'Narcos' Boss on How the Story of the Cali Cartel Unfolds in Season 3

Narcos Still Season 3 and Eric Newman - Inset - Getty - H 2017
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images (Newman); Courtesy of Netflix (Still)

"You cut the head off of a snake and three more appear. In this case, four. And their teeth are sharper." That is how star Pedro Pascal, who plays DEA agent Javier Pena, describes the new villains of Narcos.

When the third season of the drug cartel series releases on Friday, Narcos is unleashing the Cali cartel onto the Netflix audience. The cartel, which took over the vacant Pablo Escobar throne as public enemy no. 1 in 1990s Colombia, was responsible for 80 percent of the world's cocaine at the height of its reign. Viewers will meet the four bosses, the "gentlemen" and godfathers of Cali: The Rodriguez brothers Gilberto (Damian Alcazar) and Miguel (Francisco Denis), Pacho Herrera (Alberto Ammann) and Narcos newcomer Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote).

Pena (Pascal) returns to the war on drugs, but gone is his partner Steve Murphy (played by Boyd Holbrook) and two new DEA agents arrive in his place. But perhaps the most fascinating character of them all is Jorge Salcedo, the Cali insider who brought down the cartel. An informant in the history books, but a rat to everyone he once knew.

Essentially, Narcos sounds like an entirely new show. But according to showrunner Eric Newman, it's a "schematic sequel" in the post-Escobar world, the next new chapter in the revolving story of narco kingpins that continues up until today.

"A guy like Escobar was going to be replaced, in some ways, by a more pervasive and more insidious organization like Cali, that had a corruptive influence that went way beyond the outlaw," Newman has told THR of Cali. "They bought the presidency of Colombia in 1994. 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."

Below in a chat with THR, Newman details the research that went into telling Cali's lesser-known but equally fascinating story, explains why Murphy's Narcos run came to an end and teases what's in store when the "Cali KGB" takes over.

A lot of people have been wondering what Narcos looks like without Pablo Escobar and, in my opinion, one scene in the premiere with Pacho Herrera really sets the stage for what’s in store.

I am proudest of that scene, I think of anything we’ve ever done. Every person involved in that sequence delivered the A-version and I love it. It says: Here we go, this is what we’re all about.

We’ve spoken about how Escobar was one man compared to the well run organization of Cali — a story that most viewers don’t know. You’ve described the first two seasons as a 50-50 dramatization. Do you still assign that breakdown to season three?

It’s funny. The longer I do this, the more my take on that evolves. How to tell a story involving events that happened and being true to them and to the people who experienced it. The reality is that you hear a lot of different versions of any story, usually through one’s own prism, and in this case, I feel like we got pretty close to what happened considering all the different takes on what happened. The big departure is that Pena had left Colombia after Escobar and came back later. So we’ve sort of put Pena as our one continuous character and made him representative of the DEA and the management in Colombia at the time. But outside of that, I think we’re again in that 50 to 60 percent accurate range.

William Rempe, the author of At the Devil's Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel, and Chris Feistl, the DEA agent credited with dismantling Cali, were consultants this season. How much more difficult was it to piece together Cali’s story compared to Escobar's?

It was harder in some ways and easier in others. It was harder because the Cali guys were by design averse to publicity. Escobar documented everything he did and many of the things that he did documented themselves. The terrorism is a much more reported-upon chapter in the drug war than the Cali chapter. These guys kept it on the down low. That was their strategy. That was a little more challenging but because of that, there were a lot more people who were willing to talk and there was a lot of new information to uncover.

Having the cooperation of Jorge Salcedo, who is the main character of At the Devil’s Table, was invaluable. He knew it all. You also have four guys, the Cali godfathers, rather than one. [Spoiler alert!] Two of them are dead and two are in prison, so none of them are talking. It’s tough to get their side of the story. All we can do is sort of imagine what they were thinking based on the stuff that they did and said, and the people that knew them and who worked for them. It’s always challenging. Escobar was also challenging in his own way.

The real Pena was not involved in Cali. Does that make Narcos Pena an amalgamation of the real people in the story for season three?

Yes, he’s a composite of a number of characters who presided over this chapter of the drug war.

When you decided to take that liberty and bring Pascal back as Pena, why not bring Holbrook’s Murphy back as well?

Boyd Holbrook is a spectacular actor and he’s amazing on the show. But that was always designed as a two-season story where he was the main character on the American side and certainly on the law enforcement side. The first two seasons were about his journey from this naïve John Wayne-like character who is going to come down to Colombia and straighten this out. And then leaving Colombia realizing that we got in bed with bad people to do this and that this isn’t going to change anything. That was the end of his story. Pena’s story had not ended yet. Pena had gotten played and a guy like Pena who thinks that he is in control and in the know is the opposite of Murphy, in some ways, in that he’s the guy that gets it. Then at the end of season two, to realize that he didn’t get it all and that he got used? He's going back and trying to redeem himself. It just set itself up for a much more natural next stage of the story. The Murphy character really completed his arc in a way that to bring him back would have felt like, “What’s he doing here?”

The real Pena didn’t retire from the DEA until much later, right?

He was back in Colombia as the resident agent in charge and then he served out his career in San Antonio.

Jorge Salcedo, who is portrayed by Matias Varela on Narcos, is the subject of A Devil's Table and was the Cali insider who worked with the DEA. Currently, he's alive and in U.S. witness protection. Did you have direct communication with him?

Yes. I met him a couple of times, it was amazing. He is a remarkable and very brave guy who probably didn’t get what he deserved for what he’s done. He was really the first guy we met in witness protection — it was an interesting process. He couldn’t even check into a hotel. We had to check into a hotel for him because he doesn’t travel with ID.

Does he have reservations about telling this story so publicly, or is he looking forward to getting his side out?

He’s an interesting guy. We tried to play him a little bit as we found him, which was that you never really know what he’s thinking. There is just as high of a likelihood that he got a sort of thrill out of doing what he did than that he was just terrified. He’s a fascinating guy. We hit this beat a couple times in the show, I think: You don’t go to work for a drug cartel unless you’re a certain type of guy. It’s a little easier when it’s in Colombia and when it’s the Cali cartel who have billed themselves as the opposite of Escobar. But when you’re going for your job interview, you would think that someone would think, “Well, these guys are drug dealers.” And that’s what makes him so interesting. I do think it’s relatable to say, “God, I thought I was just going to work for this guys who, yeah they were in the cocaine business, but I’m not in the cocaine business. I’m in the security business.” All the ways you can rationalize something that you probably shouldn’t be doing. That’s what’s interesting about him.

What was most fascinating thing about Cali that you discovered in telling this story?

What we call the Cali KGB. Their ability to infiltrate via surveillance and manipulation and bribery to build the kind of empire they built in plain sight, in a lot of ways. It wasn’t a secret that they were drug dealers, but they played it so differently. The most interesting thing, frankly, is that when we were in Medellin for Escobar, there’s very little evidence that it was once the murder capital of the world in 1993 and 1994. You can visit the city now — and I highly recommend it because it’s a beautiful place that has completely recovered from its past. Escobar’s influence is still there but it’s only the positive aspects of it, like the neighborhoods and parks that he built. It’s a place that recovered from its past.

But Cali is still struggling a little bit with its past. It’s a beautiful place and the people are wonderful, but there are a lot of narco-owned buildings and businesses that are still property of the state and that haven’t been redeveloped. It hasn’t become what it hopefully will become when it outlives its past. I think that’s partially because the Cali cartel was such a big business that they chased a lot of the other businesses out. Palmolive was there, there were insurance and car companies and these giant industries that all left. The people of Cali were okay with that because there was so much money coming in from this cocaine economy. Then when that went away, nothing has replaced it. That was kind of amazing. You really understand how big Cali was when you see the footprint and what their loss cost Cali. It’s pretty remarkable. These guys were a giant, giant business.

The third season of Narcos releases all 10 episodes on Netflix Friday, Sept. 1.