Commentary—Narcos: Mexico Season 3: A View From El Paso and Ciudad Juárez
Narcos: Mexico season three is concerned with the 1990s, especially the rise of Amado Carrillo Fuentes and the Juárez Cartel, disputes between Sinaloans and the Arellano Félix Cartel, and corruption within the PRI government. It is certainly fun to watch but despite its perhaps lofty intentions, Narcos: Mexico is commercial celluloid pulp, plain and simple. Neither historically or culturally accurate nor artistically imaginative, it is essentially a sexy product made for the marketplace. Where to begin with what’s wrong with it? Well, since I am writing from El Paso, let’s start there. For Narcos: Mexico, El Paso for the most part is a redneck country town—with its favorite cowboy music playing in the background of Texas Roadhouse-like joints. It’s a world away from Mexico where all the (violent) action takes place. The DEA agents are, of course, white and they have southern or Midwestern accents. Was the model for this depiction The Bridge, Cormac McCarthy, Traffic, Breaking Bad or what? Certainly not El Paso itself. Last I checked, 94% of the students at the University of Texas at El Paso were minorities, the Border Patrol and local police were mostly Hispanic and so even were the anti-narcotics agents, and of course most people in the streets. Spanish and Spanglish are the most common languages. Such was even the case in the 1990s when season three takes place. Of course, a related issue is that the Cártel de Juárez should actually be called the Cártel de El Paso y Juárez. Naturally, thousands of El Pasoans, white, black, and brown, are involved in the drug business and of course the gun business (from the US to Mexico)—which never gets the full attention it deserves.
But if Narcos: Mexico really gets anything right, it is that both countries, the U.S. and Mexico, are both to blame for the violence of the drug business/war on drugs. In some of the most convincing, heartfelt scenes—when General Gutiérrez Rebollo lays out the moral and practical hypocrisy of the War on Drugs to DEA agent Walt Breslin or when the good Juárez cop Victor Tapia does the same with the DEA’s James Kuykendall—at least that message is clearly conveyed. The rest of the show, however, for the most part sticks to standard tropes: wild gunfights, fake-looking cantinas, cold-blooded but fiery queen pins, bodies dangling from bridges, narco-mansions of obscene luxury, schlocky narco clothes and cars, and sincere, dedicated but flawed cops and agents who just want to make things right (while screwing up their marriages by obsessing over their jobs). Indeed, when I was watching the narco-wedding of Enedina Arellano, I felt I had already seen essentially that same scene in earlier seasons of Narcos: Mexico and Narcos (Colombia), not to mention many US mafia movies. The recycling of standard images, characterizations and motifs is unending and often distorting, e.g., the presentation of Rafael Aguilar, a founder of the Juárez Cartel, as a kind of a vulgar plebeian crook when in fact he was a bilingual border crosser, was head of the regional federal police in northern Mexico and married into the high society of Juárez. Moreover, he was murdered in Cancún, not Juárez, and not by Carrillo Fuentes personally. Additionally, what of the painting of a Juárez serial killer as a gringo? In fact, there is no proof or documentation that the murderer of hundreds if not thousands of Juárez women was a foreigner, not even Abdul Latif Sharif, the Egyptian chemist cruelly framed by the local police in the 1990s. Moreover, the formulaic presentation of the femicide saga provides little insight into this complex issue. Nor does the description of the Salinas presidency shed new light, although it is refreshing to see the focus on the institutionalized political corruption of Carlos Hank González.
Overall, the presentation of Tijuana and the Arellano Félix organization is more successful than that of Juárez and its eponymous cartel. For example, I must question where the idea came from for the portrayal of Amado Carrillo Fuentes as a kind of Leonardo da Vinci, a Rodin-esque thinker gazing into the sky or the ocean or musing as he looks down on the blinking, romantic lights of Juárez. In case you didn’t get the message, Carrillo Fuentes is shown dreamily cogitating in a least a dozen scenes. Incidentally, hanging out at scenic overlooks looking out over the city of Juárez is not a common activity here, especially because much of the city is flat and the rugged hilly sections of town hardly lend themselves to romantic, philosophical interludes or the hills are smack dab in the heart of poverty-stricken, ramshackle neighborhoods. In fact, if anyone were likely to do this they would go to El Paso’s Scenic Drive. Narcos: Mexico season three seems to want to give Juárez the exotic, high mountain valley appeal of Medellín.
And while we are wondering about the depiction of Amado and Juárez, why choose a charming Munchkin-like guy with pinch-able cheeks to play Chapo, a hardened criminal? This bit of casting is just about as wrong-headed as the choice of suburban boy-next-door Diego Luna to play drug lord Félix Gallardo. And what of the Juárez cop—whose tough guy with a heart pose did not prevent me from seeing the actor as the same one who played a silly, frivolous junior in Club de Cuervos? ¡Ay güey! And what about the burning barracks scene after the capture of Gutiérrez Rebollo—that seemed more like depiction of the Allende massacre (2011) in Somos or Apocalypse Now’s Vietnam, not something that happened in Tijuana.
I actually liked the original Narcos, about Colombia, more than Narcos: Mexico. Perhaps because I know Mexico better than Colombia and hence could see the cracks in the camera lens more clearly or perhaps because by the fifth and sixth seasons of Narcos, episodes begin to degenerate into cliché, cheese and entertainment schmaltz. I have to admit, however, that I never tire of the original theme music “Tuyo” by Rodrigo Amarante.