A few months ago, we travelled 37 hours to get to Bogotá, Colombia for a 4-day work trip
Netflix had invited SAYS to meet the cast of 'Narcos' in Colombia, ahead of the premiere of the show's third season. We were insanely hyped. There was going to be a tour of the set, a whole lineup of interviews, and the chance to witness the actual shooting of a scene, as Season 3 was still work in progress back then. It was freaking epic.
On the day of the set visit, there were back-to-back interviews in a studio somewhere in Bogotá. We sat around a large oval table in the ‘US Embassy’, everyone had their own leather-bound armchair. It was the perfect setup - the actor was at the head of the table, while all six writers representing Southeast Asia and Europe circled the table, holding pens and jotting down notes like we were multinational delegates in a small but important summit.
We were dying to take some selfies but no photos were allowed; we could only use our phones for audio recording, so our eyes and ears were peeled to the max.
What was Season 3 going to be like for the actors?
If you've heard of Pablo Escobar or follow 'Narcos', you'd know that he's dead
No overly enthusiastic fan could have spoiled that for you. Now that he’s gone, there’s another evil that’s on the rise; something less showy yet more dangerous than Escobar’s ruthless killings and even more profitable than Medellin's cocaine empire.
But who or what could be worst than Pablo Escobar? We were certain that no other villain could top him, until we spoke to the ‘Godfathers’ of the Cali Cartel.
Here’s what the four actors who played Cali Cartel's leaders have to say about Season 3 and what it was like playing their roles.
1. The Boss of Bosses: Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela
The leader of the Cali Cartel is played by actor Damian Alcazar.
In the previous seasons, you’d remember that Gilberto’s Cali cartel conquered New York, while Pablo dominated the cocaína supply to Miami. It was Gilberto’s daughter’s wedding that Pablo gatecrashed with a bang (like literally, with explosives), and by the end of Season 2, Pablo’s widow, Tata, pleaded for Gilberto's help to get her out of Colombia. He agreed, but called dibs on Pablo’s wealth and property in exchange for her lifeline.
Now that Pablo was dead, it was just the beginning for Cali. Gilberto had no more competition. “The narco business was all ours,” Damian said.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) believed that by 1995, the Cali Cartel was controlling 80% of the world’s cocaine trade, with an estimated annual profit of USD8 billion. That's right, 8 BILLION dollars. They were in for world domination.
What was Gilberto like compared to Pablo?
Gilberto was nicknamed 'El Ajedrecista' or 'The Chess Player’. He made moves that were more subtle, more ‘under the table’ compared to Pablo’s obvious in-your-face threats. Gilberto preferred bribery over violence, using his vast network of friends in high places to get things done – and to buy people too.
“The big thing in Season 3 for our roles is that they bought a lot of politicians, soldiers and policemen.
The two chiefs of the Cali Cartel - Gilberto and his brother Miguel - were businessmen. They refused to be violent. Personally they never killed anyone, not like Pablo Escobar," Damian said.
These guys were so smooth, the cops referred to them as “gentlemen”. They owned legit businesses, radio stations, a pharmacy chain, car dealerships, and a football team. Episode 1 of Season 3 shows you just how much intel they had access to. The Gentlemen of Cali were fronting many well-oiled organisations, thanks to deep pockets filled with cocaine money.
“All the roles are very complex. They are not heroes, and not 'bad guys'. They are complexed people." Gilberto wasn't a model citizen and Damian wanted to draw the line. "I refuse to admit that he's a hero.”
If anything "some of them are worst than Pablo", Damian said
Adding irony to that, the Cali Cartel leaders cared a lot for their families, like Pablo. “They were wonderful family men,” Damian explains. “For instance, my role, has four wives. That's a 'very good husband'! They are concerned about their own children all the time.”
In Season 3, you’ll witness these cartel heavyweights making important decisions to secure their family’s freedom in desperate times, even if it meant jail-time.
2. The Master: Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela
If Gilberto was the king of strategy, his younger brother Miguel was the master of operations, the guy behind the rise of the Cali Cartel.
In Season 3, you’ll notice how the Orejuela brothers aren’t like each other. They must settle their differences and strategise in synchrony or risk losing everything they’ve worked for.
“Miguel is the fighter who wants to fight until the end and not surrender,” says actor Francisco Denis who plays Miguel
Miguel’s love story and his family’s safety drive him to “kill every ‘hijueputa’ (not a polite term in Colombian at all) who gets in his way”.
“He could be a very dangerous guy - it depends on the situation. If you're going to kill (him), he will kill; if you’re going to kill Miguel’s family, he will shoot first,” Francisco said in a matter-of-fact kind of expression.
Basically, Miguel and his team of drug lords truly believed that they weren’t bad people. They just did what they thought was right to defend their own.
Still, as human as they appeared to be, Francisco likened Miguel to a trapped animal. Did they even have an ounce of moral conscience?
“There is no moral (to the killings). The ‘moral’ is that you're a family guy. You must defend your own family. People will have to die because I need to protect my family."
“You had to be put in their situation. What would you do in that situation? When I was acting, I put myself in their shoes. "What would I do in Miguel's situation?"
Offscreen, Francisco and Damian Alcazar (Gilberto), have that sibling chemistry going on too. “We're brothers!”, Francisco said when we asked him about working with Damian. “When my son found out I was going to work with him, he said, "Papa, you're going to work with Damian. He's my favourite actor… after you."
When I met Damian, it's like we're brothers!”
3. The Hitman: Pacho Herrera
Do not be conned by the silk shirts and soft hair.
Alberto Ammann who plays Pacho Herrera says he’s the one in charge of the “body things” in the cartel. He does all the dirty work while overseeing international distribution, running one of the cartel's most profitable money laundering operations in New York.
He’s got a lot on his plate, but even more blood on his hands.
While the Orejuela brothers were more sophisticated than Pablo Escobar, Pacho however, shared a few similarities with Medellin's former drug lord
Firstly, Pacho was a very violent man. Among the four Godfathers, Pacho was the most violent, having been responsible for the cartel's nastiest murders. Like Pablo, he would kill for monetary gains because “humanity was second place” for them, Alberto said.
Secondly, they shared bad taste. Like literally, tacky 'new-rich' taste. Alberto had spent enough time studying narco people on his own to say that with conviction. “When you see Pacho's house, it's terrible taste. Awful, actually! The Roman things, swimming pools…
“The Rodriguez Orejuela brothers, they were sophisticated. Miguel loved the arts and paintings while Pacho, like Pablo… tried to love paintings.”
What was it like for Alberto to play Pacho?
Unlike Pablo’s very public life, there was a lot less information about Pacho, but people in Cali, all knew of him, Alberto said.
“One day while shooting in Cali, a guy on our team told me Pacho killed his father. We talked and he told me the story. The father had put up a million dollars in a business and then tried to get out but couldn't. When he tried again, they killed him. It's a terrible story. But it was good to have that information. Pacho was a terrible guy.”
You could see in Alberto’s eyes that this real-life account meant a lot to him. He wasn’t just playing the role of a fictitious TV character, after all.
4. The NYC Boss: José ‘Chepe’ Santacruz Londono
‘Chepe’ is played by Pepe Rapazote in the show. He’s the guy who runs Cali’s booming empire in New York.
How did Chepe get into the business?
Chepe was a trained chemical engineer.
“He heard something about cooking paste and people making a lot of money. He thought that that was something he wanted to do, and who wouldn't? So he did that and was a very simple guy. Overalls, dirty hands, dirty nails, while the other guys liked to wear suits every once in a while. He started to bring some cocaine and bring his brothers into the business. That was how they started and how Pacho came along.
He then went to live in New York for a very long time because ether was forbidden in Colombia and he said, "Cool, I'll just go to New York!" He didn't speak English though he lived 15 years in New York. So if you spoke to Chepe, you'd have to learn Spanish.”
Everytime Pepe talked about Chepe, you could tell he was genuinely enthusiastic about embodying the character.
“He was bigger than life. ‘Don't forget to kill with a smile, suck up with a smile, and get the chicks! Do whatever you please with a smile on your face.’”
“He doesn’t kill just by killing. He does it with a splash. He's gotta make a statement and that's beautiful.
It's like writing a script: "I have to kill this guy! Any ideas? Just shoot him in the head? That's... come on!" Pepe said while frowning, like an unimpressed boss. Don't give him lame ideas.
“It’s really easy to get a gangster to be liked. Even when he is a psychopath. But this guy, this is the most lovable guy,” said Pepe. “I'm sure you'd want your daughter to be married to this guy! He's really nice to people, his friends, and fellow drug lords.”
Still, Cali’s ‘nice guy’ operated with no conscience. Like his other counterparts, it comes with the business. “In all countries, that's how things are."
"If I don't protect what I have, other sharks will come and try to bite me. And I have to kill them, that's how things go."
Season 3 of 'Narcos' also features newcomers to the Cali Cartel: Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela), Cali’s head of security who prioritises his wife and kids’ protection over his bosses, and David Rodriguez (Arturo Castro), Miguel’s sadistic son, who is out to prove himself to his father, although initially reluctant to take a leading role in the cartel.
Season 3 of 'Narcos' is now showing on Netflix. Watch the official trailer here: