The cast and creators of Narcos: Mexico have said, and continue to say, that their show is not a documentary. It’s not a play-by-play of the developing drug trade in Mexico in the ‘80s; rather, it’s a creative recreation of what may have happened. Yes, there are true stories behind Narcos: Mexico, now in season 2, but many of the details are quite simply impossible to know. Take for example, the revenge mission that began after the death of American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña), which we saw in the season 1 finale. In response to the very public loss of the agent, the DEA supposedly launched a task force that would become Operation Leyenda, portrayed as a seemingly lawless mission led by morally questionable DEA agents and the driving force for Narcos: Mexico season 2. But the details of this operation, its roster of players, and even its very existence, have been the subject of debate for decades.
Is DEA Agent Walt Breslin A Real Person?
In the series’ version of the operation, we find Agent Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy), leading Operation Leyenda with one objective: Find the people who killed Camarena, at any cost.
“It was a task force that was put together and designed to go down there and collect information that was specifically focused on the execution of Kiki Camarena. Now that being said, in order to acquire that and sort of information, they had to go with unconventional ways outside of what the Drug Enforcement Administration allows,” McNairy tells Refinery29 during Narcos: Mexico’s Los Angeles press day, with the caveat that the series’ rendition of the operation is fictionalized.
Their first sting ends in a shootout on a public street and the messy kidnapping of a possible informant. At one point, Walt’s crew has a mini mutiny and one agent shoots the informant in the stomach, forcing the group to drop him on the steps of a hospital on the chance that he’ll be saved and they won’t have murdered someone, just like Camarena’s captors. Walt lives in this murky world for the majority of season 2.
“Walt’s a character who's sort of been let off the leash to go down there and get a job done and has been told, Do whatever you need to do. And if it's illegal, we don't want to know about it. It’s a really fun twist to the Narcos series because we really haven't had a DEA character on that show that has that free will. There's a lot of them carrying firearms, but they're not allowed to use them.”
But if you’re hoping to find Walt or any of his cohorts, including Sal (Jesse Garcia), in articles or public history of the operation, you won’t.
“I wasn't based on any one particular. There was a group of DEA that all of us were loosely based on, but ours aren't real names. There was a freedom in each of the actors getting to know the writers and the producers to figure what the storylines were going to be like. Mine was that Breslin and I had been long time partners, and he kind of brought me along to be kind of his right hand man and make sure we're treading the line of being legal and knowing what we gotta do to get shit done,” Sal actor Garcia says during the LA press day. Garcia also says he didn’t bother digging into possible real people his character could be based on — instead, he watched “nature documentaries” to get a feel for the pack mentality.
Like his right hand man Sal, Walt is also a composite character, but McNairy did some serious research, including interviewing DEA agents.
“My research is mostly DEA. I was more interested in colorful characters of the drug enforcement agency and sort of understanding what a DEA guy is like,” he says. Specifically, McNairy met with a few DEA agents in Los Angeles, including James Kukyendall, Camarena’s former boss, who is played by Matt Letscher on Narcos: Mexico. “They're human, just like everyone else. They have drug addiction problems, they have alcohol problems, they have issues.”
What Happened During The Real Operation Leyenda?
“We’ve got to change things to make it entertaining and what not. You cut off certain truths or bend truths to make a complete show,” explains McNairy. “We just know that the operation existed, but as far as the specificity of it, we don’t know.”
In fact, showrunner Eric Newman, goes as far as calling Narcos: Mexico’s version of Operation Leyenda a “composite,” just like Walt and Sal. And that makes sense, when concrete information about the operation is not exactly available for public consumption. If you look at the official DEA renderings of Leyenda, the organization obviously doesn’t mention the inner workings that we see fictionalized as a series of decisions made outside the law in Narcos: Mexico. The only public acknowledgements of the operation focus on the results. In a 2013 panel, made public by the DEA museum, former DEA Administrator (from 1985 to 1990) Jack Lawn speaks about Leyenda mostly in legal terms — who the operation brought in, and how they prosecuted various cartel bosses. The ins and outs of the operation are barely even alluded to.
One man, who claimed to Medium’s online magazine Matter that he was in charge of the operation, Agent Hector Berrellez, has seen his story contradicted by Lawn, according to LA Weekly. Berrellez also says he spoke with the showrunner of Narcos: Mexico, Newman, about what he believes are incorrect portrayals of what really happened with Camarena and the surrounding operation. Berrellez, in an interview with Meaww claims that he told Newman that Camarena was not kidnapped by the cartels as the Netflix series has depicted, but by the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (Federal Security Directorate or DFS), who he claims were trained by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He also alleges that Newman chose to “cover it up” by changing that narrative in Narcos: Mexico.
“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,” Newman tells Refinery29, of the information gathering process.
As a result, the version of the operation that we see in the series is a story that is born of nuggets of truth, rather than whole truths. And it’s a story that ultimately serves the arc Newman and his writers created to serve the semi-fictional series, rather than serving as a direct rendering of history.
“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,” says Newman. “That was our version of Leyenda.”