What Univision’s Mesmerizing El Chapo Has That Other Tales of the “War on Drugs” Don’t

TV Features El Chapo
What Univision’s Mesmerizing El Chapo Has That Other Tales of the “War on Drugs” Don’t

We love a family-man crime boss, don’t we? From Al Capone to Walter White, our fascination with both fictional and real super-crimepersons is eternal and unslakable. It’s weird, when you think about it—I mean, isn’t it? Why are we so obsessed with the mafia and cartels and drug lords and their various minions and hitmen and sleazy lawyers and entourages? There are probably major crime bosses who are not or were not technically psychopaths, but if you are someone who is capable of shooting someone you know at point-blank range, I’m going to go ahead and say you are not normal, and you are not-normal in a seriously not-OK way. And yes, you’re probably a psychopath by definition, just based on the stats.

Are we interested in psychopathy? Are we interested in how and why the mind, the internal logic, of a violent criminal might be different from the mind of someone who is not a violent criminal? Sure, maybe. Is it about the money? Are we fascinated by the money? We might be. Is it something else, something attached to race or ethnicity or culture of origin and the frictions of a super-explicitly us-them world? It’s not impossible, though it doesn’t appear to be a criterion for greenlighting a show, or for that show becoming a runaway hit.

Is it about a fundamental human longing to escape the rat race by any means necessary and live by our own rules? Or, since so many of these guys we immortalize on video and celluloid are drug distributors, must we consider that maybe the can’t-look-away aspect is tied to the equally strong drive to escape our own heads by any means necessary? Is it merely “Because Reaganomics and the hypocrisy and idiocy of the so-called War on Drugs?” Are we just fascinated by chance versus skill and whether a dangerous gambler will Get Away With It? Some shows lead us to hope they won’t; others encourage us to root for them, or at least find them sympathetic. We turn drug kingpins into almost mythological creatures, whose stories are told and retold ad infinitum. I mean, how many actors have played Pablo Escobar? Do we even have a firm count? They are legion, because the guy is deathless, despite having died. He even shows up in the early episodes of El Chapo, whose second season launched Sept. 17. I am finding this show pretty mesmerizing. Are you? And do you have a grip on why? I mean why does his story appeal to you? Why are we so keen to get a peek inside the head of a wanton, prideful, unrepentant killer?

Joaquin Archivaldo Guzmán Loero, called “El Chapo,” or “Shorty,” because no self-respecting gangster goes around without a goofy nickname, is a criminal rock star. A pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps type with insatiable ambition and not a ton of ethical encumbrances, Chapo rose through the ranks to become head of the Sinaloa cartel. According to Professor Wikipedia, the U.S. government considers him to be “the most ruthless, dangerous and feared man on the planet.”

Sit with that for a sec.


OK: Shorty is doing time in the Pokey at the time of writing this, but the cartel is responsible for shunting a—well, I believe the technical term is “a crap-ton”of Colombian cocaine, Mexican meth, and Southeast Asian heroin into the United States. He has escaped prison twice, including an action-film-worthy 2015 maneuver involving tunnels that would have blown Steve McQueen’s hair back. He has a gripping story, no doubt, and Univision has handled it with great tension and authenticity (names of other narcos are slightly changed, but the characters are entirely recognizable). It is a really good show, provided you don’t get indigestion from fairly direct and gory violence, of which there is plenty.

But for me, the standout feature is an ethos or attitude or I don’t know what to call it, but it’s limited or missing from most U.S. productions about the lives of gangsters or the “war on drugs.” (The Wire is the most obvious exception that I’m personally aware of.) And it has to do with the way the government is portrayed in relation to the cartels. It’s taken as a plain and well-known fact that the Mexican government manipulates, colludes with, and profits from the cartels. Corruption that would be a gigantic actionable dirty secret in the States is right out in the open in El Chapo, with even the president and U.S. DEA agents having open conversations about how to manage the cartels to their own advantage. There is a fictional character, Conrado Sol (Humberto Busto), who seems intended to personify government corruption and collusion, an obsequious, grasping, self-serving civil servant who is not at all shy about saying out loud that he intends to use the cartels to gain personal power. At meetings of the various cartel dons, those relationships are also openly discussed. It’s a very different mindset from the us-them paradigm of Law Enforcement Nobly Fighting Uphill Battle to Keep Drugs Out of Our Children’s Hands Versus Really, Really Bad Guy Who Shoots First and Asks Questions Later.

I’m loving the way El Chapo is handling the uncomfortable reality that wars are profitable, and governments, no matter what they might claim, have a vested interest in keeping this one alive and kicking. The world’s Chapos and Escobars make a lot of money, and not just for themselves. In fact, while it is very difficult to separate myth from fact when you’re dealing with one of the world’s most notorious crime bosses, there’s significant evidence that among Sinaloans he is not merely feared but also appreciated; he’s credited with pouring some of his coke fortune into infrastructure projects to help the poorer citizens of the Sinaloa area—paving roads, improving access to potable water, protecting citizens from other cartels. Other sources will say his only real contribution has been violence. Can you be a psychopath and a philanthropist? I’m fairly sure many people have been. I’m not here to weigh in on which vision of the man himself is more true, but I won’t be surprised if future episodes of this show depict El Chapo as something much more complicated than a ruthless killing machine, and the Mexican government as all too happy to use him for whatever purpose suits the needs of the moment.

Scarface, Bugsy, Lucky, Joe Bananas, Milwaukee Phil and Fat Tony, Handsome Johnny and Willie the Rat. The roll call of legendary crime bosses goes back generations, and their stories fascinate us. Guzmán is a living legend (for now) among Bad Guys, and when he’s made his final escape, someone else will replace him—because there can’t be good guys without bad guys, and there can’t be war profiteering without a war. Meanwhile, his story is a hell of a ride, these showrunners are taking it in really interesting directions, and it’s very, very watchable. And, I suspect, really quite honest. We all know that really, no one truly gets away with it. But we never tire of watching people try.

Season Two of El Chapo airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on Univision Network. Season One is now streaming on Netflix.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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