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Similar to the previous seasons of Narcos, the story of Narcos: Mexico unfolded under the guidance of an English-speaking narrator. This time, however, the narrator was kept secret until the final scene, and the reveal of his identity beckons more of the Narcos: Mexico story to be told.
The reset Narcos: Mexico — the fourth season overall in the Narcos saga — featured a primarily new cast when it traveled back to 1980s Mexico to show the birth of the Guadalajara cartel over the course of 10 episodes (which launched on Netflix on Nov. 16). In order to trace the origins of the Mexican drug war, the newest chapter in the cartel drama once again pitted a narco, Guadalajara’s Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), against a DEA agent, Kiki Camarena (Michael Pena). After building his empire — one that included both Pablo Escobar (played by Wagner Moura) and their Colombian rivals in Cali in a surprise crossover episode — Narcos: Mexico arrived to the unhappy ending the narrator had warned about in the season’s opening minutes: Camarena was abducted, tortured and killed by Gallardo and his men.
“Kiki Camarena is the first martyr in the drug war,” showrunner Eric Newman tells The Hollywood Reporter of the much-documented true story of Camarena, the undercover Mexican-American DEA agent who was abducted in Guadalajara and killed in 1985. “The collision between [Kiki and Felix] became so immediately clear as the best path to get to jumpstarting the Mexican chapter of this story.”
The final two episodes of Narcos: Mexico are a dramatization of the torture Camarena was put through before the Americans ultimately discovered his body, including an imagined scene of the final confrontation in the cat-and-mouse game between Camarena and the narco kingpin. “There are some tapes floating around of the audio from the torture and I could never stomach listening to them,” Pena tells THR of portraying the real-life agent in his final moments. “I can only imagine [that confrontation] because I don’t really know. But when Felix actually talks about it, he denies any involvement whatsoever. I think you can hear it in the tapes.”
In the final episode, Gallardo ends up using the tapes that were recorded during Camarena’s abduction to buy his freedom and the season ends with Gallardo continuing to run his empire. Unlike how season three ended with the fall of the Cali cartel, Gallardo is still very much in charge when Narcos: Mexico ends, and now he has an army of corrupt police at his disposal. “You read about it and read about, but then they show you the house where it happened and how Kiki was abducted in plain sight by police officers, and that’s really sad,” Pena continues of the corruption that Narcos: Mexico exposes. “Police officers actually abducted this guy, kidnapped him, sent him somewhere so they could torture him. A doctor was hired to keep him awake so he wouldn’t pass out and die so they could torture him some more. And the fact that he didn’t even know anything that they wanted to know? [The show] mocked up the torture room to look like the room that Kiki was tortured in. Just imagining it sends chills down your spine.”
Narcos: Mexico has yet to be officially renewed, but the fallout from Camarena’s death would seamlessly be told if there is a next chapter of the Guadalajara story that introduces the Mexican cartels still active today. “[In 1982], Ronald Reagan announced the war on drugs. And I think Kiki’s death is Narcos: Mexico’s war on drugs moment. Because it really is the catalyst that made this war happen,” Pena adds.
Indeed, the event would go on to forever change the war on drugs, and the season ends by introducing the next DEA agent-in-charge, who touches down in Guadalajara after Camarena’s murder. “Maybe it woke us up,” the narrator says before finally revealing himself to be Scoot McNairy. The casting and character were kept secret by Netflix so the moment could come as a surprise. Guadalajara was “where the first shot was fired, the one that started the drug war, and after that nothing would be the same. How could it be?” says McNairy’s character as he steps into focus as the “different kind of agent” who was brought in to run Operation Layenda, the task force that would bring about indictments for those responsible for Camarena’s death. “Now, it was our turn,” he says to close the season.
Below, Newman chats with THR about the cliffhanger promise made in those final moments, how many seasons he imagines it would take for Narcos to catch up to today’s Mexican drug war and why bringing back the Colombian cartel bosses, including Pablo Escobar, was always a part of the Mexican chapter’s plan.
When it came to painting the picture of Kiki Camarena, what did you discover in terms of who he was as an agent and in his pursuit of Felix Gallardo’s Guadalajara cartel?
We talked to partners, his wife. He was the real thing. He was a guy who just believed. Maybe because he was a Mexican-American. And maybe because he saw this threat, not just to his country, but also to his culture. I really believe that he had the best interest of his country. He was a veteran. He had lost a brother to Vietnam and another brother to drugs. He was the perfect guy in many ways, and also the wrong guy. There isn’t a happy ending in this story, as you know. What I learned about him, I really only have come to admire him more.
Did you make any attempts to reach out to the traffickers in this story who are still alive — Gallardo, Rafa Quintero or Don Neto?
No. And in fact, I think you get $20 million if you can find Rafa. He’s wanted by U.S. authority because he’s back in the trafficking game. He’s incredibly high up and one of the leaders of the Sinaloa cartel. But they tend to tell one version of the story and it isn’t always the truth, although it might be their truth. I’d like to say we represent them pretty well. I think that everyone is either a hero or a victim in their own story. No one ever cops to being a villain, and the same is true with these guys. They have a justification for what they do, and while it’s never an excuse it’s often an explanation. These are complicated times to be born into. When the government can’t be trusted and the police can’t be trusted and America is a promised land of appetite, of drug consumption. Why wouldn’t you sell drugs to them? And of course, that answer is for many, because it’s wrong. But for others, it isn’t.
How did the research into the Mexican chapter of the drug war compare to the previous seasons? Was it easier or harder to uncover the stories of these characters?
That’s a very good question. There was more of it, because of proximity [to the U.S.] and the size of Mexico. Unlike Colombia, where the story sort of reached a conclusion, the Mexican story continues on and on and on. And I think the bulk of that research made it very valuable to our process. But it also made it difficult, because there was contradictory stuff. There are a lot of people who believe things that we don’t necessarily believe about how this happened. From our research, we feel like we’ve drawn a pretty accurate picture. Some people choose to play up the complicity of the CIA in the drug business, and while the CIA was a factor some people would have you believing that they were like the bad guys in a James Bond movie and I don’t think that’s true. Thankfully, a lot of these people are still alive. I’ve met Kiki’s wife, his partners and his boss. I was able to talk to so many people who had reported on it. We were fortunate enough to talk to Elaine Shannon, who wrote the definitive book Desperados: Latin Drug Lords, U.S. Lawmen, and the War America Can’t Win. We were able to talk to some of the great Mexican journalists who have covered this for a long time, as well as cops and former politicians. It allowed us I think to tell a story that was as authentic as we could make it, without being able to read peoples’ minds.
The fifth episode sees the surprise return of Wagner Moura’s Pablo Escobar, along with some of his men, and three of the four Cali cartel bosses (Miguel Rodriguez, played by Francisco Denis; Pacho Herrera, played by Alberto Ammann; and Chepe Santacruz Londono, played by Pepe Rapazote). How did this major Narcos crossover episode (which was filmed in and around Mexico City) come together?
I always planned to bring them back. I’ve always sort of seen this as of the Marvel superhero universe of connecting narcotraffickers, and that they all coexist. What traveling back in time also gave us was the opportunity to check in on some of these guys that we miss. Wagner Moura’s portrayal of Pablo Escobar is just spectacular. I was thrilled by the idea and Wagner got it, certainly, and the Cali guys got it, certainly. It was like, “Oh yeah, of course. Let’s do it.” Unfortunately, Damian Alcazar [who plays Gilberto Rodriguez] wasn’t available.
What was it like to see Moura slip back into playing Pablo Escobar?
I wrote the scene and then, like the old days, we would sit and go through it and make changes and edits, because he’s such a smart, intuitive actor. That was really the moment for me where it immediately felt special to me, when we’re sitting there, going through the pages and working on it. From the moment I said, “Here’s what I want to do,” he was, as he always is, great.
What’s the importance of having these guys lend their weight to Gallardo and his legacy?
There is sort of a passing of the torch by having the seal of approval from these guys. The one thing that no one could know until now is that there’s only one character that’s been in all four seasons and that’s Pacho Herrera. So that was really cool. The Cali guys lived and reigned to ’96. If we were to continue, we’d have another 11 years with them. We’ll see if someone lets me do it.
How do you compare the impact of the Guadalajara cartel to that of the Medellin and Cali cartels?
They were different in almost every way. They also didn’t make cocaine. They had to acquire it. First as ship transportation, and then eventually their goal was always to get themselves into the distribution and then into the retail position, which they did. But they didn’t have what Escobar had, which was access to all this cocaine. They had to deal with the Colombians. And now, by the way, they have completely taken over the business, whereas Colombia is basically out of it. What Pablo Escobar did — and if you know him at all or if you’ve read about him it makes perfect sense — is he took this stand against the government. He took them on and it didn’t work because, how could it work? The Cali guys tried to buy the government and they almost pulled it off. The Guadalajara guys partnered with the government. It’s sort of this great evolution of refining of strategy: If you can’t beat them, buy them. If you can’t buy them, join them.
The Guadalajara cartel didn’t invent police or political corruption, and they didn’t invent cocaine or the American appetite for cocaine. But they did figure out a way to get all three of them [Guadalajara, Medellin and Cali] working together, and did so very effectively. For them and a lot of these traffickers, cocaine in 1980 was not what it would be in 1988. Crack hadn’t happened yet. We weren’t hearing about high-profile overdoses. It was sort of a rich man’s drug where, even though it was doing a lot of damage, it wasn’t near the public enemy that it would become. At the time, you could justify that you were giving people something they wanted that didn’t hurt anybody. The Guadalajara cartel, I think, was the last trafficking organization that could tell themselves that.
Felix is described as the “Pablo Escobar of Mexico” and this season explored his rise, similar to how the first season of Narcos explored Pablo’s. Narcos: Mexico isn’t renewed, but the finale lends itself to another season that would continue his story, track his downfall and introduce his successors. How do you describe Felix’s evolution up until where the finale leaves him?
Pablo Escobar was almost a peasant revolutionary. He wasn’t really from the working class and he had political interests, but they were really self-serving. He was always the persecuted minority in the equation. Gallardo didn’t come up in the trafficking world. And because he had experienced some tragedy when he was young and because he had seen from the ground level how police corruption works, he was a much more of a mercenary guy than Pablo Escobar. Escobar was capable of great evil, obviously, but there was a quality to him that was emotional. Felix Gallardo was not emotional. He was very much a calculating thinker; very cold and very smart and could approximate a human being. He didn’t immediately have what the other guys and Escobar had, which is this giant personality and strong emotions. The Cali guys, I think, truly did want to surrender. Had they been allowed to, they would have faded away. Gallardo, I believe, had to stay one step ahead of his partners, his enemies, the cops. I think he was in some ways actually a more tragic figure because he was driven entirely by self-preservation.
You have said you’d like to do Narcos for as long as you can. Did you envision Mexico as a two-season story, and did you pitch Felix as a two-season role to Diego Luna? What conversations have you had with Netflix about your long-term plan?
I always do speak to them, but they are a very deliberate company that has served me very well. They tend to say: Let’s see where we are and decide what to do next. It has served me now four years in a row. Would I like to continue? Of course. I love it. It’s the greatest and most satisfying professional endeavor of my life, and to write and creatively steer this show for now four seasons, it would be unique even if I hadn’t been a movie producer for the first 20 years of my career. It’s a strange transition, but man, I love it.
How many more seasons do you imagine it would take for you to catch up to today’s drug war?
Unfortunately, I don’t know that we’ll ever catch up because each year there is a new turn. When we started making this season, Rafa Quintero was in jail. He got out while we were making the show and then went back to the game. There’s a new president in Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what he does. His predecessors have either reengaged full-on, like Felipe Calderon did with very mixed results, a lot of violence and bloodshed. Or they’ve stuck their head in the sand and tried to ignore the problem that exists. But neither strategy has worked, so I’m very interested to see what he does. There’s a version where the government in some tacit way allies itself with the established traffickers who, unlike the younger and more violent traffickers, many of the older guys still carry the names of these original founders and they at least understand that dead bodies in the street are bad for everybody. There’s a sort of cultural war among the cartels between the old and the new. There’s a lot that could happen in the next year. But, to answer your question, I will do this as long as they’ll let me do it.
You brought back the English-speaking narrator and didn’t reveal his identity until the finale. Why did you decide to reveal this new DEA agent (played by Scoot McNairy) in the final scene and leave it open-ended as to what comes next in Mexico?
If it’s the end, it’s just the continuing revolving doors of, “Here comes the new guy and this time we’re going to get it right.” We’ve now seen that with agents Murphy (Boyd Holbrook) and Pena (Pedro Pascal) in seasons one and two, Pena alone in season three, Kiki Camarena in Narcos: Mexico, and now a new guy, who is basically going to come down and probably get nothing done and the cycle will continue. Of course, if we do continue, that’s something we could explore. What both the archival footage and narrator voiceover does is that it reminds people that it’s real. You realize, “Oh, that happened.”
Would that hypothetical exploration involve a more inward look at the U.S. role in the drug war and show how Kiki Camarena’s death changed everything?
Maybe. That would probably make a lot of sense.
Narcos: Mexico is currently streaming all 10 episodes on Netflix. Head here for THR‘s show coverage.
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