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“NARCOS: MEXICO” STANDS AS A RIVETING THRILLER SERIES ON TV

A TV Review by Tim Riley

“NARCOS: MEXICO” ON NETFLIX

For three seasons, Netflix offered the series “Narcos” about the Columbian cocaine drug trade run by the infamous Pablo Escobar.  “Narcos: Mexico” delves into a completely different territory that begins with marijuana and the rise of the Mexican cartels.  Right out of the gate, the tone of “Narcos: Mexico” is set by the narrator who says, “I’m going to tell you a story, but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it doesn’t have an ending at all.”  Fittingly, Season 2 appears to be already in the works.

To punctuate the narrator’s statement, the first scene is in Guadalajara in 1985, when a DEA agent is kidnapped in broad daylight by five guys in a sedan while two local policemen in a squad car essentially look the other way. Keep in mind that the narration is in English, but as most of the action takes place all over Mexico, the series sense of realism requires most of the dialogue to be in Spanish (with convenient subtitles so that you don’t miss out on the surfeit of profanity from lowlifes).

Stepping back a few years to Fresno, California, Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (Michael Pena), a young DEA agent working out of the local office, feels confined by the relatively low level of action available to an ambitious law enforcer seeking better career opportunities.

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The name of Kiki Camarena should trigger memories for those old enough to remember the current events of the Eighties.  If you are unaware of the turbulent drug wars of that era, you may decide to read no further so as to not spoil the viewing of “Narcos: Mexico.” Yet knowing the fate of Camarena takes away nothing from the experience of this series.  Tragic events abound for many on both sides of the law in this brutally explicit panoply of graphic cold-blooded murders, carnage and mayhem.

With his wife Mika (Alyssa Diaz) and young child, Camarena packs up the family station wagon and accepts an assignment to the DEA office based in Guadalajara where he hopes for a meaningful mission to eradicate the drug trade.  For one thing, as a law enforcement agency, the DEA is then a relatively new entity and ranks rather low on the pecking order.  The DEA agents in Guadalajara have no real authority to do much other than surveillance.

The bureau is run by James “Jaime” Kuykendall (Matt Letscher), and along with Butch Sears (Aaron Stanton) as well as other agents and staff, where the overall lethargy of a bureaucracy is soon upended by the arrival of Camarena.

To give an idea of the American DEA agents not having much to do in the way of active duty, early scenes indicate that they thrive mostly on evenings at the local tavern buying drinks for corrupt Mexican officials, hoping to glean tidbits of useful information.

Meanwhile in the state of Sinaloa, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna) is introduced as a member of the Sinaloa state police when the federal government sends in troops to burn down all the marijuana crops in remote rural villages. Like many of his contemporaries in law enforcement, whether federal, state or local, Gallardo is corrupt, saving marijuana grower Rafa Quintero (Tenoch Huerta) from the federales, for reasons that soon become apparent.

Smart and charismatic, Gallardo, not satisfied with being an enforcer for the local crime boss, schemes to leave behind the backwoods of his hometown and strike out on his own in greener (as in money) pastures in Guadalajara. To obtain credibility with the crime lords in the capital city of the state of Jalisco, Gallardo, with Rafa by his side, forms an uneasy alliance with Don Neto (Joaquin Cosio), the cartel’s elder statesman who provides the opening to the upper echelons of the underworld.

At this point in time, Gallardo was well aware the Mexican drug trade was divvied up into warring territories which were often at the mercy of federal agents destroying their crops only because the growers didn’t pay off the right parties. After fitful starts with skeptical urban crime lords, the shrewd Gallardo starts talking about creating an “OPEC for weed,” setting forth a plan to create a crime syndicate where marijuana cultivation and running the drugs into the United States is a corporate business.

Corruption was so bad that even state governors were on the take, a fact that becomes so obvious that one high government official, who treats Gallardo like a protégé, is very upfront at a swank wedding reception about getting his cut of a six-figure amount of dollars.

Since Gallardo moves on to the cocaine trade as the leading crime lord, the story gets even more compelling and intense for the battle lines drawn on both sides of the law. “Narcos: Mexico” streams on Netflix for good reason.  It’s far too violent, bloody and profane even for cable television.  Given the many execution-style murders, a Quentin Tarantino movie looks positively tame by comparison.