Narcos Season 3, now available for streaming on Netflix, focuses on the Cali Cartel, which is run by four powerful “Godfathers,” who, unlike Pablo Escobar, don’t like overt displays of violence and publicity, at least at first. Escobar was an outlaw; they’ve embedded themselves into the highest echelon of Colombian politics.
Escobar isn’t in the series, which was available for streaming on September 1, for long before meeting a grisly end. The show starts every episode by saying it’s based on real historical events, and it features a Time Magazine cover of the godfathers in its opening.
This has a lot of fans wondering: How historically accurate is Narcos Season 3? Did the Cali Cartel really exist? How about Cali Cartel security chief Jorge Salcedo, who, in many ways, becomes the show’s heart and soul? The premise of Narcos Season 3 revolves around the whack-a-mole nature of the South American drug trade as well as bigger questions: Is the “war on drugs” really winnable? When does greater American political expediency justify sacrificing individual justice? You’ve got everything here: Shadowy CIA agents hiding secrets; an increasingly paranoid godfather, Miguel Rodriguez and his more grandiose brother, Gilberto; and Javier Pena, the DEA agent who returns to occupy center stage, along with the riveting Salcedo.
Warning: There are some plot spoilers ahead.
Here’s what you need to know about the historical accuracy of Narcos Season 3:
Security Chief Jorge Salcedo
Salcedo, who maintains a sense of nobility and decency during the violence, is played by Matias Varela, a Swedish-born actor with Spanish heritage, whose solemn and tortured gaze speaks volumes about conscience.
Is he real? Yes. In fact, the real Jorge Salcedo consulted on the show, and he spoke to EW about it. Although he didn’t actually do every single thing he’s shown doing in Narcos 3, Salcedo believes the portrayal is largely accurate. You can call it substantial truth. You can see a photo of the real Salcedo here. He’s actually in the witness protection program in real life, so there are no recent photos of the real Salcedo.
There’s a book on the real Salcedo by William Rempel.
“The story in general remains the same [as the truth]. However, they present some happenings, and they put them so that it was me that made them. So he told me about one or two incidents that I may have known about or was around when it happened, but it wasn’t always me who was executing all those things,” he told EW.
He says that some of the most dramatic scenes in the show were real, though, or close to real. For example, asked about the scene where Miguel Rodriguez, a Cali Godfather, puts a plastic bag over the character’s head, the real Salcedo said: “Something very close happened to that. Because at that point, they were suspecting about me. They were having a meeting, and they were excluding me of everything.”
Other things didn’t happen the way the show presents, though. For example, the real Salcedo says he never killed the hitman Navegante, and he did have conflict with Miguel Rodriguez’ son, but his name was William, not David. It was true that he was the son of a general who wanted to leave the cartel to start his own security firm. You can read more of the Salcedo interview with EW here.
CNN published an article in 2012 by the real Jorge Salcedo that was titled “What I saw inside the Cali drug cartel.”
He wrote, in part, “First, some background: I used to be Jorge Salcedo. I left my name in Colombia when I entered the U.S. witness protection program 16 years ago. I also left a home, a country, friends, family, even my past. But maybe my experience will help show the importance of fighting corruption as a way to fight the cartels.”
He ran security for Miguel Rodgriez Orejuela and “managed to deliver nearly a million dollars in payoffs. And I witnessed many, many millions more.” He added, “When I agreed to assist U.S. drug enforcement agents 16 years ago, the Cali cartel was making $7 billion a year. Cartel documents turned over to Colombian authorities exposed a vast network of corruption. There was public outrage. Widespread arrests and firings followed, and the grip of corruption was broken.”
The Cali Cartel
The godfathers of the Cali Cartel have replaced Escobar. See an episode list for Season 3 here. The show focuses on four of them, but primarily two: Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela and his brother, Gilberto.
Yes, in real life, the Cali Cartel really existed, and they really were that big of a deal.
“They are among the richest families in Colombia, but to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, they are the new kings of cocaine, patriarchs of a criminal consortium more disciplined and protected from prosecution than the Sicilian Mafia and now bigger than the Medellin cartel,” Time Magazine wrote in 2001 in a cover story featured prominently in the show’s opening.
“The Cali combine produces 70% of the coke reaching the U.S. today, according to the DEA, and 90% of the drug sold in Europe. The Cali godfathers have a virtual lock on the global wholesale market in the most lucrative commodity ever conceived by organized crime. The cartel is the best and brightest of the modern underworld: professional, intelligent, efficient, imaginative and nearly impenetrable,” reported Time.
The brothers didn’t meet a good fate.
“Colombian drug lords Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, 63, and Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela, 67, entered guilty pleas and were ushered to federal prison for the next 30 years,” reported The Seattle Times in 2007.
The article reported that “the compound of drug lord Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela filled a city block and contained a swimming pool, tennis court and half a soccer field.” It’s true that the Cali Cartel took over the Colombian cocaine market after Escobar’s demise.
“The Orejuela brothers promptly absorbed the Medellin cartel and ultimately controlled 80 percent of the international cocaine market. At its peak, the family ran what one U.S. Justice Department official told Congress was ‘the most prolific and successful criminal enterprise in history,’” reported The Seattle Times.
Yes, Pablo Escobar really died on a rooftop – that rooftop, in fact.
“After two seasons of tracking the DEA’s manhunt for Escobar, Wagner Moura’s famous kingpin was gunned down on the actual Medellin rooftop where Escobar died in 1993 at the end of the sophomore season,” reports The Hollywood Reporter.
Showrunner Eric Newman told The Hollywood Reporter of the death scene, “We filmed it at the building where he was actually killed. It was strange. It was also the last thing we all filmed with Wagner, so it was emotional. It was emotional for him and it was a strange goodbye. Here we are with this character that we’ve spent two very intense years with in Bogota, Colombia, doing this amazing thing that we were so fortunate to be able to do, so it was pretty heavy.”
Yes, Murphy and the Colombian police really posed with Escobar’s body. See the photo here.
Javier Pena & Steve Murphy
Yes, the two DEA agents Javier Pena and Steve Murphy were real. Pena is heavily featured in Narcos Season 3, although Murphy is only briefly in it.
According to Biography.com, “DEA agents Javier Peña and Steve Murphy were lead investigators in the manhunt for Colombian drug kingpin, Pablo Escobar.”
“Now-retired Drug Enforcement Agent (DEA), Javier Peña, grew up in the south Texas city of Kingsville. He remained close to home for college and enrolled at Texas A&I University (now A&M-Kingsville), where he graduated with a B.A. in Sociology/Psychology,” reports Biography.com. He began his law enforcement career as a deputy sheriff in Texas (Texas scenes are featured in Narcos Season 3.)
A Biography.com article on Murphy reports, “Stephen Murphy was born in Tennessee in 1957. At a young age he moved with his family to Princeton, West Virginia, where his parents, Marvin and Betty Murphy, operated a carpet store. He graduated Princeton High School in 1974 and in the fall of that year enrolled at West Virginia University.” Today, he runs a law enforcement consulting firm.