There is a short scene in the opening episode of Narcos: Mexico that reveals a great deal about the culture in which the drama is set. It lasts a minute or so, but the depths of the entire eight-part series are glimpsed.
Kiki Camarena (Michael Pena), a DEA agent newly assigned to work in Guadalajara, Mexico, is hanging out at a local bar. He’s been told that’s his job – chat up local cops and officials from multiple levels of law enforcement and get some intelligence. Being new, he only manages to hook a lowly local cop. The young cop tells Kiki that his uncle got him the job with the police and now takes 10 per cent of his wages in return. The young cop shrugs. That’s the way it works.
Narcos: Mexico (streams Netflix from Friday) is about drugs, money, ambition and corruption. Often, it’s specifically about the latter – everybody expects a piece of the action, a fee, and that is why Mexico found itself in a sea of savagery, overrun by drug cartels. Nobody at the bottom or in the middle has enough money to live comfortably, so bribery and venality are rampant.
It’s a magnificent thriller, this one, at the level of the first Narcos series, which featured Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar. At this point, the Narcos narrative can be considered consequential, rising to the level of The Wire in terms of existing as a serious-minded odyssey into the parallel worlds of crime and law enforcement.
“It doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact it doesn’t have an ending at all,” we are told in a voice-over at the beginning. We know that. It is a fact that one Joaquin Guzman Loera – El Chapo – is scheduled to go on trial in the United States this week. But it is also a fact that his outfit, “the largest drug-trafficking organization in the world” according to prosecutors, is still in business.
What Narcos: Mexico does is present an origin story. It’s the late 1970s and a lot of Americans are smoking marijuana. The supply comes from Mexico and some farmers there are tired of the hassle from various bureaucracies who don’t really want to shut them down. They just want to be paid off. Along comes Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), who used to be a cop. Mostly, he’s just called Felix and he has a simple solution: Make the marijuana trade a real business with highly organized growing, transportation and sales. His plan is to establish what would be the first drug cartel.
There is one beautifully crafted action scene early on, which is startling in its simplicity but illuminating. Felix takes his farmer pals to Guadalajara to make an arrangement with the local drug bosses. It’s a lucrative deal, but they laugh at the hicks from the mountains. Somebody gets shot and then … nothing happens for ages. There are people sitting in this restaurant after somebody’s been shot dead, and they just wait. At this point in the take it’s about 1980, and normality is already undermined.
What unfolds in the first five hours shown to critics sometimes feels like a clever series of repetitions on the same storytelling strategy. A bunch of guys meet. There is information exchanged and sometimes there is argument. But what you’re gripped by is the sense that this is an ever-expanding story, and the tension exists in the knowledge that everyone is going to end up dead or in jail.
It’s a very male drama. There are few female characters given much to say or do. Felix’s wife, Maria Elvira (Fernanda Urrejola), is tough as nails and skeptical about turning drug-running into a slick business. But the story is not hers. Her husband envisages creating “the OPEC of dope” and the engine of the story belongs to him. It’s worth noting how male the drama is, but it is derived from real events about men, not others.
The man known as El Chapo began his career as a small-time marijuana grower in the Sinaloa region in the 1970s. That’s precisely where Narcos: Mexico begins. El Chapo would later work for the Guadalajara cartel run by the real Felix Gallardo. At that point, the cartel was the main go-between for cocaine going from Colombia to the United States. When the real Gallardo took on the real Kiki Camarena, there followed a period of chaos from which El Chapo emerged triumphant.
It happened. It’s not fiction. Liberties are taken with the true story in Narcos: Mexico but only to streamline what is a terrifying tale of terrible accomplishments and worse losses.