#SeriesInFocus: No Escobar-esque personality, but drug-war keeps you on edge
'Narcos: Mexico' marks the fourth season of the critically acclaimed Netflix show where DEA Agent Kiki Camarena attempts to take down the head of the Guadalajara cartel, Felix Gallardo. Set in Mexico, the 10 episode season, shows both the rise of the cartel and the DEA's attempts to dismantle it, right up to Camarena's sacrifice that sets things in motion. Spoilers ahead!
The pilot episode quickly establishes the major players. Rafa Quintero and Felix, Sinaloan weed traffickers, were co-founders of the Guadalajara cartel. Episode 1 hints at Rafa's wild side and Felix's ingenuity. On the other hand, it shows Kiki and the risks he would take to bring down drug dealers. It sets in motion Felix's expansion plans that would gain the DEA's attention.
For those unaware, Kiki's murder, for which Felix was responsible, led to the DEA manhunt that eventually brought down the Guadalajara cartel. The show predestines this by juxtaposing shots of Kiki and Felix. They both arrive at Guadalajara on the same day and drive past each other. Furthermore, they are both focused lone wolves, despite being surrounded by company, and are ruthless risk takers.
'Narcos: Mexico' sets itself before the events of Pablo Escobar's and Cali cartel's downfall and sees the early days of DEA, before it commanded much power or respect overseas, or even in US. It was due to the repeated efforts of agents like Camarena and their sacrifice that the DEA was feared by the time agent Murphy arrived in Colombia and took down Escobar.
Gallardo was the brains behind uniting the Mexican narco-traffickers into one consortium. Portrayed by Diego Luna, Gallardo commands respect as El Patron or the Godfather. However, his character remains understated, a sociopath business-minded man, who always tries to stay ahead of his enemies. While an intensity underscores his actions, they rarely brim to the surface except in instances where he loses his composure.
Michael Pena plays the intense Camarena, whose risk-taking is established when he points a gun at his own head during a drug bust. It is reinforced when he goes undercover to Gallardo's weed farm, without authorization, gathering evidence. Kiki's frustrations mirror the DEA's inadequacy in their early days. His death galvanized the agency giving it the feared stature we saw in Narcos' previous seasons.
Two supporting characters stood out, Rafa Quintero and Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman. Rafa was the brains behind Guadalajara cartel's superior weed. The influence of Scarface on Rafa is unmistakable. He dresses up like Al Pacino's character and goes off rails doing cocaine. Guzman, the future head of Sinaloa cartel, gets his start here and his violence is indicative of the feared career to come.
According to the timeline, cocaine was beginning to gain notoriety when Felix started the cartel. Notably, he turned down an offer to traffic cocaine at first, calling it a niche business, before realizing the money to be made. Thereon, we see him meet both the Cali cartel and Pablo Escobar played by Wagner Moura. Escobar's one scene was more intense than Gallardo's entire season.
Mexico is shown as a hotbed of corruption. Most of the cartel's power comes from owning law enforcement and politicians. Unlike Escobar who faced few righteous men, Mexico runs on bribes, from the elite DFS to governors. The show jokingly refers to Tijuana as the Costco for corruption. Season 4 masterfully explores widespread corruption within the Mexican government which allowed drug trade to flourish.
In Mexico, as a police officer explains, a bribe is called 'mordida' which literally translates to 'bite'. Used as a slang, the officer explains the reason outlining the widespread corruption in Mexico, saying everybody has got to eat.
Episode 1 begins beautifully showing the rolling green mountains of Mexico. Throughout the season viewers can feel the sand of the desert, and dust and grime of the countryside before being transported to the urban suaveness of city life. The season's locations should be credited to Carlos Muñoz Portal, the location scout who was shot dead in September 2017, while working on season 4.
If you walk in expecting a larger than life figure like Escobar from previous seasons, you will be disappointed. Gallardo is like the Cali brothers, calculated, shrewd, using violence only when necessary. However, this writer would rank 'Narcos: Mexico' over season 3, for its portrayal of corruption within the law and showing the political strong-arming that prevents law enforcement from taking down drug lords.
With 'Narcos: Mexico' showing the rise of the Guadalajara cartel and Mexico's drug war, the next season should continue exploring Mexico, focusing on Sinaloa, the region where Felix and most other feared drug lords are from. Hopefully, we will see Guzman's fearsome rise to power.