This story of the beginnings of the Sinaloa drug cartel follows the by now well understood Narcos formula: a poorer-than-dirt guy with a genius for business administration is consistently underestimated by Americans who think that guys who speak Spanish can’t possibly be as smart as they are, while a lonely Spanish-speaking DEA agent, who understands exactly what is going on, is largely ignored.
Despite a good script and fine performances, this season is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. The series is brutally frank about the levels of corruption at all levels of Mexican law enforcement, up to and including the national government. When someone is described as the only honest cop in Mexico, they are not kidding. Americans are not portrayed as having clean hands either – at the same time Nancy Reagan is telling everyone to Just Say No, the CIA is diverting profits from the drug trade their own DEA is trying to interdict to fund the Contras off-book. The problem, I think, is the lack of a charismatic criminal. Pablo Escobar considered himself a champion of “the people” – he gave a lot of money to folks who needed it, and even ran for office at one point. And while he was hardly faithful to his wife, even when on the run Escobar continued to negotiate (successfully) for her long-term financial security. Felix Gallardo, though, is loyal to no one; he’s just a criminal, and a greedy one to boot.
That’s unfortunate because this story is an important one which needs to be told. And unlike the saga of the Colombian drug cartels, this story is not over yet. Medellin, once a byword for cocaine, is now a tourist destination with its own Anthony Bourdain episode. But the Mexican drug cartels, which made the momentous shift from marijuana to the much more profitable cocaine in the 1980s, are stronger than ever. We didn’t create the cartels but, as this series makes clear, we sure haven’t been smart or even consistent in the ways we have tried to stop them.