His full name is Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. He’s been called “El Padrino,” which translates to “godfather” in Spanish. But on this season of Narcos: Mexico, out November 16 on Netflix, he’s just Félix, the man who straddles the ever-shifting line between protagonist and villain. The past three seasons of Narcos have focused on the leaders of Colombia’s Medellin and Cali cartels (Pablo Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, respectively). Narcos: Mexico makes a leap from Colombia to Guadalajara, Mexico in the mid-1980s, and depicts how one man radically shifted the country’s drug smuggling landscape.
Compared to past drug lords in Narcos, Gallardo – played with furrowed brow by Mexican actor Diego Luna — seems almost sweet. He’s just a kid from Sinaloa with an ambitious (but earnest) dream of uniting Mexico’s tumultuous plaza system into one united marijuana empire. Over the course of the season, however, the role seeps into the man. Gallardo first becomes a drug lord. Then, he starts acting like one.
But how does this Hollywood depiction compare to the real kingpin? Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo was born in 1946 on a ranch in Sinaloa, Mexico, a state in Northwestern Mexico. Before becoming one of the country's most well-known criminals, he actually worked for the government — after graduating from college, he became a Mexican Federal Judicial Police agent. Fittingly, as Narcos: Mexico spends much of its 10-episode run establishing just how corrupt the police system in Mexico was in the '80s, Gallardo's former branch was notoriously twisted. The Federal Judicial Police shut down in 2002 because of corruption within its ranks, and was replaced by a new unit called the Federal Investigative Police.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gallardo established many connections that would become useful for his empire-building while working for the police. Gallardo was assigned to be the family bodyguard for Leopoldo Sánchez Celis, the governor of Sinaloa state. He became very close to the Celis family. Celis made Gallardo his godson; eventually, Gallardo became the godfather of Celis' son, Rodolfo Sánchez Duerte.
While working as a bodyguard for Celis, Gallardo met Pedro Áviles Perez, another one of the governor's bodyguards. Áviles was a drug smuggler, and recruited Gallardo into his marijuana and heroin-exporting enterprise. When Áviles was killed in a shoot-out by the Federal Police in 1978, Gallardo took over his massive kingdom — and changed everything. Before Gallardo, the marijuana smugglers of Mexico operated in distinct regions called "plazas," each led by an equally tough drug lord.
In the 1980s, Gallardo, along with his associates Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo (more commonly known as Don Neto), altered the system. Gallardo united the leaders of each plaza system into one organization, of which he was the leader. The cartel boasted a 1,344-acre marijuana plantation called "Rancho Bufalo" in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, which contained somewhere between $3.2 billion and $8 billion worth of marijuana in today's prices. This isolated field grew a marijuana strain called "sinsemilla," or "seedless," which could be packed more efficiently.
Under Gallardo's leadership, the Guadalajara Cartel monopolized almost all of Mexico's drug trafficking. The cartel's income skyrocketed after Gallardo partnered with the Cali and Medellin cartels of Colombia, and began exporting their cocaine through Tijuana.
In the beginning, cartel was protected by certain government organizations, especially the DFS intelligence agency. The Guadalajara's downfall had a lot to do with the murder of Mexican-American DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985, following the DEA's raid of Rancho Bufalo. The DEA retaliated by launching Operation Leyenda, an initiative to take down everyone involved with Camarena's death — including Gallardo. Quintero and Carrillo were both arrested in 1985. Gallardo initially evaded arrest, but finally was caught in April of 1989 and charged with the kidnapping and murder of Camarena, in addition drug trafficking. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Gallardo was sentenced to 37 years in prison. When he first got there, he continued to act as the cartel's de facto leader, arranging drug deals via cell phone and fax machine. Gallardo ordered his monopoly to be separated into territories, each controlled by a different member of his group. Then, in 1992, Gallardo was transferred to the Altiplano maximum security prison and could no longer contact his associates. Without Gallardo, the territory groups splintered and fought; nothing resembling Gallardo's unified organization has been risen since.
Gallardo's family has protested the conditions of the Altiplano prison. In 2011, Gallardo's family printed a full-page letter in Mexico City newspapers about his mistreatment. "For more than three years, without any justification, prison authorities have kept him segregated, isolated, and without contact with other inmates, and have prevented him from participating in any physical, sports or educational activities," the letter read.
Narcos: Mexico depicts the very start of the drug wars in Mexico. Gallardo's story is an essential part of understanding today's Mexico.