Narcos: modernity’s conquistadores?

The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing people around the world to stay home and, well, watch television.  Netflix’s Narcos, a binge-worthy series, tells the story of history’s most famous drug lords: From Pablo Escobar to El Chapo Guzmán.  While thoroughly enjoying this fantastic production, I couldn’t help but notice parallels between the modern drug lord and the conquistadores from the bygone Age of Discovery.

The first thing that comes to mind is the origin of both groups, as both conquistadores and narcos ventured from a more organized society to establish their own domains in the periphery.  In the case of the former, in lands claimed by the Spanish Empire; and in the case of the latter, within lands of the Spanish Empire’s republican offspring: Colombia and Mexico.  Both sought to establish their own hierarchies, borders, rules, and militias, and did so with great success and considerable disregard for any overseers.

Quick examples are not too hard to come by.  In 1524, after having led the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Hernán Cortés wrote the fourth of his five letters to King Charles I of Spain.  In it he describes many squabbles and betrayals, specifically mentioning other conquistadores such as Don Diego Colon, Diego Velasquez and Francisco de Garay, who according to Cortés, had “agreed amongst themselves to go there with the hostile intention of doing me [Cortés] all the mischief they could”.  This letter proves conspiracy or paranoia, which in any case are common themes surrounding the capos who have run the Latin-American drug empires.

The Spanish conquest of Peru saw Francisco Pizarro as the original patron, having under his command El Adelantado Diego de Almagro, and Sebastián de Benalcázar, two of history’s foremost conquistadores.  While distributing orders over the conquered Incan domains, Pizarro and his hierarchical organization wielded great wealth and power.  Deciding who lived or died, or who was able to conduct business in his territories, Pizarro paid off rival conquistadores like Pedro de Alvarado to leave South America altogether.

But eventually, Benalcázar would disregard Pizarro and set forth to claim Quito for himself in the name of the Spanish Empire.  De Almagro also entered in conflict with Pizarro when Pizarro went back on his word of distributing the spoils of conquest in an equal manner.  These spats eventually resulted in a series of assassinations not unlike those between members of the drug cartels.  In this case, Hernando Pizarro, Francisco’s brother, ordered the killing of De Almagro in 1538, which resulted in the slaying of Francisco himself in 1541 by El Mozo, De Almagro’s son.

These brutal clashes are reminiscent of the several bloody vendettas we can appreciate in the Netflix series.  After Escobar fell, power transferred from the Medellín Cartel to the Rodriguez Orejuela siblings and their associates, also known as the Cali Cartel.  And just as the desire for dominion over conquered lands led to the transfer of power from conquistador to conquistador, drug lords’ desire to control the drug trade ultimately led to Guadalajara (Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo), Juarez (Vicente Carrillo Fuentes), Sinaloa (El Chapo), and many in between.

There are many different historical circumstances that determine the fate of societies and the groups within, of course, but historians should consider the conquistador idiosyncrasy as being a cause in the development of the drug reigns of recent decades.