InSight Crime Senior Investigator Deborah Bonello reflects on the new television series “El Chapo” in light of her experience covering the real-life crime boss, drug-related violence and other security issues in Mexico. Warning: This article contains spoilers.
On the morning of July 12, 2015, news broke that Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” had escaped from a maximum-security prison. Again. The news that the country’s most sought-after prisoner had walked to freedom for the second time brought a wry smile to my face and those of millions of Mexicans. Even after a decade reporting on Mexico’s drug war, disbelief mutated into incredulity, which mutated into head-shaking amusement.
You had to hand it to the world’s most famous drug lord since Pablo Escobar: he had style as well as guts. Guzmán escaped through a mile-long, lit and ventilated tunnel on a rail-mounted motorcycle. He emerged through a tiny square hole in the floor of a half-built house from which you could see the Altiplano prison that he fled.
The revelations that later emerged involving Rolling Stone magazine, Sean Penn and the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo (which might have aided the capo’s re-arrest and are summarized here by InSight Crime Co-director Steve Dudley) only added to the Hollywood-esque tint of Guzmán’s escape to freedom. The El Chapo story just kept giving.
I remember the foreign press corps, even those veterans who had been here for decades, repeating at that time, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
But actually, maybe you can.
Marco de la O as drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera in the Univisión/Netflix series “El Chapo.” Photo: Netflix
The first season of the “El Chapo” project — a co-production by Netflix and Univision that is the latest media effort to portray the life and style of Guzmán — strays from some of the established wisdom on the Culiacan native, which seems unnecessary given his litany of amusing escapades. Legend has it that the first time he went on the lam, he snuck out of the prison in a laundry basket.
Yet stray it does. The first episode has Guzmán — at this stage a lowly foot soldier disgruntled with his boss — go straight to Colombian cocaine legend Pablo Escobar. To Escobar’s very house. He brings with him the promise of delivering a cocaine shipment to the United States within the reduced time range of 48 hours. A rather predictable race against time ensues and yes, the future kingpin lives up to his bold promise.
But the notion that Guzmán, then an unknown, would have met with the king capo, against the wishes of his own boss, is preposterous.
“In every criminal structure, from gangs to cartels to Italian clans, there are rules and common sense. If you don’t have a reputation, a credible reputation, you won’t make it,” said David Martínez-Amador, a college professor focused on transnational organized crime and a self-confessed narco-nerd.
“As much as Chapo was creative, an innovator, etc … in real life, if that happens, you will be killed,” he said.
SEE ALSO: El Chapo News and Profile
That the Colombian drug baron would agree to Guzmán’s proposition also goes against all logic of organized crime.
The portrayal of incorruptible prison authorities during Chapo’s first stay behind bars is another of the most implausible elements to Netflix’s interpretation of the drug lord’s life. Corruption throughout the justice system was and is endemic in Mexico, and aided both of Guzmán’s great escapes.
But, as they say in the film business, let’s not let facts get in the way of a good story. The creators of “El Chapo” and thousands of other films, books and TV series based on narcos have not. Why? Because drug trafficking, crime and all that surrounds them is sexy. Its coolness is controversial, but it is a fact that these subjects have served as inspiration for a slew of fictionalized versions of stories of real-life outlaws. And the latest Netflix series is a good example of why.
Although it gets off to a slow start, it is good watching, and I was gripped by the end of episode three. The macabre killing of the family of Guzmán’s right hand man, Hector Palma Salazar, alias “El Guero,” played by Juan Pablo Acosta, was an important plot twist. (Here comes the spoiler. Fast forward two paragraphs if you want to save the surprise.)
The Avadaño brothers — loosely based on the the Arellano Felix brothers who formed the core of the future Tijuana Cartel — are rival traffickers keen to put the ambitious upstart Guzmán and his associates in their place. Their envoy tricks El Guero’s wife into leaving her husband and escaping to Venezuela with her and Salazar’s two young children.
Her “lover” kills her in a Caracas hotel, and then drives onto a bridge in the dead of night, lifts her sleeping, blanketed children out of the back seat of the car, and drops them over the side into an abysmal plunge to a dark, fast-flowing river. The Avadaño brothers send El Guero’s wife’s head home in an icebox. The war was on.
That this was a turning point for me doesn’t make me proud, but speaks to the kind of horrors one has come to expect from covering the violence between rival drug trafficking organizations in contemporary Mexico. As a reporter exposed to hyper-violent images and videos of real-life violence on a daily basis, I considered myself tragically hardened to the shock often brought on by killing of these kinds. Yet the fictional sequence of events was both surprising (I genuinely had no idea that the wife’s lover planned to trick her) and absolutely horrifying.
Although violence pervades the rest of the series, nothing as dark ensues. In general, the body count remains at the lower levels that were seen before the launch of Mexico’s modern-day drug war, a change that saw the onset of not only heightened numbers of homicides but new levels of brutality. Compared to today’s reality, the violence during this time of El Chapo’s career (the late 1980s and early 1990s) was relatively tame; that comes across in this fictional account.
But creative license is palpable in the casting — Marco de la O gives way more swagger and charm to Guzmán than seems evident in rare recent video footage of the real-life Sinaloa Cartel leader. The first series only runs up to the 1993 capture of Guzmán in Guatemala, a move the creators attribute directly to then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari in another plot twist that will prove controversial with historians.
“On the political front, the direct implication toward Salinas de Gortari’s administration [for the capture of El Chapo] … that is really big from the creators of the series. But again, it’s not real life,” said Martínez-Amador.
What does feel true to life is Guzman’s childhood flashbacks during his time in solitary confinement that comes at the end of the first season of the series. The respect and social status achieved by drug traffickers, especially in rural communities, is very real, as are Guzmán’s humble roots. In Sinaloa today, Guzmán is as respected and admired by locals as he is reviled by law enforcement.
SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Narco Culture
That said, throughout the series Guzmán lacks the distinctive, sharp accent of Mexico’s norteños. His family is depicted as dark-skinned when “Culichis” (the Mexican term used to refer to people from Culiacan and Sinaloa) are generally much lighter-skinned than the stereotypical images of brown-skinned Mexicans recognized by American audiences.
On the other hand, the portrayal of the war between the Avadaños and Guzmán felt very real to Martínez-Amador.
“[I liked] the representation of the war between the Arellanos [Avadaños] and Chapo. This is one of first and biggest wars. And lasted decades,” he told InSight Crime.
A sequence where cocaine is smuggled across the US-Mexico border (Avadaño territory) stuffed into cans of green chilies also really happened.
“I liked that, because, when doing comparisons between organized crime, you read about the pizza connection and everybody says, ‘How clever the Italians [were], smuggling drugs all over NYC in tomato sauce cans.’ Well, the Sinaloans did the same. But the American public will never recognize that Mexicans were as clever as the Sicilians,” said Martínez-Amador, who is originally from Sinaloa.
At the end of the first series, we leave Guzmán in solitary confinement after the prison authorities catch him plotting with his lawyer to escape. Defiant, he bellows out the words to Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s ranchera song “El Rey” (“The King”).
“With or without money / I always do what I want / And my word is the law.”
In the end, I couldn’t help liking De La O’s Guzmán, even though I know it’s wrong.