its lavish amenities. It has since been converted into a home for seniors, but the property retains touches of its former occupant, such as a plaque with one of Escobar's most notorious sayings, "Better a grave in Colombia than a cell in the United States."
The site, in Cemetario Jardins Mentesacro, is managed by an elderly man Escobar gave a house to. Fresh flowers lean against the headstone, placed there by the people Escobar helped or by fellow drug lords as a token of respect. Others pay homage in a different way, by doing a bump of cocaine over his grave.
The King's Ranch
Hacienda Nápoles was one of Escobar's most opulent estates, with a sculpture park, a bullfighting ring, and a game park stocked with exotic animals like his prized hippos. It now operates as a public theme park, but a Piper airplane still sits atop the entrance, Escobar's ode to the first plane he used to ship drugs to the States.