Narcos Mexico Is Not the Education We Need

By Vanessa Freije | 13 April, 2020

The second season of the critically acclaimed Netflix series, Narcos Mexico, recently dropped. Like previous seasons, this one charts an episode in the rise and fall of Central and South American drug trafficking dynasties, focusing on another photogenic, charismatic man at the top: Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (played by the magnetic Diego Luna). The Padrino of the Guadalajara Cartel, Félix Gallardo united the various plazas, or the distinct zones that controlled Mexican drug production, in the 1980s.

For the ordinary [Western] viewer, Narcos Mexico is likely the only representation of Mexico they will consume all year. Even in this saturated “peak TV” market, Narcos Mexico catapulted to the top five streaming shows on Netflix in the United States. One week after its February 13, 2020 release, the show boasted nearly 50 million average demand expressions. The popularity of Narcos Mexico is easily explained: It is a well-crafted show with a big production budget, stellar acting, and a strong aesthetic sensibility. It also doesn’t hurt that it delivers a pre-history of the inter-cartel violence that fascinates U.S. audiences. Despite its claims to accuracy, however, this season of Narcos Mexico delivers a DEA version of events, silencing the anti-left politics that undergirded the expansion of the drug trade in the 1970s and 1980s.

While it was created by three U.S. men, Narcos Mexico provides a strong sense of place thanks to the Mexican directors, writers, and actors who helped make the show, which was filmed on location. U.S. viewers, who may have little knowledge of Mexico beyond sensationalist headlines and trips to Cancún, can thus witness the distinct regional geographies of the country, from the vast Chihuahuan desert to the dense cityscapes of the Federal District and Guadalajara. If they are attentive, they may even notice the characters’ distinct regional Mexican accents. Perhaps for this reason, the show has also found an audience in Mexico, where on February 26 it was ranked the number two show on the platform.

Screenshot from Netflix
Screenshot from Netflix

But make no mistake, the show’s imagined audience is decidedly gringo. The strongest evidence of the target audience is the initially-anonymous male narrator, DEA agent Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy), whose hardboiled, Texas-tinged voiceovers take viewers on a decades-long tour of complex Mexican history and U.S. drug policy. While many characters move in and out of the story, Breslin provides a consistent point of view throughout the show’s two seasons. His highly stylized expositions are also central to the show’s distinct tone: neo-noir meets U.S. embassy cable.

Breslin’s and other protagonists’ dense expository narrations have led many to refer to both Narcoswhich detailed the rise and fall of Colombia’s Medellín and Cali cartels—and Narcos Mexico as highly “informative.” In a recent interview, showrunner Eric Newman even referred to the series as “unspoilable” because viewers could simply read the “Wikipedia article.” The show’s visual cues also emphasize its veracity. In its arresting credit sequence, for example, photographs of real-life traffickers like Joaquín (el Chapo) Guzmán pan across a map that identifies the geographic location of each trafficking organization as well as the means by which each cartel smuggled drugs into the United States. By including images of real individuals, as opposed to the actors who play them, Narcos Mexico’s creators subtly claim that they are telling a true story.

But references to the series’ accuracy overlook the narrator’s—and thus, the show’s— particular point of view. Throughout season one, we don’t know who, exactly, is relating the story of doomed DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. It is only at the beginning of season two that we learn that it is Breslin, who spearheads Operation Leyenda, the agency’s large-scale investigation into Camarena’s murder. Far from a neutral or disinterested party, Breslin is dedicated to taking down Félix Gallardo due to his own personal loss—his addict brother was the victim of drug violence years earlier. The show also suggests that Breslin’s narratives, though seemingly directed at the viewer, are actually intelligence briefings. One telling scene seamlessly transitions between Breslin’s disembodied narration and his conversation with a superior, in which he conveys the same information. This scene makes clear that Breslin’s narration emerges from the reports that he relays to senior DEA officials. Even if Breslin’s expositions implicate the U.S. government in the drug trade, and even if his actions reveal DEA disregard for Mexican lives, the show centers the U.S. DEA perspective and thus implicitly blames drug trafficking on a corrupt, violent, and ultimately unreformable Mexico.

Narcos Mexico season two opens with Félix Gallardo facing mounting financial and political pressure for his connection to—if not direct participation in—Camarena’s 1985 torture and murder. This event was a turning point in U.S.-Mexico relations. Though the U.S. government knew about the extant relationship between Mexican government officials, intelligence organizations, and drug traffickers, Camarena’s murder made them less inclined to look the other way. It also provided an opportunity to extract further economic concessions from the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which had been mired in an economic crisis since the government failed to meet its foreign debt service in August 1982. After news of Camarena’s execution spread, U.S. officials and media proxies began publicly denouncing Mexican corruption, declaring that drug trafficking was a serious problem for U.S.-Mexico relations. These became points of pressure for Mexico’s leaders, who sought increased economic integration with the United States and entered the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in July 1986, a precursor to North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect in January 1994.

In the show, we are told that post-Camarena drug shipment seizures are “way up,” squeezing profits and angering the various plazas that comprise the drug federation. This increased DEA attention came at a bad time for Mexican traffickers, whose business opportunities were exploding in the wake of the closing of the so-called “Caribbean corridor” through which Colombian planes traditionally ferried cocaine to the United States. Once U.S. patrols effectively shut down the corridor, Colombian organizations became fully reliant upon Mexican traffickers to move drugs north. Thus is set the tension of the season, with Félix Gallardo attempting to avoid DEA prosecution while also trying to gain control of all cocaine trafficking nodes—primarily Tijuana, Juárez, and Matamoros—and expanding into the retail business.

In this way, the social history that gave Narcos Mexico season 1 such rich texture—with its scenes of ordinary residents being bussed to work in the marijuana fields—in season two gives way to a traditional business history, with its focus on charismatic, if emotionally tortured, male “genius” (as Félix Gallardo is so often called). Season one ended with Félix Gallardo as the unquestioned Jefe de Jefes of his federation. In season two, he continuously struggles to maintain control. He refuses to share power with the men who run his plazas, rebuffs criticism, and becomes more and more isolated personally and professionally. In a heavy-handed foreshadowing of the present violence in Mexico, Félix Gallardo laments the difficulties he has in maintaining control over unruly plaza bosses like Pablo Acosta of Juárez and the Arellano Félix brothers of Tijuana: “[It’s] a fucking free-for-all of independent operators who think they can go it alone.”

By the season two finale, the federation has dissolved, and Mexico’s trafficking routes have been divided geographically among the different organizations. In one of the show’s final scenes, when Félix Gallardo and Breslin finally meet, the former predicts that, absent his leadership, Mexico will soon descend into violence. However, such claims wrongly suggest that the spectacular violence witnessed today was the result of organizational disunity rather than the government’s militarized war on drug trafficking organizations. Such representations are not without political consequences.

Diego Luna in Narcos Mexico (Netflix)
Diego Luna in Narcos Mexico (Netflix)

In Mexico, the portrayal of drug trafficking organizations—whether in news or entertainment—has become the subject of significant government scrutiny and public debate. A massive culture industry is dedicated to churning out ballads, telenovelas, and films that, some argue, glamorize the trafficking lifestyle and help audiences identify with violent criminals. Often encapsulated under the umbrella term narcocultura, this cultural output has traditionally been popular in trafficking and production centers, like Sinaloa, where drug cultivation provided an important—and often, the only—source of income for impoverished farmers whose food production was disrupted by agrarian modernization. Popular narcocorridos and narconovelas have traditionally appealed to those who feel marginalized or neglected by government officials, and unlike mainstream media they portray high-ranking public officials as corrupt actors who are directly implicated in the drug trade. This critical lens has made narcocorridos and narconovelas targets for state censorship. In November 2016, two Mexican congressional representatives called upon federal authorities to keep narconovelas off air during primetime hours, arguing that the programs negatively influenced young people and weakened the social fabric. Similar efforts have been made to censor narcocorridos, a popular subgenre of ballads that are often commissioned by traffickers to celebrate their lives and triumphs.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) saw media as key to the success of his so-called war on the cartels. In 2011, he entered an agreement with around 40 of Mexico’s most prominent broadcasters and periodicals to set editorial criteria for drug-related news coverage. Media signatories agreed not to present traffickers in a sympathetic light and to avoid diffusing their messages. Calderón’s successor, Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), passed an even stronger policy that required that media hold “traffickers responsible for violence” and support government actions. Such laws were clearly self-serving, as they were designed to obscure the extent to which high-ranking officials were themselves complicit in drug trafficking operations. A case in point is the recent arrest of Genaro García Luna, Calderón’s secretary of public security, who has been charged in the United States with cocaine trafficking conspiracy and making false statements.

Though they pretend otherwise, the U.S. and Mexican governments also produce narcocultura by creating spectacles around drug policing. There is perhaps no better example of drug war spectacle than the press conferences organized by the DEA or Mexican police to publicize large drug seizures. These performances follow a common script, as officers lead out arrested individuals and display seized cash, cocaine, and weapons in neat piles for photographs. Such exhibitions are intended to underscore the state’s victory over drug traffickers, but as Oswaldo Zavala argues, these entities have never been separate. For this reason, Calderón and his successors have relied heavily on publicity to promote the drug war. With the help of a $1.6 billion U.S. aid package, in 2007 Calderón sent the Mexican military into trafficking strongholds in pursuit of kingpins. This strategy, however, has only served to splinter organizations, aggravate inter-cartel violence, and terrorize civilians. The policing of key trafficking corridors increased competition over access to routes, and led criminal organizations to diversify their activities from drugs into human traffickingavocado production, and natural resource extraction. The result has been a devastating spike in violence that has claimed over 200,000 lives, disappeared at least 60,000 people, and displaced tens of thousands from their homes.

In the United States, there is little public awareness of how the events portrayed in Narcos Mexico relate to Mexico’s current crisis. Characterizing Narcos as a neutral conveyor of “facts,” as its creators and many critics do, implies that a television series can be an objective and unproblematic vehicle for educating U.S. audiences about the drug war’s history. But the question, at least when considering U.S. audiences, should not be “Does Narcos get the facts of the drug trafficking organizations or Mexican history correct?” Instead, we should ask what story emerges from the marshalling of select details? In other words, what is Narcos Mexico teaching the millions of U.S. consumers who watch it?

Take for example, the show’s treatment of the looming Iran-Contra scandal. In snippets of conversation, we learn that Félix Gallardo has already paid the CIA two million dollars, destined for the Nicaraguan Contras, in exchange for the agency helping his drug shipments get across the U.S.-Mexico border. In 1988, after the U.S. Congress learned that the CIA was sending guns and money to the Contras, Félix Gallardo sees an opportunity and cuts a deal by offering to ferry guns to Nicaragua. In exchange, the CIA silences the witness whose testimony in the Camarena murder trial was certain to send Félix Gallardo to prison. With little context for Iran-Contra—the narrator interjects with only a brief explanation—viewers unfamiliar with the controversy will not grasp why the CIA wanted to send guns to Nicaragua in the first place: to unseat the leftist Sandinistas from power. Deracinated of this context, the plot point simply serves as another example of U.S.-Mexican collusion to move drugs. Yet the political and social consequences—U.S. interference in foreign politics, the resulting aggravation of violence, and the cynical sale of drugs in U.S. inner cities—remain undiscussed. Moreover, it obscures how the development of Mexico’s drug trade relied on brutal anti-Left counter-insurgency both by U.S. and Mexican actors.

In media interviews, showrunner Eric Newman repeatedly returns to the central theme of the show: The drug war is the product of “ill-conceived agendas and corruption on both sides of the border.” No doubt. He also has frequently emphasized that there are no “good guys” or “bad guys.” But by failing to place more emphasis on the particularities of corruption, the show’s critique is flattened into a moralistic condemnation of illiberal politics. But not all corruption is equal, and simply highlighting that there were bad actors on all sides fails to capture the extent to which counter-narcotics was used, as historian Alexander Aviña shows, as “a public mask for anti-leftist counterinsurgency.” In states like Guerrero, where marijuana and poppy cultivation was a prominent source of income for small-scale farmers, Mexican officials justified the torture and enforced disappearance of suspected guerrillas as counter-narcotics initiatives. By the late 1970s, military officials facilitated the entrance of high-ranking members of the Guadalajara and Juárez cartels into these very regions. The business history presented by Narcos Mexico season two evacuates U.S. and Mexican anti-Left politics from the development of the drug trade and war.

It is very rare to have U.S. audience attention centered on Mexico. The most recent instance was the killing of a Mormon community in northern Mexico, which led President Donald Trump to threaten to send troops across the border. His reaction was not surprising but it once again highlighted the impoverished understanding regarding the underlying causes of drug-related violence south of the border. Despite its claims to the contrary, Narcos Mexico is not the education that U.S. viewers need. 

This article was originally published on NACLA

Vanessa Freije is an Assistant Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. Her book, Citizens of Scandal: Journalism, Secrecy, and the Politics of Reckoning in Mexico, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.


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