Cali Cartel: Meet the New Villains of 'Narcos' Season 3

3:21 PM 7/18/2017

by Jackie Strause

Pablo Escobar's successors are "the biggest drug lords you’ve probably never heard of."

NARCOS Season 3 Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Netflix

The show is called Narcos — not Pablo Escobar.

That is how the boss of the Netflix drug cartel series explained the decision to continue Narcos after Escobar's death in season two. "From the beginning when we decided to call the show Narcos and not Pablo Escobar, I had always had in mind to tell the continuing story of cocaine," showrunner Eric Newman told The Hollywood Reporter when the series was picked up for a third and fourth season. "[The creators] and I wanted to tell a story about the drug war and never just about one person or organization. We had always planned on continuing on."

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. The third season, which releases Sept. 1, shifts its focus to Escobar's real-life successors in the drug trade: Colombia’s Cali Cartel. Or, as Netflix described them, "the biggest drug lords you’ve probably never heard of."

Now that the hunt for Escobar has ended, the DEA turns its attention to the richest drug trafficking organization in the world, which is led by four powerful godfathers. This cartel operates much differently than Escobar’s, preferring to bribe government officials and keep its violent actions out of the headlines.

The trailer provides a first look at Cali — now "public enemy No. 1." DEA agent Javier Pena (Pedro Pascal) explains, "It was fucking cocaine incorporated. They ran it like a Fortune 500 company." The trailer also shows glimpses of the new agents Chris Feistl (Michael Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan), newcomer Miguel Angel Silvestre (Sense8) and the return of CIA station chief Bill Stechner (Eric Lange), who revealed himself to be pulling the strings behind the Colombia operations at the end of last season

Below, The Hollywood Reporter provides an introduction of the new villains of Narcos.

  • Their Real-Life Story

    The Cali cartel was once the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world. A 1991 Time cover story declared the cartel the "new kings of coke" and described them as being more disciplined and protected from prosecution than Escobar's Medellin cartel. "The Cali cartel aided in the dismantling of the Medellin cartel and benefited by going from being No. 2 to No. 1," Newman told THR of the rival cartel's rise and eventual overtaking of the drug trade after Escobar's death in 1993. "Unlike Escobar, who had positioned himself as an outlaw, Cali was very much a part of the system. They had bought their way in and they enjoyed a different kind of protection than Pablo did. Pablo was protected by the people who loved him and Cali was protected by a political and economic system that they had rather ingeniously built. It’s a different kind of villain. While Escobar was a single-cell organism, they were a complex, multi-celled organism." During the peak of their reign, which lasted two years after Escobar's death, Cali was believed to have control over 90 percent of the world's cocaine market.

  • Who Is in Charge

    Unlike Escobar's dictatorship over the Medellin cartel, there are four Cali godfathers: The Rodriguez brothers Gilberto (Damian Alcazar) and Miguel (Francisco Denis), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann) and Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote). Though Gilberto stands in highest command and is described by Netflix as "the boss of bosses," he is not Escobar's standalone replacement: Miguel is the brains behind the cartel's rise, Pacho is the hitman who runs the Mexican connection and international distribution, and Chepe runs the satellite New York City empire of the Colombian drug network. Gilberto, Miguel and Pacho have all played significant roles in the first two seasons, while Chepe is the sole newcomer to the Narcos universe.

    Newman has called Narcos a "50-50" dramatization in hopes that viewers watch the series interactively and take to Googling the events that are depicted, but he has confirmed that the chronology is accurate. The Rodriguez brothers eventually plead guilty to 30-year sentences in 2006, surrendering $2.1 billion worldwide assets. Chepe was killed in 1996 and Pacho was assassinated while serving out a prison sentence in 1998. But, like Escobar's world-famous ending, history doesn't spoil Narcos: "It wouldn’t be surprising to anyone to know that they met bad endings, but I think as we learned in season two, it’s getting there that’s fun," said Newman.

  • How They Differ From Escobar and Medellin

    Thanks to the myth and the man — and a critically praised performance from Moura — Escobar leaves big shoes to fill. But Cali upped the drug trade ante. "They bought the presidency of Colombia in 1994," explained Newman of where the series will pickup when it returns. "They were insiders, and it’s very much a response to the level of violence that the hunt for Escobar brought to Colombia. We’re inheriting an administration in government and populous in Colombia that were tired of the violence and that changed the way they were going to wage the war, so it’s a more complicated environment in ways. It’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys."

    When speaking to the real-life DEA agents, Steve Murphy and Javier Pena, responsible for taking down Escobar (who are portrayed on Narcos by Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal, respectively) the pair called Medellin "the Wild Wild West" compared to the businesslike Cali. "They were accountants, professional money-launderers," Pena told THR. "They were more sophisticated and very different cartels. Cali moved a lot of dope and sent more to the U.S." Pascal returns to the third season as Pena, but Holbrook has exited the series. The agents, who each left Colombia in the year after Escobar's death in 1994, served as consultants on the first two seasons.

  • The Agents Who Will Take Them Down

    Though the series sticks to the real timeline for its narcos villains, the show is taking liberty with Pena's involvement in the dismantling of Cali. The real DEA agent left Colombia in October of 1994 and indicated that he was not involved in the hunt for the Cali players when speaking to THR. As the new details released by Netflix confirm, however, Pascal's on-screen Pena is very involved in the season-three story, along with two new DEA agents Chris Feistl (Michael Stahl-David) and Daniel Van Ness (Matt Whelan), who, according to Netflix's character descriptions, "enter the operation with enthusiasm and inexperience." 

    Feistl, and his real-life partner David Mitchell, are the two DEA agents who received a call from Jorge Salcedo, the Cali insider who helped the DEA bring down the cartel. Salcedo is now in U.S. witness protection with a new name, though he wrote a column for CNN in 2012, and his story is told in the nonfiction novel At the Devil's Table. "I'd put him right up there with one of the best assets that we've ever had," Feistl said of Salcedo when speaking to NPR's This American Life in 2012.

  • The Legacy They Leave Behind

    Newman has long planned to exploit the "revolving-door aspect to narco kingpins." Though it's unclear if season three will serve entirely as the Cali chapter to Narcos' larger story, Cali also opened the door to again more dangerous and unpredictable successors — the Mexican cartels — when the throne was up for grabs. "Cali was taken apart over a period of two years and another cartel rose up in their place," explained Newman of where the series will go. "Cali was the cartel that really utilized the smuggling routes through Mexico and the Mexican heroin smugglers who were already incredibly successful. They very much got the Mexicans into the cocaine business, so there is sort of a natural evolution there. As to whether or not I would move directly into Mexico, it’s certainly a possibility." 

    How long it will take to get there remains to be seen. The first season of Narcos spanned more than a decade to detail the rise of Escobar, but the second season focused on the 18-month timeline of Escobar's prison escape, manhunt and eventual death. When asked about El Chapo's impending arrival in the saga, Newman said it all depended on where they start in the Mexican timeline: "Chapo was there at the beginning, in a way. He was one of the younger guys in the Guadalajara cartel before it splintered and he and another guy were given Sinaloa as territory. In our timeline currently, that’s already happened because that was in 1985. So it depends. If we take our time, it could take a while. If we jump right into it, it could be really soon."