Andrés López López’s novel The Snitch Cartel has been the source material for movies and shows dating back 13 years. First there was a 2008 series, and then a 2011 movie (with Tom Sizemore in it!). Now, the origin story of the so-called “snitch cartel” has dropped on Netflix, all 60 episodes of it. Is it worth the time?
Opening Shot: “CALI, 1978.” Two brothers look at fireworks going off over the Colombian city on Christmas night. They toast to their good fortune. A voiceover calls them “The Gentlemen of Cali.”
The Gist: Leonardo Villegas (Juan Pablo Urrego) and his younger brother Emanuel Villegas (Sebastian Osorio) have more or less taken over the city of Cali, running their massive drug business in the city almost unchecked for over a decade.
“If you didn’t know them, you’d think they were a nice family. The perfect family,” the voice says as the Villegases gather around the Christmas tree for a picture, dressed to the nines for a holiday celebration. As Leonardo gives a toast to the family, a young woman barges in, about to say that she’s pregnant with a child that could belong to either of the brothers.
Before that happens, we go back to 1955, when Leonardo was 15 (Rafael Nunez) and Emanuel was 13 (Julio Pachon). Their mother, Marlen Ulloa (Patricia Tamayo), is being two-timed by their father Joselin (Julio Pachon) while Marlen works hard to provide. When he leaves the family, she has to work doubly hard to even make rent. She’s offered money by Alirio (Julian Bustamante), part of the couple that owns the house the Villegases live in; she can’t accept it, but appreciates his attention.
To make ends meet, young Leonardo takes a job at a pharmacy. He starts making side money by stealing medicine, changing the labels and selling it as expired, off-book medication. As Leonardo gets more involved in the world of theft and crime, he gets Emanuel involved as well as two friends. Eventually, they graduate to carjackings to get bigger scores. He eventually pays his no-good father to scram and never come back.
A decade later, the business is doing so well that the entire family lives in a luxurious house. Leonardo is married and Emanuel is going to law school, where he meets a beautiful student named Dayana (Valeria Galviz). Their younger sister Nora (Veronica Velasquez) is still in high school, but seeing one of the gang members on the sly.
Alirio, freshly divorced, comes looking for Marlen, who’s overjoyed. That day, they get carjacked by three masked men, who kidnap Alirio and end up shooting Marlen. It ends up being Emanuel and his friends; as Dayana’s father, police colonel Mauricio Tirado (Ernesto Benjumea) starts his investigation, both Villegas brothers get increasingly nervous. It’s then that Leonardo tells everyone to keep family out of their business from that point on.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? The Snitch Cartel: Origins has its roots in a novel, El cartel de los sapos by Andrés López López. It was made into a 2008 series and 2011 film; this series digs into the fictional origins of this cartel.
Our Take: Netflix dropped 60 (yes, 60) episodes of The Snitch Cartel: Origins all at once, so it’s safe to say that the story that we’re introduced to in the first episode will take a lot of twists and turns. In that regard, it’s more of a true telenovela than a Narcos-style drama. The Villegas’ brothers run as the kings of the Cali drug trade will be examined, of course, but it’ll also involve lots of romance, lots of infighting, and lots of other drama as they rise and then finally fall.
That’s the mindset you have to have when you watch this show. It bounced back and forth, from 1978 to 1956 to 1965, and that’s just in the first episode. And since the actors playing the various roles aren’t aged up via makeup (how can you when you’re cranking out 60 episodes?), it’s sometimes confusing to figure out which time period is which.
The acting is generally pretty good, especially Urrego and Osorio as the Villegas brothers, but the drama is undermined by typical telenovela flourishes, like intrusive musical cues and bass drumbeats to signify tense moments. If the drama were to play out without those flourishes, it could have played out much more naturally. But that’s also not what the format lends itself to.
What we wonder is how much the show is going to glorify the Villegas brothers and their criminal activity before ultimately bringing them down. So many cartel-centric shows seem to revel in the booze, drugs, women and business of the cartel, then bring them down at the last second to tell audiences that every criminal gets their comeuppance. But we’re going to spend an awfully long time getting there, and unless you’re a fan of the telenovela form, the sixty episodes the show will spend showing the brothers getting more and more power through their criminal activity might wear you down before you get to the end.
Sex and Skin: The only action anyone seems to get is Joselin, and the woman he beds is still in her undies when he beds her.
Parting Shot: After a study session with Dayana, Emanuel reluctantly accepts a drive home from the colonel. Of course, knowing that the colonel is looking for his brother and friends, he tells the police commander to take him to a house that’s not his. As Emanuel stands there, pretending to make his way in, Leonardo walks by and wonders what his brother is doing there.
Sleeper Star: We’ll give this to Veronica Velasquez as Nora. We have no idea how involved she’ll get with her brothers’ enterprise, but she is showing Nora to be a pretty strong personality, even back in the ’60s and ’70s.
Most Pilot-y Line: Those drumbeat musical cues that say “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MOMENT” are used too often and sometimes take us out of the scene we’re watching.
Our Call: STREAM IT, but only if you’re a fan of the telenovela format. The Snitch Cartel: Origins has good performances but also a lot of telenovela-style melodrama, and it’s not compelling enough after the first episode to make the commitment to it unless you really love telenovelas..
Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon, RollingStone.com, VanityFair.com, Fast Company and elsewhere.