Netflix continues its portrayal of drug kingpins with a new series of "Narcos" set in Mexico
After enthralling viewers the world over with its series focusing on the world’s drug cartels, Netflix leaves Colombia behind and heads to Mexico for the fourth season of “Narcos”.
“Narcos Mexico” is set in the early 1980s when drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna) started the country’s drug enterprise to supply the United States. Michael Pena portrays the Mexico-born undercover agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, who moved to Guadalhara, the centre of Felix’s marijuana business.
Based on a true story, the series follows both Gallardo and Camarena and reflects the politics between Mexico and the US that make Camarena’s work impossible in a corrupt system. It shows ex-cop Gallardo attempting to construct the biggest marijuana empire by gathering drug dealers and running the illegal business just like a corporation. Meanwhile with the DEA office just starting up and as yet unrecognised, Kiki starts noticing the beginning of a giant marijuana business directed for the States and starts chasing the clues.
Like Colombia’s Escobar on whom the first three seasons were based, the characters take their cue from real life people and the destiny they eventually face.
Showrunner Eric Newman, who is behind the success of “Narcos”, says that moving the location from Colombia to Mexico has always been part of the plan. “We were intending to tell the Colombian story then follow the flow of cocaine to Mexico, which is very much what has happened with the business. It’s a strange and very difficult proposition for filmmakers – particularly when you’ve had success in the first three seasons – to say ‘we’re going to wipe the slate clean and start over, recast, re-staff in a new country’.”
But he also admits that it has been rewarding to be able to bring in amazing actors like Pena and Luna alongside some of Mexico’s finest actors particularly Joaquin Cosio in his show-stealing role as Don Neto.
“Despite the challenges, I think it’s our best season,” Newman says.
Luna and Jose Maria Yazpik, who plays Amado Carrillo Fuentes, drug dealer and pilot who transport the drugs and works closely with Gallardo./Photo Netflix
Mexican actor Luna, who is well known from “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, “Frida” and also “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” says the role and the series have challenged him as an actor.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to do something like this. It’s much more than just a character portrayal. It’s also the story of the ’80s in my country and how all this mess started. It’s a very important decade in terms of understanding where we are today and the relationship we have with the United States. It’s also important to understand the case of Kiki Camarena,” he says.
Though the real life Gallardo is still alive and in jail, the actor did not meet the man he was going to portray. Instead he read books, written both by the criminal and others, and watched documentary footage describing his businesslike demeanour.
“We’re talking about a criminal and I’m not sure I would like to know his opinion. I preferred to keep my distance. I’m not really curious as to who he is.”
Luna adds that other peoples’ viewpoints are more instructive than face-to-face meetings, comparing the latter to reading an individual’s Facebook profile that shows how he or she wants to be seen rather than who they really are.
For his part, Pena searched the Internet to get a picture of Kiki and talked at length to his wife and his ex-colleagues. “I don’t know if Kiki necessarily wanted justice more than anything or if he just wanted just to bring down anybody who crossed the line of the law. I talked to his wife Mika Cameron and Kuykendall who worked with him, and asked them what they thought made the guy tick. After all, there are not a lot of people in his world who literally just want to do right or their notion of what is right. He saw the signs of a cartel empire being built, knew that it meant drugs being brought into the US and that people would die on the streets as a consequence. He could see the future and nobody believed him, which made him even more obsessed,” says Pena. The American actor has appeared in several dramas in recent years including “Crash”, “Babel” and “Fury” and more recently in the comedy “Ant-Man”.
“The pressure was greater in a comic role like ‘Ant-Ma’ because they would give me eight papers and then I just had to talk. I had no idea what would be cut so I had to get all those eight pages right within the three days allocated. If I messed up it would mess up everything. I started in drama and that’s mainly what I like to do,” he continues.
Michael Pena plays DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena and Matt Letscher his colleague James Kuykendall. /Netflix Photo
“Kiki is a simple man who was very quiet and totally dedicated to his work. He was very focused on the code of honour and that made him interesting. Playing a very focused person is a great exercise in acting.”
Though he appears in many TV series, Luna says he found it challenging to work in this project, adding that television has drastically changed as have movies.
“As an actor it is interesting to have 10 hours to tell the story of a character. TV is doing what cinema used to do in the 1990s. I think TV is taking the risks today that cinema is no longer willing to. Today in TV there is an urge to find new voices, new narratives and new formats and that’s kind of cool because it demands plenty of creativity and it’s a great place for exploration,” he says.
While the drug cartels in Latin or North America might appear distant to audiences in Asia, it shouldn’t be forgotten that trafficking is also a major problem here in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Newman and Luna stress that drugs are a universal problem and “Nacros: Mexico” shows how it started. Trafficking, they point out, is going on the world over and the war on drugs has killed more than half a million people in Mexico alone.
“It’s not our problem or your problem. It’s a problem we have in the world, the world is all connected now and drug trafficking is something we have to approach as an international issue, as a universal problem. It is very unfair to say that the violence in Mexico belongs to Mexico. Most of the weapons used come from the States. The amount of violence that has happened and is still happening in my country is very well connected to the United States and to the rest of the world. The market is out there. Mexico happens to be that big door between countries in development and the first world. This is an issue of health not of security,” Lune stresses.
“The show, and I’ve seen this with viewers, can be interpreted two different ways. One is sort of a simplistic view – that the good guys get the bad guys – but that’s not what I believe. Other people believe that the takeaway from the show is that this is a never-ending cycle of tragedy and sorrow that is never going to be resolved until we start dealing with drugs globally as a healthcare crisis and not as a law enforcement crisis. You cannot prosecute drug dealers and take out cartels and have an impact on the supply of cocaine because the demand remains undiminished – in fact it increases – and the United States is the largest market for illegal drugs in the world by far. But the rest of the world is not far behind and so what I hope is that when people watch the show, they realise that in Mexico it has not ended. Thirty years have passed and half a million people are dead and we don’t seem to have learned much,” says Newman.
And with that kind of history and its continuation to the present day, there is certainly no shortage of material for more seasons of “Narcos”. There are many kingpins left to portray including, says Newman, Southeast Asia’s opium king, Khun Sa.
“Narcos Mexico” is now available on Netflix.