'Narcos: Mexico': Michael Pena on "Pressure" of Playing DEA Agent Who Spearheaded War on Drugs

Michael Pena Narcos: Mexico Main 1 - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

Narcos: Mexico begins by warning viewers that this story does not have a happy ending. "In fact, it doesn't have an ending at all," says the American narrator in the opening minutes of the new season of the Netflix series.

The reset Narcos: Mexico jumps back in time — to 1980s Mexico — to show the origins of the Mexican drug war. After focusing on the Colombian cartels in the first three seasons, the new season (technically, the fourth overall) shifted production to Mexico City to focus on the next threat and successors of Colombia: the Mexican cartels. As the narrator goes on to explain, in order to understand why the drug war continues today, they had to trace the origins of Mexico's first cartel, Guadalajara. 

The Drug Enforcement Agency was established in 1973 and when Kiki Camarena touched down in Guadalajara, the DEA was, as Narcos: Mexico says, last in America's law enforcement pecking order. "The one thing that I really wanted to get solved was: What made the guy tick? And why would he do what he did — why would he put himself in harm’s way?" Michael Pena, who portrays the real-life agent in Narcos: Mexico, tells The Hollywood Reporter. Camarena requests a Guadalajara transfer so he can be on the front lines and moves his family with him from California. "The payoff isn’t that big. He’s not going to become a huge star and get overly promoted. Was it a career choice? Why? Why? Why? It was so important to know specifically what made the guy tick."

As is typical with all season of Narcos, knowing how the story ends doesn't make the journey any less thrilling or eye-opening. The opening scene and new credit sequence reveal that Kiki gets abducted by the boss of the Guadalajara cartel, Felix Gallardo (played by Diego Luna). This new chapter in Narcos' story, as always, stars cocaine. But it's also about the DEA agent and his narco adversary who would go on to change the drug war for years to come, and the fallout that would continue to impact U.S. and Mexico relations to this day.

"I'm so glad that I was able to play this guy that was a Mexican-American, he was the guy who spearheaded the war on drugs," says Pena, who is also Mexican-American. "He wanted to make a difference and he was having a tough time convincing Washington, D.C., that this was happening. It’s relevant because we have that problem going on now."

A thread among Narcos seasons is an inward reflection on America's role in the drug war and how there is such continued demand for the supply. "It’s a health issue. They aren’t going to sell anything that can’t be bought," Pena says. "I do think you have a poor neighboring country that is kept poor, there are a lot of companies that go in there and pay these guys $5 a day. Then, all of a sudden there is this demand to sell something they can make a crazy amount of money selling. This in no way justifies anything, but what this show does is get us talking, and it has different points of view by showing the cartels and the DEA. You can chose to debate either side at any time."

After opening with Kiki's abduction, the season jumps back in time in order to track what showrunner Eric Newman has described as the "collision" between Kiki and Felix that jump-starts the Mexican chapter of Narcos. When Kiki arrives in Guadalajara, he works under James Kuykendall (played by Matt Letscher) — another real agent who consulted on Narcos: Mexico — and their tiny unit with little resources had an uphill battle in order to get anything accomplished. Still, Kiki doggedly sets his sights on Felix, "The Godfather" — El Padrino — of the cartel. "I imagine that both men hated each other," says Pena of the two characters at the center of the season. "That’s a natural conclusion because of the dynamic that these two men had on opposite sides of the law. One of them hated him because he’s building this empire and the other one totally justified his way into building this huge empire."

Pena also acknowledges the "pressure" in telling Camarena's story and doing it justice. "When you’re playing someone, there is that pressure because you know they have a family. It’s not just a character made up of thin air," he says. "I wanted to humanize the intention and motivation that he had so that, hopefully, someone will relate to it and understand why certain things happen in his life. I did want to get that part right."

Much has been documented about Camarena's story, including a Time magazine cover and Elaine Shannon's acclaimed book Desperados: Latin Drug Lords, U.S. Lawmen, and the War America Can't Win. Pena researched and spoke with Camarena's family and those who knew him in order to get the answers to his questions. "I think he was motivated by this feeling of injustice and had kind of a whistleblower’s mentality," says Pena. "That you see enough injustice and enough people turn the other cheek and don't do their jobs, and have all these criminals selling drugs where the local police, federal police, politicians and government are all in on it. He knew something was wrong and I think his resentment was just growing and growing, so he decided to do something about it himself. This is also coupled with the complacency of our government and the time in the 1980s. Because the only way for this thing to be built is if there’s complacency on both sides."

The release of Narcos: Mexico is coinciding with the criminal trial of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in New York. El Chapo is a minor character in Narcos: Mexico played by Alejandro Edda, and if Narcos: Mexico is renewed, he would likely come more into focus as Guadalajara unravels and the cartels, which are active today, splinter. "That’s the thing," says Pena. "If Kiki hadn’t done what he did, I think America would be in a really bad situation."

Narcos: Mexico is streaming all 10 episodes on Netflix. Keep up with THR's show coverage here.