In Mexico, Narco Films vs. Narco Reality

Kate del Castillo as a drug trafficker in the 2011 Mexican telenovela “La Reina del Sur.” Ms. del Castillo drew notice last year for her dealings with the fugitive drug kingpin El Chapo. Delaney Bishop/Telemundo.
Kate del Castillo as a drug trafficker in the 2011 Mexican telenovela “La Reina del Sur.” Ms. del Castillo drew notice last year for her dealings with the fugitive drug kingpin El Chapo. Delaney Bishop/Telemundo.

It was a television executive’s nightmare: Not only was someone threatening to sue over a TV series, but that person was reputedly the biggest drug trafficker on the planet and the head of a cartel behind a long string of mass executions and torture videos.

The first sign of trouble came in May, after Netflix and Univision released a trailer for their series “El Chapo,” based on the imprisoned Mexican kingpin Joaquín Guzmán. The trafficker’s lawyer announced through various media outlets that he would go to court if his client’s name and story were used without payment. “The señor” — Mr. Guzmán — “has not died. He is not a character in the public domain. He is alive. He has to grant them permission,” the lawyer, Andrés Granados, told a Mexican radio station.

The declarations put the show’s producers in a predicament. If they go ahead with the series, due in 2017, they could face a legal battle — and the possibility that, should he lose, Mr. Guzmán might seek retribution out of court. But if they get into negotiating with Mr. Guzmán, they face other problems. Would they be cooperating with organized crime? El Chapo’s lawyer suggested that he could help make the TV series better by giving details no journalist had yet dug up. But could that mean acting as a propaganda instrument for a crime boss?

The quandary reflects bigger dilemmas in the growing world of narco fiction. Dramatic portrayals of Mexican crime kings, which began as zany B-grade movies, have evolved into wildly popular soap operas, best-selling novels and major Hollywood productions. They are part of a wider narco culture, ranging from pop-music ballads to fashion trends. Meanwhile, from 2007 to 2014 more than 80,000 Mexicans were killed by cartel-related violence, according to a government count. May was the most murderous month in Mexico in almost four years.

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in the Netflix series “Narcos.”Daniel Daza/Netflix
Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in the Netflix series “Narcos.”Daniel Daza/Netflix

Mexico’s narco-films took off with the straight-to-video technology of the 1980s, often shot in a couple of weeks and starring real-life strippers, real guns and real criminals firing them. Titles like “The Big Bazooka Shot,” “The Elite Narco Commando” and “Scarface Reborn” are popular in Mexican communities in the United States. Some traffickers finance their own biopics: When Edgar Valdez Villarreal, known as La Barbie, was arrested in 2010, he told the police that he had given producers $200,000 to make a movie about him.

The narco action film first made its way into the more popular and better-produced telenovelas in Colombia in the mid-2000s, before expanding to Mexico at the end of the decade. Local TV networks made hits like “Sin Tetas No Hay Paraiso” (“Without Breasts, There Is No Paradise”) and “El Cartel de Los Sapos” (“The Cartel of the Snitches”), which was based on a book by a real Colombian trafficker who was imprisoned in the United States. They worked well, featuring a gritty realism while maintaining the glamour and entertainment value of Latin soaps.

Last year, the drug war made its big break into the mainstream American media market with the release of the Oscar-nominated movie “Sicario,” the Netflix series “Narcos” and the best-selling novel “The Cartel,” by Don Winslow. All have been commercial and critical hits, despite protests by the mayor of Juárez against “Sicario” for portraying his city in a bad light. The success of “Narcos,” which paints a largely true picture of the Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, paved the way for Netflix to work on production of the “El Chapo” series.

Mexican politicians slam narco culture for glamorizing, and even feeding, the blood-soaked trade. Writers, producers and singers retort that they are merely documenting reality. But increasingly, the line between life and art is blurring.

Take the odyssey of “La Reina del Sur” (“Queen of the South”). It began as a 2002 novel by the Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, about a beautiful queen-pin in Mexico’s Sinaloa State whom he called Teresa Mendoza. In 2007 Mexican detectives arrested a money launderer named Sandra Ávila Beltrán, who they said was known as the “Queen of the Pacific,” a name most likely inspired by Mr. Pérez-Reverte’s novel. Then, in 2011, the broadcaster Telemundo released a telenovela based on “La Reina del Sur,” starring the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. It became a phenomenal hit, including among drug cartel soldiers themselves. Drug balladeers have written songs about all three queens.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán after he was recaptured on Jan. 8.Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press
Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán after he was recaptured on Jan. 8.Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press

The line between fact and fiction may have disappeared entirely when it emerged that Ms. del Castillo had brought the actor Sean Penn to meet Mr. Guzmán, a trip that Mr. Penn later recounted in Rolling Stone. Pundits speculated that Ms. del Castillo had become consumed by her role on “La Reina del Sur,” or that Mr. Guzmán had fallen in love with her telenovela character. It was also revealed that Mr. Guzmán had promised the exclusive film rights of his story to Ms. del Castillo, raising further questions about Netflix’s effort.

It’s easy to see why everyone wants to tell his tale. According to indictments, Mr. Guzmán smuggled billions of dollars in drugs aboard jet airliners, fishing boats and submarines into the United States. He escaped from two top-security prisons, the second one in a mile-long tunnel with lights and a rail for a motorcycle. And when Mexican marines caught him in January, he almost escaped yet again by fleeing into a sewer system.

But just because it makes for a good story, is it one that Netflix should be telling? There’s certainly a risk of glorifying narco life; I have interviewed several gang members, and they will often say they watch narco soaps and movies. I even went into a prison in the border city of Nuevo Laredo to find that a crime boss being held there had a life-size photo of Al Pacino from “Scarface” on his wall. But it’s harder to say whether narco fiction contributes to the violence in Mexico — millions of people watch these same films and don’t go around decapitating victims on video.

Still, producers of narco fiction do struggle with this question. “Oh, my God, do I wrestle with that,” Mr. Winslow told me last year. “At the end of the day, I tilt toward the side of, ‘By informing people, we are doing good.’ But in the day by day writing of some of these things, I would wonder, ‘Am I tripping across a line? And am I simply doing a pornography of violence? Is this just voyeuristic?’ ”

It’s a question that Netflix and Univision need to ask themselves over the coming year. Assuming Mr. Guzmán is extradited to the United States, he could also go on trial or make a deal, a real-life drama that could play out while the series airs. With so much in flux, Mr. Guzmán could well come out a celebrity, a modern-day Al Capone or John Dillinger. Even if it inspires only a handful of people to follow his lead, is that worth the ratings?

Ioan Grillo is the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America and a contributing opinion writer.

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