Focusing on the illegal drug trade in Mexico, Narcos: Mexico explores the origins of the modern drug war by going back to its roots. Witness the rise of the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s as Felix Gallardo unifies traffickers in building an empire, and as DEA agent Kiki Camarena tries to fight the drug trade that was happening then.
Watch the full trailer below:
At a roundtable at the See What's Next Asia event hosted by Netflix in Singapore, we had the chance to sit down with showrunner Eric Newman and actors Diego Luna and Michael Peña, portraying Felix and Kiki respectively, to talk about the contribution of the show on the war on drugs, the glorification on the lifestyle and more.
Whether the war on drugs is something that can be won
Eric Newman: I believe that if you use the terminology of “war on drugs,” you’ve already lost. I don’t believe there is a way to win a war on drugs. You treat it as a healthcare crisis which is what it is, and you combat addiction not by imprisoning people for being drug addicts but for getting them the help they need.
The contribution of Narcos: Mexico on the war on drugs
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Michael Pena: From my point of view, I play Kiki Camarena, a guy who sees the problem, doesn’t use drugs himself, he can’t let injustice just go by and loses sleep over it. Based on my research, he says “we’re here to help each other.” If you’re a contractor, for instance, you’re here to help people build houses or if you’re a chef you help people feed the crave for that hunger and so, everyone’s helping each other in a way. But if you look at drugs, for instance, it’s not really helping people especially illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin and things like that. It has destroyed families and that’s really happened – it destroys a person, their family, their friends, relationships and sometimes even being a mess in the society, so there’s a domino effect that happens sometimes. If you look at Los Angeles, all those guys who are criminals are mainly on drugs and have a different perspective on life where mainly everyone is an enemy. And that’s actually the conversation the show brings up, it’s supposed to be meant for entertainment in my mind, but it brings about these discussions that I think is good.
Eric Newman: There’s a very simple explanation for the drug epidemic that is based in falsehood, it’s that there are people in Colombia, in Mexico and Afghanistan who are sending us drugs that we don’t want and so we need to go to these places and stop them. But and I hope it comes through the show, is that there is tremendous complicity: governments, police, drug traffickers are all working together. You can’t look at the last 50 or 60 years of global politics where the communists were a great threat, and what we did by focusing our efforts on the enemy of communism is that we befriended people who were selling drugs because they are more of an ally to us – it’s in Asia, Latin America but we would look the other way and now we’re paying for it because now communism is gone and we are left with drug trafficking, terrorism, money laundering, and all these groups that function not in opposition to government but with government, in partnerships.
So what I think the show does and what Kiki Camarena figured out in 1980, and I believe he was one of the first people to do so, is that the government’s involved here. In the case of Narcos: Mexico, the Mexican government was a partner with drug traffickers and the American government was willing to look the other way because there were things that were more threatening to America at the time than drugs. And now, America is in the grip of an Opioid epidemic that is killing hundreds of thousands of people and it’s changing everything.
Insights on how Felix runs his business
Diego Luna: When you study Felix Gallardo’s story and when you study the whole building of the Guadalajara cartel, you realize how much ahead they were from everyone else. You know, Felix is a guy who is very smart, very business driven – he understands the business, he figures out what's needed and provides that. He's a middleman, I mean here the main character of the series is cocaine. It’s not Felix, Kiki, the DEA, the Mexican government, the American government, the market – it’s cocaine. And once you accept that, you realize Mexico is not a country that produces but that happens to be geographically in a very specific point, which is this huge gate between countries in development, countries that are poor and the United States of America, and because we are there it's such a crucial story to tell because it's the door to the market.
Fear on the glorification of Narcos on the lifestyle with its charismatic antagonists
Michael Pena: Before I was even on the show, just by reading Pablo Escobar and the kind of people following him, Escobar was really a charismatic guy. How do you bring and recruit all these different people to do the kind of work that you dream about? He was charismatic and very likable, even the American news outlets – they would do interviews with this very articulate person, and how do you not write about this person? But also, I want to say in another point, I wonder how many people die in the war in comparison to how many die because of overdoses and drug-related crimes.
Eric Newman: If you watch the show, you’ll see that these people meet horrible endings – they’re all dead or in jail. They’re also not particularly happy people. Now, could someone watch it and say he’s cool? There will be moments of that. The great thing about the medium of television is that in 10 or 20 hours, you can get to know someone despite the inhuman things that they do which is very important because our goal in the show is never to glorify but at the same time, you have to humanize these people and we’ll be doing a greater disservice to the audience to paint these men strictly as monsters. There are no monsters – bad guys don’t think they’re bad, they have a justification for why they do what they do. And the case with Narcos, these are not people who sprang forth their mothers’ wombs as monsters, they were created by a variety of circumstances – the economic disparity in Latin America, the appetite for drugs in America, constant American meddling in Latin America.
The atmosphere on set despite the intensity of the story
Diego Luna: I drink a lot of tequila when we’re done, and I go out of there and I experience the Mexico I love. I go out and enjoy my country; I just have to leave my character on set and I wander around the country I love.
On set, it depends a lot on the director – that’s something I understood in a modern TV series, far from the shows (telenovelas) I used to do and it took me quite a while to understand the process because, for example, there’s the showrunner which is the main writer then there are other writers that write each episode – and those guys are the ones that know exactly what’s going to happen to the story, know the complete arc of your character and it’s the people you work really close with, to understand where you are and what is needed from you.
And then you have the directors that are four different directors in this season; each one has his own taste, his own energy, his own way of shooting, and there are rules for all of them so it all works as a whole, but they do bring different things.
The challenging and enjoyable part about portraying your Kiki Camarena and Felix Gallardo
Michael Pena: There’s a lot, I guess there’s a lot. There was a lot of pressure obviously because you want to do good and you don’t want to portray him like a saint. Like what Eric said, you have 10 hours to really dive into a character. Also, I haven’t done television in a long long time and it’s a little bit of a different discipline where you can live life a little bit more as oppose to achieving different moments. It’s a little bit more like meditation in a way of a character.
Some of the Spanish were tough, even though it’s my first language, I spoke it only until I was 5 years old and my parents wanted to learn English, so we spoke broken English in the household. To be honest it was a tough part, there was a lot of exposition and you want to make it breathe – it’s in your gut to try to make it as good as possible so I would always put a lot of pressure on myself to make it something more than what it is on the page but you need that stuff especially when you’re doing such a complicated story and you want to simplify it, so that it moves. And, when I’m doing scenes like that because I’m calm as a person, I like to rev myself up so you’re feeling something.
Diego Luna: The most challenging thing is everything because it’s a very different character from everything I’ve portrayed before because it's a very complex character to understand and because the first thing you have to do as an actor is distancing your moral standards, not judge the character, try to understand where his decisions come from, try to find truthfulness in what you’re doing in order to create a three-dimensional character. I needed to humanize the character which is important when you’re playing a guy that is well known for doing so wrong to society so you get to make sure you're on the process, you are just analyzing things from his perspective and trying to understand that perspective and that's a difficult thing to do with a character like this.
Another very difficult thing for me was the violence because I am not a violent guy; I have never been in a fight. I like boxing, but I suffer while I watch boxing and I'm like, “oh no!” and here, this guy is very violent. The fun part of it was working with the amazing team of actors I work with, I truly think we have an ensemble cast that is amazing here. And everyone brings something different, all these characters have authenticity and the recreation of these worlds was that it was a very juicy world for actors. It was fun and interesting to do but it was a difficult thing to do but that’s the challenge I wanted to take, and that’s why I accepted to do the series.
Narcos: Mexico premieres November 16 on Netflix. Stream it here.