AFAIK "tener que hacer algo" = "deber hacer algo" = to have to do something. However, I have just heard the following sentence in the Narcos TV series:

Iban a El Bizcocho y tuvieron que salir de la carretera principal. Ya vienen para acá.

Context: The police initially received a tip from a crooked general that Pablo Escobar would be in his farm named El Bizcocho but another informer gave them the correct location of Pablo Escobar and they headed there. One of Pablo's informers saw the police heading towards Pablo's way and called Pablo's men. One of those men then runs to Pablo and says the line above, talking about the police.

It is obvious that the police didn't have to leave the main road. They did it of free will. The corresponding English subtitle confirms it: "They were headed for El Bizcocho, but they got off the main highway". So why does the speaker say "tuvieron que salir" instead of "salieron" ?

  • The subtitle and the line of dialog don't match. Without a lot of context, I wouldn't be able to say why. Dec 14, 2019 at 4:38
  • I created this question exactly because these Spanish and English lines don't match. I don't understand it either. I gave all the relevant context in the question. If anyone has access to the Narcos TV series, this scene is aprox at 18 mins of S01E04. Dec 14, 2019 at 5:04
  • Maybe someone will chime in who has watched the series. I think it might be necessary to watch a fair amount of the episode to get why they might have had to leave the highway. // In general, I've found that subtitles tend to be the weak link. Dec 14, 2019 at 6:00
  • I have watched the entire episode and there is nothing else relevant to this matter. The only scene showing the police on the road is when one of Pablo's informers sees them and calls Pablo's men to warn them. The police already left their base knowing its destination, so there was no unexpected event that forced them to leave the road. Dec 14, 2019 at 13:58
  • Well, sometimes television series, and even movies, have inconsistencies, gaps, things that don't make sense, things that don't hold together, things that aren't explained. I don't know that series so I can't say how likely that one is to have little (or big) defects in the writing. That said, and again, qualifying my answer -- I have not watched the series -- the most likely explanation would seem to me to be that the police had to leave the highway for some unknown reason. Or for some reason that ended up on the cutting room floor. Dec 14, 2019 at 16:22

3 Answers 3


The difference between having to do something and doing it of free will is often subtle. Most of the time, one does something "of free will" because the consequences of not doing it would be negative.

The task of that police squad was to capture Pablo Escobar, so when the received the information that he was in a different location to where they were currently heading, they had to change direction (otherwise, they would not be able to complete their task). To me, it sounds normal to use tener que in this case. Other similar examples would be:

Nadie se interesó por mi trabajo en la última conferencia, así que tuve que cambiar de tema de investigación

(No one was interested in my work during the last conference, so I had to change my research topic)

Here, I changed my research topic because I expected that continuing my old topic would not lead me anywhere, as the community was not interested anymore. Of course, I did not literally have to change my topic, but I expected the consequences of not doing so to be negative (for example, not being able to secure more funding).

  • Thanks for the answer! In English, AFAIK "have to" is not usually used without informing the reason of the obligation (not necessarily in the same sentence). In the Spanish sentence in the aforementioned TV series, that reason was not mentioned anywhere, so IMHO that makes the sentence odd, as other native Spanish speakers agreed. Dec 14, 2019 at 14:29

Without having watched the series, I interpret that modal verb phrase as expressing deduction in the past:

  • Tuvieron que salir de la carretera principal = Tienen que haber salido de la carretera principal (They must have left the main road.)

For some reason, the police changed plans and did not follow the route they were expected to take.

According to this site, "tener que" can express obligation (or necessity) or deduction:

Valor: probabilidad (con tener que + infinitivo la probabilidad está más próxima a la seguridad que con deber (de) + infinitivo). En sus usos epistémicos, tener que expresa una inferencia certera o conclusión palmaria, mientras que deber de + infinitivo denota probabilidad. Con todo, esta inferencia no da lugar por fuerza a la interpretación no contrafactual, a diferencia de lo que ocurre con la interpretación deóntica de obligación de tener que + infinitivo.

Tiene que haber pasado algo. = Debe de haber pasado algo.

Tuvo que haber habido un accidente. = Debe de haber habido un accidente.

Esto tuvo que haberlo hecho un experto. = Esto debió de haberlo hecho un experto.

Tiene que haber hecho estudios universitarios. = Debió de haber hecho estudios universitarios.

El examen tiene que haber sido muy difícil. = El examen debe de haber sido muy difícil.

El encuentro ha tenido que haber sido muy emocionante. = El encuentro ha debido de haber sido muy emocionante.

Deber de + infinitivo compuesto deja la posibilidad abierta de que lo que se describe no sea tal como es presentado: Debe de haber sido muy difícil el examen final.

Auxiliar: pretérito perfecto simple + infinitivo compuesto

Valor: con el auxiliar en pretérito perfecto simple + infinitivo compuesto, tener que + infinitivo suele recibir la interpretación epistémica, aunque no necesariamente la lectura contrafactual.

Tuve que haber dejado la cartera en la oficina.

[‘es forzoso o muy probable que dejara la cartera en la oficina’]

According to this inferential reading of "tener que", the sentence in question makes complete sense: they were heading to a certain place and, if they were now going in a different direction, that must have been because they got off the highway.

  • I have never seen the first sentence used as an equivalent of the second. I assume that usage is standard Spanish and not a regionalism? Dec 14, 2019 at 14:31
  • @AlanEvangelista I've expanded my answer to make it clearer.
    – Gustavson
    Dec 14, 2019 at 16:01
  • Thanks! off-topic question: in the example "Debe de haber sido muy difícil del examen final" , is the article "del" obligatory? I do not understand it, given that one would usually say "el examen fue dificil" or "fue dificil el examen". Dec 14, 2019 at 16:06
  • @AlanEvangelista That's a typo. I'm correcting it.
    – Gustavson
    Dec 14, 2019 at 19:19

Good catch, to me that phrase does not make a lot of sense in that context either. It sounds a notch over-elaborated and appears unnaturally omniscient.

tener que hacer algo [to have to do something]

is to be obligated to act.

It is a subtle distinction that, unless the person talking to Pablo's is totally aware of what type of inside info the police has, —guiding their movements to him, something to be known in hindsight, or only perhaps guessable—, that person could not be so certain, which undermines the realism of the situation.

The way it sounds it is at odds with the urgency of the scene described, for which it would serve better having him merely saying:

Iban al Bizcocho, pero salieron de la carretera principal y ya vienen para acá

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