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'Narcos': Netflix's delicate balancing act in Colombia

BOGOTA, Sept 8, 2017 (AFP) - Colombian tour guide Nicole rolls her eyes when the King of Cocaine comes up in conversation as she leads journalists along the cobblestones of Bogota's Old Town under slate-gray skies.

It's not that she doesn't understand the interest in one of history's most infamous underworld figures, the 25-year-old explains carefully, it's just that Colombians are so over Pablo Escobar.

Talk to locals among the Art Deco squares and Baroque churches of Bogota's La Candelaria and you will likely find they'd rather discuss the economy, soccer or Shakira's latest pop record.

So crime series "Narcos," which Netflix created as its entry into the potentially lucrative Latin American market, debuting its third season on Friday, was always going to be a hard sell at home.

One of the streaming platform's most talked-about shows, "Narcos" is
responsible for creating hundreds of jobs and helping open up Colombia's natural beauty and acting talent to the world.

But it is yet another depiction of Colombia as the benighted hostage of murderous drug barons, corrupt politicians and a civil conflict that has left 260,000 dead and seven million displaced.

Domestic critics, while recognizing the quality of the drama, have scorned the accents of the non-Colombian actors and complained that their country is being sold short.

- 'A controversial show' -

Colombian viewer Daniel Lara-Agudelo, whose parents lived in Escobar's home town of Medellin when his campaign of narco-terrorism was at its peak, says he has faced negative comments about his nationality since he was young. "All of those comments had to do with drugs and violence," he complained on an internet forum in a remark which appeared to typify the online reaction to the show in Colombia.

"People have to realize that Pablo Escobar was killed over (two) decades ago, and the violence, while it does still occur, is nowhere near as bad as what happened back then."

"Narcos," striving for authenticity, is filmed almost entirely on the real front lines of Colombia's drug wars and its cast and crew are all too aware of the balancing act of making an entertaining show without disrespecting its hosts.

Michael Stahl-David, who plays US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent Chris Feistl, told journalists in Bogota last week that he took pains to show his Instagram followers the country's many attractions. He was speaking ahead of last week's global premiere for the show's third season.

"There were mixed feelings," he admitted of filming in the heavily forested Valle del Cauca department, where Escobar's sworn enemies in the Cali cartel emerged as the world's top cocaine trafficking operation in the early 1990s.

"It's a controversial show here but there was never hostility at us for doing it, they just don't necessarily want to watch it."

Stahl-David, 34, admits he had a "stereotyped, outdated" impression of a "super-dangerous" country before he arrived, but he soon realized he could travel freely and says he was moved by the generosity and warmth of the locals.

- More than just drugs -

"If you meet a Colombian, maybe don't say to them, 'Colombia -- oh,
Escobar!' If you're from the United States, you don't want to hear someone say, 'US -- Bin Laden, right? Nine-eleven?'" he suggests.

Executive producer Andi Baiz, who has directed many episodes including every season finale, is one of the many Colombians working on the show who defend its efforts to be fair to the country.

"There is a resistance to the narco image of Colombia, of course, and I understand why that happens. Around the world they think of Colombia in terms of drugs and, if we are lucky, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and soccer players," he says.

"There's an effort for people to understand that we are much more than that, that our culture, music, the arts, our resilience, is very important.
But I think 'Narcos' actually has shown that too."

Among Colombia's many achievements in recent years is a detente with feared FARC rebels that earned President Juan Manuel Santos a Nobel Peace Prize and a booming tourism industry driving economic growth.

Baiz's compatriot Taliana Vargas -- who was crowned Miss Colombia in 2007 -- plays Paola Salcedo, the wife of the Cali cartel's security chief and one of the few main civilian characters in "Narcos" seen railing against organized crime.

"It's part of our history and not every country in the world has had that opportunity to tell their stories, and we're having it through 'Narcos,'" the 29-year-old says.

"It's a story that hurts -- it was horrible to go through -- but as a
country we are not in that position anymore. Looking back and knowing what happened gives us more strength to keep moving forward."