Warning: Slight spoilers from Narcos: Mexico season 2 are ahead.
Narcos: Mexico starts with the fresh-face of Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna) who has ambition and wants a better life for his family. But by the tenth episode of the first season, he’s a fully corrupt drug lord. As head of the Guadalajara cartel, he’s got a series of operations running under his rule (they’re called plazas), friends in the highest seats of the Mexican government, and he’s just ordered the torture and murder of an American DEA agent, Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña). That final move earns him the attention of ramshackle DEA task force, led by our narrator Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy), who’s now made his way in front of the camera. We’re all pretty clear on where this leaves Felix in Narcos: Mexico, season 2, right? He is, in a word, screwed.
If you didn’t know that from the character arc alone, you probably knew at least a little bit of the true stories behind Narcos: Mexico, and the fact that Felix Gallardo isn’t the drug lord name most of us know. He’s headed for a fall — one that will open up the world that helped create El Chapo (who is, at the start of season 2, just a lowly plaza boss under Felix’s rule). We watch as Felix struggles to hold onto his empire, and the writers very deliberately delve into a series of miniature dramas within each plaza. By season’s end, we’re going to need to know their names and their history. If Narcos: Mexico gets the season 3 order showrunner Eric Newman is after, it is their stories we’ll be following next.
But neither Narcos series — the original, set in Colombia, nor Mexico — is a documentary. The true stories that inspired the series are just that: inspiration. So, to help separate the fact from the fiction and help us understand why we spend so much time with a doomed plaza boss (R.I.P. Pablo Acosta), we asked Newman to break season 2 down.
Refinery29: In season 1 we saw the rise of Felix, and it’s becoming clear that he’s not the only player in this cartel game. How would you characterize season 2?
Eric Newman: “He built an empire and personnel are, now, the problem. If you could truly do it alone, great. But once you get in partnerships, particularly if one of your partners is the government, you're in trouble.”
You spend a lot of the season building up the plaza bosses.
“Because of where we might go in the future, where the story goes. Spoiler alert, all these plaza bosses become their own thing. What Felix represented prior to that was a controlling influence. We talked about the Roman empire a lot in the season where Rome kept these people from killing. They’d say ‘You're a Roman citizen and you don't get to kill another Roman citizen.’ And it became a governance that kept the country from descending into violence, which we have today because that was blown off. They lost that control.”
In telling this story there are lots of real pieces you can choose from. You spend a lot of time on Pablo Acosta and Mimi Webb. How did you come to that decision?
“I tend to have a vague idea of what we're going to do. It altered slightly based on appetite and how much material there is. But I had originally planned on doing two seasons of Escobar, two seasons of Cali, and then moving to Mexico and Felix Gallardo. This was born of real researching, realizing that it's difficult to tell the story without telling the sort of origin of the modern era of drug trafficking in Mexico, which is the beginning of the Guadalajara cartel: Felix, his dream, and then, where it went horribly wrong. Pablo Acosta was the star of a book I read called Drug Lords by Terrence Papa.
“I saw him very much as the last of his kind; an old school trafficker who had a code who, had honour. And it was a great juxtaposition against a new class of trafficker that did not. Felix Gallardo, despite what Pablo Costa might say, was not the worst of his kind. The worst of his calling was coming. The violence that we see now characterizes Mexico in the drug war with some of these new cartels, these sort of young, born in violence, trained in the military terrorists are the latest symptom of a lost drug war. So the Pablo Acosta story and his relationship with Mimi, which is true, seemed like it had an emotional investment to it that you kind of hope that they get away. Wouldn't it be great if they rode off into the sunset? But Pablo Acosta knows that guys like him don't get to ride off into the sunset.”
Another big piece of this season is Operation Leyenda. I’m going to assume the character names and their actions aren’t pulled straight from real life.
“Leyenda is a composite. Walt is a composite. In our research there are a lot of things that we can never know. Even if someone's telling you what they were thinking, you can't really know. All we know is what happened. Our goal is to reconstruct, to the best of our ability, why it happened, what you were thinking, what you thought you needed that forced you down this road. In the case of Leyenda, we interviewed seven or eight agents, who, in one way or another, said they were in charge of or were involved in Leyenda. They all had a different story and if they knew of the others, they diminish their role in it.
Leyenda became an exercise that certainly didn't yield any kind of justice. That was a frustrating PR move almost. And, at least in retrospect, did it really happen? We were able to sort of construct a version of Leyenda where you almost get what you want and then very much don't. That was sort of the key to that story. Each one of these guys believed, Okay, now we're going to get them. And of course we can get anybody. I mean, it's a total failure. You could say, Well, we got this and we got that and some really tough legislation. But the guys that did it, they got away with it. Some of the traffickers went to a Mexican jail, but they weren't really the guys calling the shots. Then we all made friends again and we drafted the North American free trade agreement and all is forgiven. The money washes the sin away.”
But you do give us Agent Walt Breslin, as the leader of Leyenda. And he’s not necessarily a hero but he hits a lot of those All American hero points and he’s pretty sympathetic.
“We're not the kind of show that has a square jawed American hero come down and kick ass. We're the kind of show that has a square jawed American hero who thinks they're going to go down and kick ass and then doesn’t. The evolution through five seasons now of lawmen is this is the first guy who's like, You know what? We gotta go hard. The only way we're gonna get this guy is if we do this. And they do, and he's wrong. He goes down and he fails.
My favourite part of the season is he's told that he failed by the guy who he’s been chasing, We both failed and here's what's going to happen.
When Osama bin Laden was killed and everyone's celebrating, I remember thinking, Forget about him. We got there, these other guys over here now. He's basically just some old guy living in the Anaheim of Pakistan watching pornography. He's out of the game and you're celebrating. I feel the same about Chapo Guzman. I went to the trial, and like he's irrelevant. There's this other guy over here who's running things now. That kind of revolving door, where there are little victories that you can celebrate for a minute, but the reality is the flow of drugs continues. Until we address the demand for drugs, we don't have a shot. I mean find me the economics book that says that supply drives demand. It’s not true.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.