Good news, Narcos fans. Narcos: Mexico is just as riveting (and educational) as its predecessor. Narcos has relocated from Colombia through the ‘70s to ‘90s to Guadalajara, Mexico in the early '80s. This is a new setting, but the same Narcos. As always, the show follows the rise of a drug empire in a Latin American country, and the efforts of the DEA to thwart said empire.
Thanks to new geopolitical circumstances and new characters, the show feels fresh as ever. In this case, the budding drug lord is Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), an outsider among the marijuana farmers in Sinaloa, a rural state in Mexico in which, as he puts it, “nothing ever happens.” Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (Michael Peña) feels similarly stuck in Fresno, California, where he’s worked for the DEA for the past five years. In the pilot episode, Kiki and Felix both set themselves on courses that bring them to Guadalajara, Mexico, the scene of our not-so-merry tale.
Follow along as we recap the ten episodes of Narcos: Mexico.
Episode 1: "Camelot"
Within the first few minutes of the pilot episode, Narcos: Mexico positions itself as the story you haven’t heard, because you, naïve plebeian, were paying attention to the headlines. It’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true: Wake up, people. This is the real war, and it’s been going on for decades. As the unnamed narrator — who is never without a handy statistic — explains, the drug war in Mexico has killed 500,000 people in the last 30 years, and it’s still unfurling. Narcos: Mexico is an origin story for this war. And in this origin story, Kiki Camarena is the first person to realize what’s really happening.
But first, there's Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo – the Jack Pearson of Mexico (Luna really does look like Milo Ventimiglia). Beginning in the ‘70s, Sinaloa was one of three regions that comprised the Mexican Golden Triangle. In this “Garden of Eden of drugs,” rural farmers grew and shipped out various drugs to the United States. But the Mexican government’s Operation Condor put a stop to it. This military operation burned all of the heroin and marijuana fields and arrested all the traffickers, all to remind the now-powerful farmers that the government was boss.
Everyone who works for Sinaloa’s Pedro Aviles (Antonio Lopeztorrez), including Felix, is affected by the raid. But from the moment we meet Felix when he’s rescuing his friend, Rafael Caro Quintero (Tenoch Huerta) from the police, we know that he’s is wilier than everyone else — and thus will be good at weathering the new ecosystem. Miguel’s wife, Maria (Fernanda Urrejola), also manages to save some of their weed supply. They’re a good duo.
For Felix, this blank slate offers an opportunity. Even if he plays casual — and he really plays casual — this is a man who thinks things through. At first, Felix’s plan to save the Sinaloa cartel seems outlandish. He proposes moving the Sinaloa cartel’s infrastructure to Guadalajara, even though Guadalajara already has a drug family of its own, the Naranjo Brothers. Why would the Naranjos ever agree to this? But since Aviles, the “Lion of Sinaloa,” is clearly at a loss for next steps, he decides to trust this soft-spoken outsider and sends him to Guadalajara to make a deal. Miguel, Rafa, and one of the other farmers, a curmudgeonly, middle-aged man named Don Neto (Joaquín Cosio) pile into a car and drive to Guadalajara. It's a nice nod to Diego Luna’s famous road trip movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien. Rafa looks at the sights of the city with undisguised awe.
To summarize Felix’s maneuverings quickly, this is what goes down in Guadalajara: Don Neto brokers a meeting with one of the Naranjo brothers in a hotel. Tweedlee, which is what I call the bowl-cut, orange-jacketed Hernan Naranjo (Hernan Romo), dismisses Felix — and, since this is Narcos, Felix kills him. This is a bold, “take me to your leader” move. When the Lions come to punish Felix, Rafa, and Neto, Miguel manipulates them into arranging a meeting with the Commander, nicknamed el Azul (Fermin Martinez).
There, Felix presents his big bargaining chip: Rafa the horticultural genius has developed a new strain of weed. His strain, called “sinsemilla” (without seeds) grows without seeds, stems, and other "unsmokable" parts of marijuana because it doesn't have a y chromosome. This is big deal. Because it lacks the bulky parts of the marijuana plant, the sinsemilla strain can be packed more efficiently.
The Commander recognizes sinsemilla as the incredible opportunity it is, even if the Naranjo Brothers don’t. So, he does the only Narcos option: Kills Tweedledum — aka Hermin Naranjo (Ari Gallegos) — and turns over the cartel to Sinaloa in exchange for a 50-50 cut.
At the end of the episode, Miguel gazes out at empty fields with the same expression of hope that Simba had peering down from Pride Rock. This isolated field, precisely chosen with the help of a geology professor, is where he’ll build his empire.
Later on, Kiki Camarena (our other protagonist) runs into el Azul in the bathroom of the police’s favorite dive bar. Kiki has only been at his new DEA posting in Guadalajara for a day. He’s at a bar where all the different factions of Mexican police hang out, from municipal police to state police — to commanders. Yep, the Commander is a high-ranking government official. Kiki’s boss, Jaime (Matt Letscher), explains that those super high-ranking people only deal with the CIA, and have nothing to do with the DEA. But Kiki doesn’t play by those rules, which clearly allow the current corrupt power structure to thrive. When Kiki sees the Commander in the bathroom, he comments that he has blood on his shoes.
Kiki is the lone whistle-blower in a DEA branch that is super passive. The DEA of past seasons of Narcos wielded tangible power, but that's not how it is in Guadalajara. The DEA agents aren’t even allowed to make arrests. They can only gather information. This isn’t exactly what Kiki had in mind when he relocated his pregnant wife, Mika (Alyssa Diaz) and son to Guadalajara.
In summary: We have a cop who’s better at his job that people are letting him be. And we have an ex-cop, Miguel, who’s also better at his job than people give him credit for – though not for long. The first episode positions Kiki and Miguel’s origin stories as “not so different,” but, of course, they are. Their circumstances and alignments are off; maybe their instincts are similar.
Here’s my question: Why isn’t Kiki narrating? In past seasons, the DEA agent who was in the show narrated. I have a feeling I know the answer, but the answer involves googling Kiki Camarena — and that, my friends, is something you must do on your own, which I don't recommend. There shall be no spoilers in these recaps.
Who’s winning the cat and mouse game? So far, Miguel. He has his empire in order. Kiki can’t even make an arrest. He’s a glorified camera.
Episode 2: "The Plaza System"
Before we begin, a brief ode to the perfection that is the opening credit song of Narcos. This song is a bop. It's sexy. Now, onto the other juicy bit of Narcos: Mexico.
Last episode was a broad stroke introduction to Felix, Kiki, and the systems in which they’re entrenched. Here, we see who they are. Felix and Kiki may be working toward different goals – Kiki, taking down drug cartels; Felix, building a consolidated drug empire — but they have fundamental traits and outlooks common. Both Kiki and Felix visionaries who want to change stubborn and fixed systems, upheld by equally stubborn and fixed people. They’re miniature Atlases, pushing their dreams up a mountain. The rock keeps falling down but they keep getting back up, never mind the the fact that the rock could very well fall crush them the way down.
Before we go into the specifics of what happened on the Kiki and Felix Fronts, let’s get some history lessons out of the way. Narcos does a fantastic job of succinctly summarizing information with cheeky, documentary-like sequences. In this episode, we learn about the DFS, that group of “untouchable” officials that Jaime pointed out to Kiki in the cop bar (in English, DFS translates to Federal Security Directorate), including El Azul.
The DFS is technically supposed to be the highest form of the law enforcement. Instead, it’s the most twisted. The DFS was created to help the U.S. during the Cold War — if the C.I.A. needed anything done, the DFS did it, including surveilling Russian diplomats and squashing the Communist party by any means necessary (including carrying out bloody massacres). Now, carrying a DFS badge is license to do whatever — including get a cut of Felix's cartel's profits.
If Felix is going to upend the plaza system, he needs the DFS on board. The DFS and the cartel can work together for a cohesive, law-free partnership. And if Kiki is going to actually make arrests, he’ll need to get around the DFS.
Next up, in great battles: It’s Felix vs. the Plaza System. To understand why Felix’s dream of a consolidated drug empire are so radical, we have to situate them within the drug landscape of Mexico in 1985, known as the plaza system. Essentially, marijuana grown in Sinaloa was shipped out to bosses in cities around the country, who ran their own territories. Felix essentially had to do the impossible: Get these guys to work together. Don Neto’s skeptical face says it all. He doesn’t think it’s possible.
But Felix, much like his This Is Us lookalike Jack Pearson, doesn’t believe in “impossible.” This episode, he surmounts everything skeptics (like Don Neto) give up on, starting with uniting all the bosses. One by one, he gets bosses in far-flung Mexican cities to agree to his plan. Felix travels with Don Neto and Neto’s nephew, Amado (Jose Maria Yazpik). You might recognize Amado from season 3 of Narcos, which is set slightly in the future — Amado is the leader of the Juarez Cartel by then. Felix’s first stop is Juarez. Foreshadowing?
On his grand tour of the plaza system, Felix spins his plan for an “OPEC for weed” in such an appealing way he could probably win over Kevin of Shark Tank, too. Reduced violence! More profits! Streamlined system! What is there not to like? So long as the DFS is on board, the bosses agree to meet in Guadalajara to solidify the empire.
Great. He’s got the guys to agree. But Felix plans to ship all of America’s weed supply. How will he export it? Felix seems to effortlessly solves another big hurdle to his business: Transportation. He partners with Alberto Sicilia Falcon, a Cuban cocaine trafficker based in Mexico. We’ve traveled a long way from the bleating goats in this episode’s opening scene to Falcon’s home, where Mexico’s elite scoop spoonfuls of cocaine in hot tubs. Felix gains entry into such esteemed ‘80s-decorated headquarters because he knows Isabella (Teresa Ruiz), a woman who climbed from Sinaloa to the upper crust – and kept her eye on Felix all the same. So far, he’s remaining loyal to his wife and kids. But who knows? This is Narcos, and there are no good men.
There’s one little problem to Felix’s plan, though, and that’s his own boss, Pedro Aviles. Aviles refuses to cooperate with another one of the bosses, Acosta. When he drops out, so do the other bosses. Aviles knocks Felix down from his lofty position and summons him home to Sinaloa, tail between legs. But the DFS leader was in the room to hear Felix plan — and he liked it. On their way back to Sinaloa, Aviles and Felix are stopped by cop cars (the irony!). It’s the DFS and Don Neto, making sure Felix doesn’t get away. Don Neto finally came around! Maybe is was all the coke?
Pause for a second, because this is the moment Felix really becomes the antagonist/protagonist/focal point of Narcos. He kills Aviles. And he becomes the boss of all the bosses.
Also, did you catch the driver introducing himself as Chapo? That's El Chapo, the future leader of the Sinaloa cartel.
To the rest of his team in the DEA, Kiki is a madman. A conspiracy theorist. He’s the boy who whined wolf (or drug trafficking!) when there are no wolves (just empty pipes). But hey — maybe everyone should listen to the boy who cried wolves. Because the wolves are there! And so is the evidence. Kiki realizes that since the Naranjo brothers are dead, someone’s encroaching on Guadalajara territory.
Essentially, this episode wants us to be the ones who believe in Kiki’s crazy theories, even when no one else does. Kiki is convinced that a certain lot is the home to a massive trafficking business. He eventually convinces his boss to cut through the overgrown jungle that is Mexico’s police force, and start a raid. Kiki’s humiliated when all they find is a truck full of plumbing equipment.
But Kiki is a guy who doesn’t know how, or when, to stop. The dude’s wife is pregnant and he’s running after a truck down a dirt road in the middle of the wife. He’s sure that the trucks are transporting drugs. Given the Commander’s presence in that lot, he’s probably right.
While his partner is doing more geopolitical maneuverings than a diplomat does in a lifetime, Rafa was on his own mission: Find water in a desert. The “sinsemilla” strain of marijuana can only grow in isolated locations, either indoors or in deserts. But there wasn’t enough water. So, after forcing a poor, trembling, geology professor to point out the exact location of the aquifer, Rafa strips down and digs. And digs. And lets the moonlight shine off his cheekbones. He finds water! The empire is officially in business, baby. And so far, only Kiki is there to stop it.
Who’s winning the cat and mouse game? Felix. He’s got a field and he’s got a budding empire — and he’s also got a powerless opponent.
Episode 3: "El Padrino"
Somewhere, scrawled on the margins of a Narcos’ writer’s notebook, there are the inklings of another show. It’s called The Wives of Narcos: Mexico, and it consists of the actual reactions to the absolutely ridiculous stuff the women who have linked their lives to these men put up with on a daily basis. So far, Felix and Kiki’s wives have essentially functioned as support animals. They pet their husband’s heads and enable their decisions, but don’t have any real decision-making power.
Case in point: Kiki’s pregnant wife, Mika, moved to Mexico for her husband’s career. She puts up with his stubbornness and temper tantrums. Then, she goes into labor while he’s venturing into the Mexican wilderness on a (reckless) mission to find the cartel’s marijuana fields. I know, I know, Kiki is a “good guy,” as the narrator describes him. And he is! But I think of Mika and Little Kiki. On the other side, of course, Felix is becoming a Narcos husband before our very eyes, which is bad news for Maria.
But, back to business. Because that’s what this show is about. “Men’s” business. At last, Kiki and Felix are setup on a trajectory to meet one another.
In this episode, Kiki’s trio of white, lanky, over-confident co-workers finally realize that their brazen newcomer isn’t spewing conspiracy theories about a united plaza system. He’s telling the truth. However, this hard-won breakthrough only occurs after a blowout that would tear most offices apart. Now, instead of rolling their eyes at Kiki, the DEA can finally work together to start monitoring the cartel. Their in-fighting reveals the extent of Kiki's coworker's internalized bias against Mexicans.
It took a lot of convincing for Jaime to believe the Mexicans were capable of organizing and forming a cartel successfully. The breakthrough comes when Jaime realizes that the Mexican and American governments’ joint plan to eradicate the fields is all a sham. They’re not eradicating the fields at all. The governments are turning a blind eye to all drug activity, and then saying, “Wow! Look how much we got done.” Yet another example of the very corrupt partnership forged between the U.S. and Mexican government.
This episode also gets at some of the unspoken racial dynamics of the DEA team in Guadalajara. As the only person of Mexican descent in the office, Kiki is able to bring tangible evidence of the newly formed cartel’s fields to the DEA by actually posing as a field worker for a day. He works in the marijuana fields. While at the ranch, he attracts the attention of the DFS’s el Azul.
He’s in hot water. But hey, on the bright side, he’s also a dad to a second son!
Being a cartel leader is hard, you guys! Sometimes you have to do terrible things! Sometimes you think you’re climbing the social ladder and can hang out with the upper crust, and then they betray you! All in a day’s work.
Felix has leveled up in drug lord status, and he’s loving it. His cartel is bringing in tens of millions of dollars every day, and his family has moved into a lavish mansion. But — surprise, surprise — Felix’s initial promise of a non-violent cartel doesn’t pan out. If Narcos teaches us anything, it’s that it never does.
The DFS believes it has been underpaid by one of the branches in Felix’s cartel. So, the DFS commander Nava (Ernesto Alterio) orders officials to shoot up the traffickers and their families in their homes. This is the show’s first massacre scene (likely one of many) and it’s extremely shocking.
Following the shoot-out, Felix finds himself in a strategical pickle. The DFS leader, Nava, wants Felix to do a favor for an undisclosed person. The Arellano Felix brothers, whose cousin was killed in the massacre, want revenge on the DFS. After some brow-furrowing, Felix enacts a solution while at the wedding he throws for the son of the governor of Sinaloa in his brand-new hotel.
The location is telling. By throwing a wedding for a Sinaloan governor’s son, Felix is debuting his new power and status in the community. Given his position, he believes can also exert his power over both the members of the cartel and the DFS. Thanks to some helpful advice from the governor, Felix sorts out the problem: The Arellano Felix brothers can kill the perpetrator of the massacre, and the DFS can shut up because they’re ultimately reliant on his money.
How do the governor and Felix know each other, anyway? In a past life, Felix had worked as a bodyguard for the governor. He considers him a father figure. Felix is his son’s godfather (perhaps how Felix got the nickname el Padrino). But the governor emphasizes that he and Felix aren’t equals, and never will be. At the end of the wedding, the governor charges Felix for his advice. Felix thought had transcended his roots as a poor boy from Sinaloa. The governor sent his confidence tumbling.
But I suspect it won’t be long before he gets that confidence back.
Rafa! Be still my susceptible heart. He pierces Mexico’s class system and gets with the bougie girl at the wedding. This is a set-up for a doomed romance and I am so on board.
Who’s winning the cat and mouse game? Always Felix, it seems!
Episode 4: "Rafa, Rafa, Rafa!"
We’ve been building towards this: A taut, intense episode in which of the characters have to reckon with the constraints of their new reality. Rafa is a reckless, romantic guy whose snap decisions cost his more mature counterparts heavily. Neto’s cocaine problem is, well – a problem. All of Kiki’s investigations into Gallardo’s empire have no currency in a law enforcement determined to preserve the status quo (and a United States who denies the possibility of said empire). And finally, Felix’s reliance on the DFS to protect him and his empire comes at a huge, huge price.
These strings are plucked thanks to one very Rafa incident, which occurs at the start of the episode. Rafa and his wealthy girlfriend, Sofia (Tessa Ia) – who call themselves Bonnie and Clyde – enact their grand scheme to liberate herself from her bourgeoisie family. Rafa and a henchman burst into Sofia’s family’s Christmas party dressed as a revolutionaries (never mind that they can’t pronounce the word “proletariat”) and kidnap her. Now, Rafa and Sofia can live in decadent splendor in the mansion. Sidenote: Rafa and Sofia have some seriously smokin’ sexual chemistry. Would watch their spinoff like, now. It would be called Cheekbones in the Moonlight.
Rafa picked the wrong girl to fake kidnap. Sofia's father is an high-up minister in the PRI party, which had controlled the executive branch in Mexico for decades. The PRI party quickly figures out the identity of Sofia’s kidnappers, and proceeds to threaten Felix: Either Felix can turn in Rafa, or PRI is going going to pick apart his empire until it crumbles. Clearly the government, much like the DFS, seems more intent on pursuing personal grudges than on enforcing laws.
What’s a Felix to do? For this episode’s requisite one-scene appearance, Felix’s wife, Maria, reminds him that family is family, and he must save Rafa. So, instead of turning Rafa in, as was Felix’s original plan, he transports him to a safe house in a remote neighborhood. Despite this being another dark, brutality-filled episode of Narcos, the scenes in the safe house with Rafa and Don Neto are reminders of just how funny Narcos can occasionally be. A few minutes after Don Neto almost chokes him for betraying Miguel, they get high on cocaine and scream about how CDs that don’t skip are the “future.” The pendulum of drama! My hair is flowing in the wind.
After getting Rafa to the safe house, Felix looks to the DFS for help. Felix proposes a solution to Nava, the DFS commander. In exchange for doing the favor Nava mentioned last episode, the DFS agrees to help with Rafa-gate. Here’s the gist of the mission: Felix and Amado have to fly weapons to Nicaragua for the Secretary of Defense. This vague, shady mission turns out to be a set-up. Felix gets blindfolded and severely tortured. It’s punishment for his arrogance in refusing the DFS last week. Felix isn’t allowed to say no to the DFS. He may be successful, but he’s not free.
But the DFS should think twice before trying to show our buddy Felix a lesson. Even while he was being tortured, he was paying attention. He saw all the cocaine being transported to the United States. Cocaine isn’t the small “niche” enterprise he’d dismissed it as being earlier. Now, he thinks he can team up with Colombian cartels — former Narcos territory – to expand his empire. Though to do so, he’ll have to get closer with Isabella (Teresa Ruiz), the Sinaloan woman with connections to Falcon and cocaine dealers.
The DEA sees Rafa’s predicament as a huge opportunity to get closer to Felix. Until now, they’ve been prevented from even seeing Felix due to crafty DFS blockades and a skillful level of shiftiness. The DEA teams up with a branch of the Mexican police to try and track Rafa down, using some of the contacts that Kiki has cultivated. But Kiki doesn’t agree with the Mexican police’s “unsubtle” methods. The corrupt Commander Pavon roughs up an informant to get information about Rafa, and later abruptly manipulates Kiki’s civilian friend into illegally check phone call records between Carla and Rafa. He has no decorum, though he does get the job done more efficiently, perhaps, than Kiki. They find the safe house.
Oddly enough, just as they’re about to enter the safe house, the mission to snag Rafa is called off by a directive from on high. Who in Mexico City called off the mission? Who in the government doesn’t want to catch Felix? Is there any way the small policeman can surmount the DFS? Probably not.
Who’s winning the cat-and-mouse game? For as long as the government is on his side, it’ll be Felix.
Episode 5: "The Colombian Connection"
The mark of an exciting episode of TV: When you stop taking notes, and just watch the damn thing. That’s exactly what happened with this exhilarating and rewarding episode of Narcos: Mexico. So far, Narcos: Mexico has existed as a relatively standalone installment of Narcos, placing a similar format onto a new set of characters. This episode situates this show within the rest of the Narcos universe in a brilliant but ultimately improbable scenario. Did this happen in history? Who knows. Is it fun? YES!
All of this is lead-up to say: We meet Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel again! Should we be greeting Wagner Moura’s wrinkled face as if it were that of an old friend’s? Probably not — but such are the blurred lines between entertainment and reality. Narcos turns real-life drug lords into (occasionally sympathetic) main characters. It’s our responsibility as viewers to remember they’re not just characters — they’re people who unleashed violence into the world, and to temper our excitement accordingly. Still: Pablo! Is! Back!
In this episode, Felix reveals the tragic flaw which he shares with all the other drug kingpins we’ve seen in Narcos. Spoiler: It’s ruthless ambition. Felix’s marijuana empire had reached an impressive stasis. They managed to control the price of weed in the United States, and eradicate almost all the violence and in-fighting. Felix himself was rendered untouchable by protection from the DFS.
Instead of just letting his empire flourish peacefully, he had to grow it. He just had to add cocaine to the mix. As Pablo (Wagner Moura) warns him, cocaine is a different substance than weed. Weed, as he correctly predicts, will one day legalized in the United States. Coke’s a different story. It’s dangerous, as we’ve seen first-hand with Don Neto and Rafa’s increasingly erratic behavior since they started using. By deciding to transport cocaine, Felix is threatening his business’ equilibrium. And no one, from his wife to his partners, is pleased with this decision.
Still, he forges ahead, sniffing an obvious opportunity for untold riches. Felix has Isabella broker him a meeting with her cocaine-dealing friends. When presented with the two leaders in the coke trade — the sensible ones (Cali) and the emotional one (Escobar) — he decides he’ll go into business with the sensible ones, a decision in line with Felix’s character. This conversation shows just how disconnected Felix is from the cocaine trade; how new he is to all this. He should’ve known better than to leave Escobar out. Felix brings Isabella along, thinking she’ll be an alluring bonus. It’s annoying to see women spoken of, so blatantly, as items. Such is the world of Narcos.
The meeting with the men of Cali goes well (though it was impossible to forget exactly how all of these men would experience their downfalls, as depicted in season 3). And why wouldn’t it? Felix is offering offering to transport their cocaine through their avenues in Tijuana at a time when all smuggling via the Caribbean had been shut down.
In retrospect, it’s hilarious that Felix thought he could get on the jet back to Mexico without seeing Pablo! I mean, really. Just as Felix and Isabella are getting on the plane, Pablo’s cronies — hey there, Blackie (Julian Diaz) — capture them and drive them down to Medellin. Whereas the meeting with Cali was a straight business meeting in, you know, an office, this encounter takes place in the back of a party, near the lagoon where Escobar keeps his imported hippopotamuses. There’s no out-negotiating a man who threatens to feed you to a hippopotamus. Felix must yield to Pablo’s demands: Each shipment will be comprised half of Escobar’s stock, half of Cali’s.
This is all good news for Felix’s wallet — and Falcon, the guy who controls Mexico’s coke deal for now, is not happy. He raids one of the cartel’s weed truck and steals some of the inventory. This is a clear provocation for war.
Felix is in business. The DEA, however, is not. The United States has decided not to intervene in the empire, even when Jaime carefully lays out all the undeniable facts. Instead, the DEA is left in danger. They’ve been amping up following the cartel and drawing attention to themselves.
By the end of the episode, the cartel has retaliated. They kill Kiki’s neighbor, a man who works for the phone companies and has been tapping his phones. Then, they attempt to kill Knapp (Lenny Jacobson), one of the DEA agents. He ends up going home because, well, how couldn’t he?
Felix and his remaining blond coworkers are fed up and demoralized. People have died and been kicked out. So, they come up with a new plan. Since the DEA is powerless on Mexican soil, they’ll lure Felix to the United States and arrest him on U.S. territory. Sounds pretty solid, no?
Who’s winning the cat-and-mouse game? Felix, because he’s rolling in cash. But at least the DEA has a strategy in place to catch him.
Episode 6: "La Ultima Frontera"
Finally, an episode puts the spotlight on the women in Felix’s life. After their field trip to Colombia, Isabella realizes she wants a position of leadership within the cartel system. Isabella’s a force. She’s spent years sidling up to Falcon (Luis Roberto), and knows how to get what she wants out of men without compromising herself. Now, though, instead of being used as an object of ogling, she wants to be a partner in the cartel.
Isabella’s storyline is vaguely empowering. The same cannot be said for Felix’s wife, Maria. She’s left to languish in her mansion, left to become the neglected wife trope. It’s a shame that the wives on this show are either perpetually angry or perpetually worried. Last episode, Maria was worried about Felix’s ventures in Colombia; this episode, she’s angry because apparently Felix has a baby mama and has been buying other women expensive watches. Since Felix had rejected Isabella’s advances, we were been made to believe Felix was faithful to his wife, upright in this one regard. Spoiler: He’s not!
Felix & Kiki
So, Felix is a bad husband. But is he a good drug lord? If Felix is blossoming into a masterful drug lord, he has the government of Mexico to thank. Without the government’s support, the Guadalajara Cartel simply wouldn’t exist. This episode, Felix has to pull strings with top tier government official leaders in Mexico City so he can begin his trafficking partnership with Colombian cartel leaders.
Frankly, he probably should’ve secured government support before promising things to Pablo Escobar. Whether not Felix brokers a deal with the government, Pablo’s cocaine is coming. Felix needs to get the government on board – or he’s hippo chow. Unfortunately, the powerful official who needs to sign off on Felix's arrangement— Zuno Arce – is a lackadaisical, golf-playing man who spends time in country clubs and doesn’t quite understand Felix’s rush. Zuno is the president's brother-in-law. The upper crust makes it obvious that they don’t want anything to do with Felix’s Sinaloan face. He can wait.
Meanwhile, the DEA thinks they have something on Felix, and they might be able to catch him before Felix can secure the pipeline with the government. The DEA plans to lure Felix to the United States and make their arrest on U.S. soil. When a cartel plane carrying six million dollars and important financial information lands in El Paso, Texas, Kiki and another DEA agent (Jackie Earle Haley) are waiting to intercept the plane. They find $6 million and documents on board.
As it turns out, Felix’s preppy American accountant is an informant for the DEA, and had leaked the location of the plane. Felix and the other agent threaten to reveal his status as an informant to the cartel unless he cooperates. He has to call Felix with the following news, summarized: “A plane has been intercepted, documents with important bank information have been stolen, this is a potential disaster.” The accountant says Felix has to drive to El Paso to sign a document that authorizes moving his accounts; otherwise, the Feds will be able to get him.
These strands coincides in a nail-biting sequence on the border. At this moment, Felix is more stressed than you or I have ever been. All at once, Felix is a) waiting to hear back from the government about his new deal, b) awaiting a cocaine shipment, and c) traveling to America to battle an empire-ending financial leak. Unbeknownst to him, American officials are waiting on the border to follow his car to his accountants’ office in a plan designed by Kiki. Then, in a total deux ex machina, Felix receives a call from Zuno while he’s at the border patrol booth. Zuno informs Felix that the deal is good to go, and recommends he not cross the border — the Americans are waiting to arrest him. Kiki is foiled; Felix is free.
Felix has one last another obstacle to vanquish before he can become a veritable cocaine trafficker: Falcon. Obviously, Falcon is bitter that his cocaine operation is being snatched by the man who promised him otherwise. Falcon’s men and Felix’s men have a little war. In the aftermath, Felix sends in Isabella to negotiate with her former boss, promising that if this succeeds, she can be a part of the cartel. She negotiates well — very well. But the negotiating was futile. When Isabella leaves, the DFS is waiting to assassinate Falcon.
Felix just keeps winning. His cocaine shipment from Pablo arrives. Poor Kiki and DEA. They are fighting against an attitude, against inertia. Case in point: Immediately after speaking to a police officer (Edison Ruiz) about Felix, said police officer feeds all the information to Felix. No wonder, by the end of the episode, Kiki collapses and tells his wife he wants to go home.
Who’s winning the cat-and-mouse game? Do we even need to say it?
Episode 7: "Jefe de Jefes"
Here, we arrive at an illusion-shattering episode, especially for those of us who still considered Rafa charming, Felix admirable, and Don Neto a sweet old man (yes, I’m talking to myself). This is the episode Don Neto, Rafa, and Felix — the core trio who built up the Guadalajara cartel — prove themselves to be straight-up villains. Earlier in this season, when the show’s narrator called them “bad guys,” I remember rolling my eyes. Come on, Boyd! They’re entrepreneurs! Underdogs! That is sort of true — but this episode, they’re also cold-blooded killers.
On the flip side, Kiki’s crazed in his mission to capture the uncatchable Felix Gallardo. He’s staring into a fire and all like, “I might as well walk in! I’ve never felt fire before!” Meanwhile, his wife and two kids are moving to San Diego and getting away from said fire.
Overall, this is an episode of people going too damn far. How far do they go? Farther than Moana? Let’s see.
To understand the events of this episode, first we must understanding the enormity of the Guadalajara Cartel’s success that comes after partnering with the Colombians. Smuggling cocaine brings untold riches to all the key members in the plaza system. But the cartel’s success has also inadvertently shifted the landscape of the city around them. With guns and with high-flying tempers, violence is seeping into the city.
Sometimes, the cartel leaders are arbiters of justice. Case in point: Don Neto’s 20-year-old son is accidentally shot by his best friend. It’s an outright tragedy, and Don Neto is understandably destroyed. However, he chooses to retaliate with violence. Neto seems to pardon his son’s friend. Then, after he leaves the friend’s house, Neto orders his henchmen to kill him. The implications are brutal: These are people who don’t believe in mercy.
Other times, the cartel leaders are the perpetrators of violence. Another example: Two traveling Americans filmmakers are wandering around Guadalajara, completely charmed by the city (a city they don’t entirely understand). At the end of the episode, they run into Rafa and his friends at a nearly empty restaurant. Rafa is strung out on coke and paranoid. He’s convinced the Americans are in the DEA. All four men stand up and proceed to violently murder the Americans.
Finally, Felix’s sins are of violence, but also of betrayal. Felix seems newly power-hungry. He wants to reorganize the cartel to take power away from Acosta in Juarez, who is supposedly “backwards” in his methods (this is new information!). Felix gathers all the plaza leaders in one room; the grouping mirrors that first gathering in episode 2. This time, though, he’s more dictator than cheeky and ambitious entrepreneur.
Track the eye contact in this room. Three people in the room are expecting Felix to do something for them. They’re sending laser-beams of messages through their eyes. After everything she did for him last episode (you know, negotiate with Falcon, watch Falcon die), Isabella wants stake in the cartel. Rafa wants Felix to prioritize weed again (his babies in the field are neglected!). In addition, he wants Amado, Don Neto’s pilot nephew, out – Amado and Rafa had been fighting over Sofia. Finally, Nava of the DFS wants a bigger cut, since the cartel is now bringing in more cash.
By the end of this meeting, neither Rafa nor Isabella nor Nava is pleased. Felix doesn’t seem to care. He sends Amado to Juarez. He lets the Arellano Felix brothers to stay in Tijuana, the region Isabella had wanted to control. After Felix proclaims cocaine is the future, Rafa storms out. Nava, however, doesn’t make it out of this altercation alive.
Felix is brazen as all hell this episode. Could it be because Felix has finally cut ties with Maria, his biggest tie to Sinaloa and his old life? Without Maria around, he seems to act crazier than usual. Maybe that explains why he brutally murders Nava in a hallway. Nava’s henchman, el Azul, sees him, but chooses not to act. Yet.
But the DEA? They’re certainly acting. Kiki is set to move to San Diego in three weeks. Before he leaves, he and Jaime persuade a Mexican policeman to fly one more surveillance mission. At last, they have photographic evidence of the enormous marijuana fields. Jaime takes this photo to the All American government agent (the dude’s a literal Ken doll), and casually insinuates how awful it would be for this photo to be leaked to the press, especially considering the enormous inroads the Eradication Program made (remember, it didn’t make any).
We should be worried for Kiki. This whole episode has been a demonstration of Felix’s descent into iron-fisted madness. Kiki is practically baiting him. Since we know the DEA has no power on Mexican soil, we must ask: Kiki, what are you thinking? Is it better to be right or to be alive?
Who’s winning the cat-and-mouse game? Kiki seems to be catching up.
Episode 8: "Just Say No"
What is the Guadalajara cartel without marijuana? What is the DEA without any chance of a fight? These are the existential questions our characters contend with in this climactic episode. After a long, strange dance, Kiki and Felix’s timelines are brought together. All I can say is: This isn’t going to be good.
The DEA finally got what Kiki had longed for: A major victory over the cartel. After flying over the marijuana field and producing photographs, the Americans had no choice but to act on the concrete evidence. The DEA teams up with the Mexican army — not the police, which is controlled by the cartel — to carry out a raid on Rafa’s fields, burning everything. The police warns Rafa & Co. only half an hour before the raid takes place. So, though Rafa comes guns ablaze, the DEA and the army manages to pull off the biggest raid in history.
As a result of taking down the world’s largest marijuana field, Kiki’s face lands in newspapers. He's lauded as a hero. He’s no longer a powerless figure, consigned to tapping the cartels’ phones and staying out of trouble. You’d think, after this, the Americans would give the DEA free reign to go after the cartel.
The House of Foreign Affairs Committee is sending down two American officials to discuss further options in pursuing the cartel. Ironically, this breakthrough comes just as Kiki and Mika are planning to leave Guadalajara. Kiki gets his hopes up. This is a bad thing to do.
For the first time so far, the tables are turning. Felix is scrambling. The furrow between his eyebrows is always intense, but this episode, you could land a plane in there. He’s trying to rewrite the rules of his cartel and set up an even better distribution system. Marijuana’s not sustainable anymore. But cocaine? That’s still an extremely profitable option.
Felix’s only request is that everyone remain calm, discreet, and scandal free post-raid. He looks at Rafa as he says this. Rafa, as we know, is prone to scandal — like killing two tourists while high on cocaine, for example. Later on, though, el Azul reminds Felix he knows about what happened to Nava. None of these guys are good guys. Though poor Don Neto is planning a mausoleum the size of a small American city for his son.
Step one in Felix’s recovery strategy: Don’t freak! Just fix! He sends Amado to Acosta in Juarez to figure out how to ramp up cocaine distribution from Juarez. It seems Amado and Acosta have brokered a relationship — definitely setting us up for the fact that one day, Amado will become the leader of the Juarez Cartel. His nickname will be “Lord of the Skies” because he’ll use jets to transport cocaine.
But there’s another problem Felix has to deal with: The government. The cartel is getting a lot of attention, and now they’re terrified that their link to the cartel will be sniffed. The Attorney General has access to the DEA’s wire tap, so it’s only a matter of time before the link is discovered — if they had spoken about it in Felix’s office. Their solution is gristly: They want Felix to capture Kiki and identify how much the DEA knows. Capturing an American DEA agent goes against Felix’s “no scandals” rule, big time. Felix refuses. He even fights to have a meeting with Zuno in person to guarantee Kiki won’t be captured. “We have to let this thing die down in silence,” Felix says, knowing that two of the agents are being shipped out.
But there are other people in his cartel who aren’t so stubborn, who aren’t so set against getting back. Typical disgruntled employee.
Rafa is straight-up falling apart. He, like the rest of us millennials in the workforce, needs positive affirmation from his boss and isn’t getting any. His beloved fields burnt. He’s feeling useless. Instead of support, he is getting is lots and lots of coke, which is very bad. He tries to get sober, but ultimately his friend gives him coke in the middle of recovery.
In this vulnerable, angry state, Rafa agrees to team up with the DFS to pursue Kiki Camarena and find out what he knows. Rafa doesn’t realize he’s being used by the DFS. The government is never going to go down for dealing with the cartel – but surely Rafa will.
At the end of the episode, Kiki has been captured by the Rafa and brought to a dingy house. Ironically, by that point, he'd already learned that the U.S. wouldn't be pursuing further investigations. Whatever comes next is for naught, and will be a damn shame.
Who’s winning the cat and mouse game? I don’t want to play this game anymore!
Episode 9: "881 Lope de Vega"
The hunt for Kiki Camarena is on. Well, kind of. Though Mika realizes that Kiki is missing very quickly, it takes a long time for the gears of the search to grind into motion. Should we be surprised? Narcos: Mexico has been a portrait of bureaucratic inertia even more than it has been about the architecture of a drug empire, as past seasons of Narcos have been. In order to save Kiki, the American government and the Mexican government have to want to save him — and from the very start, it doesn’t seem like they do.
This moment presents a portrait of new and improved Jaime. Jaime was a passive player before, but Kiki turned him into a trailblazer. Now, Jaime has a fire lit under his ass and is happy to rough Ed Heath up.
But Ed refuses to acknowledge Kiki’s disappearance as anything but quotidian. Ed has been in this position for ten years. His sliminess and obstinacy are essentially why the DEA hasn’t been able to get anything done, and Ed only budges after Mika bombards him. Ed uses the word “emotional” to rock Mika’s credibility. Jaime, an ally to womankind, corrects him: He calls her “angry,” and rightfully so.
What comes next is a frustrating bureaucratic circus in which every obstacle is seemingly raised to ensure that Kiki won’t be found in time. The Mexican police won’t work with Jaime and the DEA because — you guessed it — they’re Team Cartel. However, another branch of the Mexican state police will work with the DEA, if Jaime can leap through the many requirements with ease. Before Jaime can rustle up the warrants and find the proper attorney to sign off on a search, 20 DEA men arrive in Guadalajara to help, with fancy surveillance machines in hand.
But the clock’s ticking. Kiki, along with the pilot who took photos for Operation Eradication, is being tortured, and tortured, and tortured for, what is clear on all sides, absolutely no reason at all. Felix is extremely angry at Rafa for helping the DFS capture Kiki, knowing it’s just a trap to get more leverage on the cartel. Plus, Kiki doesn’t know anything — which his torturer soon realizes. But he’s commanded to keep going.
Meanwhile, the DEA is forging ahead with its search for Kiki. The DEA thinks there's a breakthrough when a man named Commander Pavón is assigned to lead the search, but he turns out to be just as corrupt as the rest of them. When the DEA realizes that Rafa is headed to the airport, they pile into cars and run to confront him. Rafa is with Sofia on the private jet, who he literally snatched out of her car while she was arguing with her mother (I can’t help but love all the scenes they have together). After a standoff, Rafa agrees to meet with Commander Pavón on the plane.
We don’t hear what happens on the plane, but we know it can’t be kosher because Pavón lets the plane fly away. He claims that Rafa isn’t Rafa at all, but a DFS agent. Is everyone bought? Almost.
Luckily, when the American media gets wind of the fact that a government agent let a notorious narco fly away, it puts more pressure on the search. Pavón is taken off the case. He’s replaced by a man who doesn’t believe in warrants and very much believes in getting to Kiki.
Getting to Kiki, however, might take getting to Rafa first. Rafa and Sofia are basking in a Costa Rican coke and sex-fueled paradise. Somehow the DEA finds out their exact location and the two receive an anonymous call. When Rafa picks up the phone and has a wistful conversation with Felix, we realize that the tip must’ve been from Felix himself. Earlier on in the season, Felix came close to betraying Rafa. Now, he actually is.
Felix is saying goodbye to Rafa, who has been his brother-in-arms, his co-collaborator, and the loose cannon that may have led to their creation’s downfall. Here, Felix chooses the cartel over Rafa. It’s the ultimate betrayal, and yet it’s kind of inevitable. After their hotel room has been stormed, a trembling Sofia slams him with another betrayal. She identifies Rafa to the police. It’s over, Quintero.
But capturing Rafa doesn’t mean Kiki will suddenly materialize unharmed. That’s not how it works. Remember, Narcos: Mexico is a TV show based on real life. The symmetries of narrative might just not apply here. This wrenching episode ends with Mika reading the end of Charlotte’s Web to little Kiki. Charlotte did a lot of good, but no one was there to see her when she died. Same goes for Kiki.
Who’s winning the cat-and-mouse game? It seems like they’re both losing at this point.
Episode 10: "Leyenda"
A final quiz, for all of you who have made it this far in Narcos: Mexico. Is Don Neto made of human skin, human organs, and endowed with a human sense of fear? After watching him listen to music on a Walkman entirely unperturbed as people are gunned down all around him, I think not. I think in exchange for an executive position in the cartel, Don Neto (and Rafa and Felix) had to exchange a majority of his humanity (as did Rafa and Felix). Felix, certainly, has changed from a Sinaloan dream boy a shark-toothed killer — though his face remains utterly implacable. Sidenote: What does this say about executives?
If Felix had a heart, he would have saved Kiki Camarena. Anyone would have saved Kiki, whose death was both preventable and frustrating. But no one did. Her body was found in the backyard of a Mexican ranch, along with the pilot. This episode has so much bloodshed, from the massacre of the family at the ranch to Kiki’s death. Kiki was interrogated to unconsciousness and then revived with adrenaline too many times for his heart to take.
Felix was the one who gave Kiki’s death orders. In a meeting that seemed too cinematic to actually be real, Felix and Kiki finally meet face-to-face. This entire show has been leading to this two-minute dialogue, in which two people with diametrically opposed alignments have an (almost) honest conversation. Kiki seems to know he’s never getting out of that room. But he remains calm in his belief that Felix isn’t either. Even if he walks out of that dingy cell, the end is coming for him, too. Kiki, facing death, is much more honest than Felix. He knows neither will win.
There’s no “victory” against the cartel this season. Instead, after Kiki dies, it’s more like the DEA raises its large, lumpy head, looks around groggily, and realizes there had been war raging around while it was sleeping. Finally, the enraged and flabbergasted American government is poised to act. Narcos: Mexico implies it took the death of Kiki for the agency to actually wake up and set things into action.
It’s certainly coming for all the other top dogs of his cartel. But Felix, the wiliest of the bunch, slips within reach. Are you surprised? It turns out even Calderoni, who was more upright than Pavon, has a price.
Felix, facing capture, went to the governor for help. The governor — who never was a good friend — allowed him to go to his country home for three days in exchange for a payment. On the day Felix was set to leave for Central America, the governor sold out his location. Even in the midst of a shootout with Calderoni and his troops, Felix is able to bargain effectively. He has the tapes from Kiki’s interrogation in which Kiki identifies just how high up in the food chain the corruption goes. Hint: It’s very far. Like, Secretary of Defense far. Felix gives the option of taking $2 million and all of the incriminating tapes, thereby protecting his boss and the entire institution. Calderoni takes the deal. He leaves four of the tapes behind and takes the two most incriminating ones.
Felix is free and back under police protection. That’s the biggest twist of Narcos: Mexico. He really gets away with it.
Don Neto, however, does not have Felix’s superpowers of negotiation (or leverage). He was captured, along with Rafa. The rest of the Guadalajara Cartel thought they had to restructure entirely now that Mom, Dad, and the Crazy Uncle were gone, and were having a big serious meeting. One of the Arellano Felix brothers even thought he could become Felix. How sweet! Then, in a true reality TV moment, Felix struts in and reclaims his cartel.
But it’ll be a wildly different landscape for Felix. Finally, the government’s vast corruption has been identified. The DFS is shutting down entirely and the police are turning on each other (which is why Calderoni chose to protect his already vulnerable system). Felix won’t have the same level of protection. But Celis’ betrayal shows he never really had protection. When push came to shove, the government sided with itself. Felix gets revenge on the governor by sending Rodolfo's severed head – his own godson’s severed head — in a box to his home, a la Se7en.
Also, Felix will have to contend with a newly formidable opponent: The DEA. Kiki’s death in 1984 inspired Operation Leyenda (which translates to Operation Legend), a homicide investigation. The DEA intends to track down everyone responsible for Kiki’s death — aka the cartel. So, Narcos: Mexico certainly will have a second season. Staring at the cast, Season 2 will miss having Kiki, a Mexican-American person, navigating Mexico. Instead, we’ll get a swath of Jaime lookalikes.
Narcos: Mexico reads like a prologue to the modern Mexican drug wars. Gallardo and Camarena set off the dominos.
Who’s winning the cat-and-mouse game? Tragically, Kiki dies. But season 5 will feature a whole ‘nother battle and a whole ‘nother cat.