Three years ago, when Netflix first launched Narcos, its widely successful series on the history of Latin America’s drug trade, I approached the show with a certain uneasiness. In Mexico, after all, the glorification of the drug business has led to the growth of the country’s narco cultura, a dangerous fad that has turned demented kingpins into role models and drug dealing into an aspirational vocation for thousands of disenchanted youths in areas of the country increasingly ruled by the narcos. In northern Mexico, narcocorridos sing of the daring exploits of glorified criminals while their extravagant sartorial choices become narcomoda. Meanwhile, on Mexican television, barely fictional crooks lead lives of enviable luxury in successful telenovelas, their brutality glossed over for the sake of ratings. I had no reason to expect anything better from Narcos, aimed at a U.S. audience.
I was wrong.
In its first three years, the show has given its audience an unflinching look at the madness that was Colombia in the time of Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura), the psychotic leader of the Medellín Cartel who ruled the hemisphere’s drug trade in the 1980s, and his conflicts with the equally ruthless but craftier “gentlemen” of the Cali Cartel.
In its heyday, Escobar’s cartel was responsible for more than 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. It made him an insanely rich man, his fortune worth at least $20 billion. An eloquent speaker, Escobar was flamboyant, charming, and a man of deep political ambitions. In many ways, his life is the ideal canvas for the kind of banal worship that has made the nasty business of drugs a sadly desirable career path for Latin America’s youth over the past few decades.
Thankfully, Narcos has refrained from indulging in irresponsible fan gratification. Instead, it shows Escobar as the ruthless drug lord that he was, a criminal capable of violence so atrocious that he became, in effect, a one-man terrorist organization. Escobar killed and tortured opponents, assassinated political antagonists, planted car bombs, blew up airplanes, and helped organize a brutal assault on Colombia’s Supreme Court, which killed 12 magistrates. He also led a life of extravagant luxury. Narcos captures it all, along with Colombia’s struggle to contain Escobar’s destructive ambitions and the country’s battle against the booming drug trade, including the role played by U.S. authorities both in Colombia and the United States. In the end, Escobar turns out to be a wretched, tragic figure, his bloated body sprawled on a rooftop, a perfect image of narcotic excess killed in the last few moments of the show’s second season.
In its new season, titled Narcos: Mexico, which launches on Friday, Narcos turns its attention to a new country, with new characters but the same tragic consequences. It centers on drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, played with feline concentration by Mexican actor Diego Luna. In a recent interview with me, Luna described Gallardo as a “loyal, reserved man of incommensurate ambition who very much wanted to be a part of Mexico’s elite.” To do so, he carried out a bold criminal venture in the early ’80s: a reshuffle of Mexico’s structure of marijuana production and distribution, eventually building the country’s first cartel, out of the city of Guadalajara. With Gallardo as its mastermind, the Guadalajara organization grew into a toxic juggernaut, moving thousands of tons of marijuana and cocaine into the United States. Gallardo’s criminal reign came to an end only when, among others, he ordered the assassination (and torture) of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (played, in Narcos, by a tragic Michael Peña).
And yet, neither Gallardo nor Camarena is the main character of Narcos: Mexico.
The show’s Colombian arc drew a portrait of a country contending with a cancer deep within itself: the Colombian state clashing against the country’s merciless criminal organizations.
It’s a violent tale of national survival. However flawed, Colombian authorities appeared willing to lead the struggle versus Escobar and his Cali rivals. The Mexican story is quite different. Narcos presents Mexico as a country beyond saving.
No authority figure eludes the grip of corruption. Local law enforcement, governors, Cabinet members, prominent businessmen, the armed forces, and the most fearsome intelligence agency in the country all protect Gallardo’s Guadalajara Cartel. Gallardo and his accomplices, fellow kingpins Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto “Don Neto” Fonseca Carrillo, seem able to buy anyone and everyone to further what Gallardo calls his “empire.” Unlike the Colombian side of the story, there are no courageous politicians or clean law enforcement officials even remotely willing to face the narco menace. The Mexican state is not a victim of crime; instead, it seems to be fully complicit and even co-responsible. “Authorities in Mexico played an active role in Félix’s criminal operation,” Luna told me. “Officials high up in the food chain got rich along with the cartels. The state protected the business, a business so lucrative that everyone got their share.”
Behind it all is the actual villain of 20th-century Mexico and the real protagonist of the show: the country’s political system. With the PRI party at the helm of Mexico’s government for more than 70 uninterrupted years, this system enabled the rise of men like Gallardo and the many others who followed, including the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, currently on trial in New York. Although the show takes a number of creative licenses, Narcos shows in almost journalistic detail why the magnitude of Gallardo’s cartel cannot be understood without the active collaboration of Mexican authorities, all of them under the PRI’s tutelage and with its corrupt backing.
That story might seem less exciting than following Pablo Escobar’s operatic adventures, but it’s certainly no less dreadful and, for the United States at least, far more relevant. The war that Gallardo began is still raging south of the border. The PRI is no longer in power, but corruption in Mexico is still a fierce tormentor.
“Many of those involved in what happened in the ’80s are still there, dressed in suits and making decisions,” Luna told me. “I’m not sure there’s any resolve to really fix anything.” This is the Mexico Narcos has chosen to portray: a country beyond saving. As a Mexican journalist, watching Narcos tackle the history of my country’s past four decades was a harrowing experience. It’s not a fun ride, but it’s a necessary one.