When actress Teresa Ruiz first heard Narcos, for season 4, was turning its focus from Colombia’s cocaine cartels to the early days of Mexico’s drug wars, she suspected what might come next — and she wanted in.
“There was a woman in the ‘80s that had a role of introducing cocaine into the business when it was just being led by marijuana,” Ruiz said in a phone interview with Refinery29. Ruiz, who grew up in Mexico, had known of this woman for years. ”I knew this character was bound to come up in Narcos: Mexico, and that’s the character I wanted.”
Ruiz, who also starred alongside Gael Garcia Bernal in the 2018 TV series Here on Earth, got the part. Though her character, Isabella Bautista, is fictional, elements are inspired by the woman Ruiz first identified: Sandra Ávila Beltrán, the so-called “Queen of the Pacific.” Beltrán, born in 1960, is Guadalajara Cartel royalty. She’s related to both Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero, two of the cartel’s founders. In the ‘80s, Beltrán was the essential link between cartel leaders in Colombia and Mexico. Isabella seems to occupy an equivalent role in the universe of Narcos: Mexico. When Felix (Diego Luna) decides to expand into trafficking cocaine, he brings Isabella along to broker deals with Colombia’s Medellin and Cali Cartels.
Part of Ruiz’s research process included speaking to people who knew Beltrán, who was released from prison in 2015 after serving a seven-year sentence for money laundering. She now lives near Guadalajara, where Narcos: Mexico takes place. “People talked to me about their experiences. They told me about her, how she moved, who she was, how she carried herself,” Ruiz said. Beltrán is a colorful figure, known for her business savvy, her romances with other cartel leaders, and her extravagant wealth — she had a fleet of 30 cars and bought her 15-year-old son a Hummer. Once, Beltrán strolled into a narco-filled party holding an AK-47; this stunt was memorialized in a song by Los Tucanes de Tijuana called “Party in the Mountains.”
To this day, Beltrán refuses to view any aspect of trafficking as reprehensible, including the violence it spurs. “It is a business like alcohol [during prohibition] which was not legal...In those days, an alcohol salesman was considered a bad person but when they legalized it, the people who sold it became respectable. I don’t see that alcohol or tobacco salesmen feel guilty,” Beltrán told The Guardian in a defiant 2016 interview.
Like Beltrán, Isabella is ruthless. She’s intelligent. And, most thrillingly, she’s the first woman in the Narcos franchise to attempt partner status in a cartel. In past seasons of Narcos, women characters were exclusively relegated to the domestic sphere. Women were the stressed-out wives, girlfriends, and daughters of drug lords and dogged DEA agents — and that’s it. While these roles can be emotionally evocative, as Alyssa Diaz’s performance as Mika, Kiki Camarena’s (Michael Peña) wife, certainly was this season, they are certainly limited in scope.
Since Isabella is Narcos’ first woman to navigate cartel politics, her character arc is especially unique. Each moment of victory, like when she expertly sways the Cali Cartel into partnering with Felix, is typically undercut by either a dismissal or a salacious comment. “Go ahead and close the fucking deal. I want to take her dancing,” Chepe Santacruz Londono (Pepe Rapazote) of the Cali Cartel says, after Isabella’s persuasive speech. Isabella gives an impenetrable smile. If she’s dismayed that her intelligence took a backseat to her beauty, she doesn’t show it: For Isabella, sexuality has historically been a tool of power.
Everywhere Isabella goes, she’s followed by the nearly carnivorous glares of men. This aspect of the part deeply affected Ruiz. “Your psyche doesn’t know you’re playing a part. I’d go on set, be in this struggle, and then would come back to the hotel room, where struggles came up for me. Certain ways that people were treated me, how I was contributing to the way men were treating me. It was interesting to be in her skin, but it was tough,” Ruiz said.
Interestingly, Isabella only begins to negotiate for a prominent role in the cartel after Felix rejects her flirtatious advances. “A lot of the time as women, we’ve learned to use our sexual power as our only tool,” Ruiz said. At that precise stage in their complicated relationship, Felix views her as an asset to his enterprise — and says so. Immediately after Felix validates her, Isabella transitions from flirting to providing him spot-on business advice. “To have her slowly find her worth and her strength for her own, that was a good thing,” Ruiz said.
Still, Ruiz made sure Isabella was never too sure of herself, never too confident. “That’s what women went through, especially in the ‘80s,” Ruiz said. Isabella’s harrowing final scene in episode 10 demonstrates how flitting her hold on power was, how ultimately contingent on men’s whims. After bringing her on as a business partner, Felix coldly dismisses her from the inner circle. “I’m telling you. It was painful,” Ruiz said about that final scene.
Isabella is situated in the same strange, morally gray territory of all the other drug-lord characters on Narcos. Are we allowed to root for her? She’s admirable in her ambition. She sympathetic in her struggle to be taken seriously among slobbering men who view her as an object. In her 2016 The Guardian interview, Beltrán expressed a similar sentiment, noting that women back then were seen for the beauty, but “never as a fighting beings, or a person made of triumphs and achievements.”
In the end, however, Isabella and her partners are unleashing violence. Having grown up in Mexico, Ruiz is acutely aware of this aspect of Isabella’s character. “There’s been so much suffering. My country has shed blood over this. It was always very astonishing to me to wonder how a person can do all this, just because they want money and power,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz knows many people personally affected by the drug wars in Mexico. Through tears, she recalled a recent conversation with her best friend from her elementary school in the border town of Juarez, Mexico during which they shared stories about neighbors and friends. “It made me very emotional. I remember those border towns. I remember how the town got empty at some point. How moms lost their children. It’s hard to shoot those scenes, and it’s hard to watch them,” Ruiz said.
Ultimately, Ruiz’s hope is that Narcos: Mexico provides a more nuanced understanding of the war on drugs. “There’s a lot of focus on the cartel leaders,” Ruiz said, after mentioning El Chapo’s upcoming trial. “But the leaders are figures put there so that we may put our anger onto only them. In reality, what we talk about in Narcos, is that this business could not exist without the help of both governments.”
Narcos: Mexico may change viewers’ perspectives, but it has already changed Ruiz’s. “I am a different person after playing Isabella,” Ruiz confirmed. “I am a single woman making her way into a world that’s run by me. In that sense, I’m very different. I see things very differently. It really helped me grow.”