Small Wars Journal

Commentary—Narcos: Mexico Season 3: A View From El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

Fri, 11/12/2021 - 3:11pm

Commentary—Narcos: Mexico Season 3: A View From El Paso and Ciudad Juárez

Howard Campbell

narcos MX

Narcos: Mexico season three is concerned with the 1990s, especially the rise of Amado Carrillo Fuentes and the Juárez Cartel, disputes between Sinaloans and the Arellano Félix Cartel, and corruption within the PRI government. It is certainly fun to watch but despite its perhaps lofty intentions, Narcos: Mexico is commercial celluloid pulp, plain and simple. Neither historically or culturally accurate nor artistically imaginative, it is essentially a sexy product made for the marketplace. Where to begin with what’s wrong with it? Well, since I am writing from El Paso, let’s start there. For Narcos: Mexico, El Paso for the most part is a redneck country town—with its favorite cowboy music playing in the background of Texas Roadhouse-like joints. It’s a world away from Mexico where all the (violent) action takes place. The DEA agents are, of course, white and they have southern or Midwestern accents. Was the model for this depiction The Bridge, Cormac McCarthy, Traffic, Breaking Bad or what? Certainly not El Paso itself. Last I checked, 94% of the students at the University of Texas at El Paso were minorities, the Border Patrol and local police were mostly Hispanic and so even were the anti-narcotics agents, and of course most people in the streets. Spanish and Spanglish are the most common languages. Such was even the case in the 1990s when season three takes place. Of course, a related issue is that the Cártel de Juárez should actually be called the Cártel de El Paso y Juárez. Naturally, thousands of El Pasoans, white, black, and brown, are involved in the drug business and of course the gun business (from the US to Mexico)—which never gets the full attention it deserves.

But if Narcos: Mexico really gets anything right, it is that both countries, the U.S. and Mexico, are both to blame for the violence of the drug business/war on drugs. In some of the most convincing, heartfelt scenes—when General Gutiérrez Rebollo lays out the moral and practical hypocrisy of the War on Drugs to DEA agent Walt Breslin or when the good Juárez cop Victor Tapia does the same with the DEA’s James Kuykendall—at least that message is clearly conveyed. The rest of the show, however, for the most part sticks to standard tropes: wild gunfights, fake-looking cantinas, cold-blooded but fiery queen pins, bodies dangling from bridges, narco-mansions of obscene luxury, schlocky narco clothes and cars, and sincere, dedicated but flawed cops and agents who just want to make things right (while screwing up their marriages by obsessing over their jobs). Indeed, when I was watching the narco-wedding of Enedina Arellano, I felt I had already seen essentially that same scene in earlier seasons of Narcos: Mexico and Narcos (Colombia), not to mention many US mafia movies. The recycling of standard images, characterizations and motifs is unending and often distorting, e.g., the presentation of Rafael Aguilar, a founder of the Juárez Cartel, as a kind of a vulgar plebeian crook when in fact he was a bilingual border crosser, was head of the regional federal police in northern Mexico and married into the high society of Juárez. Moreover, he was murdered in Cancún, not Juárez, and not by Carrillo Fuentes personally. Additionally, what of the painting of a Juárez serial killer as a gringo? In fact, there is no proof or documentation that the murderer of hundreds if not thousands of Juárez women was a foreigner, not even Abdul Latif Sharif, the Egyptian chemist cruelly framed by the local police in the 1990s. Moreover, the formulaic presentation of the femicide saga provides little insight into this complex issue. Nor does the description of the Salinas presidency shed new light, although it is refreshing to see the focus on the institutionalized political corruption of Carlos Hank González.

Overall, the presentation of Tijuana and the Arellano Félix organization is more successful than that of Juárez and its eponymous cartel. For example, I must question where the idea came from for the portrayal of Amado Carrillo Fuentes as a kind of Leonardo da Vinci, a Rodin-esque thinker gazing into the sky or the ocean or musing as he looks down on the blinking, romantic lights of Juárez. In case you didn’t get the message, Carrillo Fuentes is shown dreamily cogitating in a least a dozen scenes. Incidentally, hanging out at scenic overlooks looking out over the city of Juárez is not a common activity here, especially because much of the city is flat and the rugged hilly sections of town hardly lend themselves to romantic, philosophical interludes or the hills are smack dab in the heart of poverty-stricken, ramshackle neighborhoods. In fact, if anyone were likely to do this they would go to El Paso’s Scenic Drive. Narcos: Mexico season three seems to want to give Juárez the exotic, high mountain valley appeal of Medellín.

And while we are wondering about the depiction of Amado and Juárez, why choose a charming Munchkin-like guy with pinch-able cheeks to play Chapo, a hardened criminal? This bit of casting is just about as wrong-headed as the choice of suburban boy-next-door Diego Luna to play drug lord Félix Gallardo. And what of the Juárez cop—whose tough guy with a heart pose did not prevent me from seeing the actor as the same one who played a silly, frivolous junior in Club de Cuervos? ¡Ay güey! And what about the burning barracks scene after the capture of Gutiérrez Rebollo—that seemed more like depiction of the Allende massacre (2011) in Somos or Apocalypse Now’s Vietnam, not something that happened in Tijuana.

I actually liked the original Narcos, about Colombia, more than Narcos: Mexico. Perhaps because I know Mexico better than Colombia and hence could see the cracks in the camera lens more clearly or perhaps because by the fifth and sixth seasons of Narcos, episodes begin to degenerate into cliché, cheese and entertainment schmaltz. I have to admit, however, that I never tire of the original theme music “Tuyo” by Rodrigo Amarante.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Howard Campbell is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). He is the author or editor of seven academic volumes including a 2021 book from University of Texas Press called Downtown Juárez: Underworlds of Violence and Abuse. Dr. Campbell received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1990. He has been a professor at UTEP since 1991, and chairman of the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at UTEP since 2014. He is a specialist in Latin American Studies with a primary focus on Mexico. 



Thu, 11/18/2021 - 2:07pm

Is It Time For International Intervention In Mexico?

The world has failed Mexico. In a war without mercy to supply the world with drugs of all kinds, the narco-insurgency in Mexico has killed an estimated 300,000 people since 2006. Because of the world’s, mostly the United States and Europe, insatiable demand for drugs, terror and open conflict has gripped Mexico for 15 years on a scale rivaling any other conflict in the world. Today, conservative estimates put 40 percent of Mexico under narco control. Yet, the world looks the other way and has done extraordinarily little to help end the suffering. If countries are not going to legalize drugs to bring the situation under some sort of control, then the world must act under established international doctrines to end the calamity. With no end in sight to the violence destroying Mexico, there are three options for multi-lateral intervention: A Chapter 7 Mandate of the United Nations Charter; or the deployment of forces under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention; or intervention under the concept of Responsibility to Protect.

While drug cartels have operated in Mexico for decades, it was the 2006 attempted crackdown of then Mexican President Felipe Calderon that began Mexico’s descent into what can be described in various terms as a narco-insurgency or even a civil war. Various calculations put the death toll in Mexico at approximately 240,000 plus another 60,000 missing and presumed dead in Mexico since then, and yet the world looks the other way. No matter what calculations are used, the death toll is staggering.

Although the corruption of various politicians and institutions in Mexico require long term changes to the sociological, economic, and political changes to fix, the immediate need is to reduce the violence. The United Nations could intervene to at least to deny the freedom of movement of the cartels; disrupt their source of drugs; and protect the population. While an UN intervention could not hope to completely end the war, intervention could at least reduce the levels of violence and stabilize areas of the country and give the people some hope.

In any other country, the level of brutality and the number of people killed each day would cause outcry throughout the world and calls for intervention. Yet, in Mexico, the world turns a blind eye. In 2020, Mexico recorded 28,328 drug related deaths, reflecting an increase of 21.1 percent from 2019. Over 11,000 of those fatalities occurred in just the first four months of 2020. The statistics in 2021, looks just as grim, with over a thousand killed in the drug war in the state of Chihuahua alone.

Since taking office in 2018, despite Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s efforts to reduce the violence by changing tactics, the war has killed over 53,000. Beheadings, burning people alive, torturing people to death, hanging bodies off bridges, dismemberments, massacres, and disappearances are so common, that they hardly make the news. Cartels have killed many in the most horrific ways possible, even exceeding anything ISIS or Al Qaeda have done.

The people cannot rely on their elected leaders because they, themselves, may not live long enough to even think about how to stop it. Mexican politicians are assassinated every 78 days. This statistic has not changed in years. In any other country, that would be outrageous and a sign of a failed state. In this year’s election, thirty-four candidates were assassinated and 89 politicians were killed between September 2020 and May 2021. Mexican policemen are routinely ambushed and killed en masse. Mexican military forces have been routinely ambushed or their helicopters shot down.

In a country in which fighting now takes place between heavily-armed platoon-sized units armed with everything from .50 caliber sniper rifles to explosive-laden drones to crew-served machine guns mounted on armored trucks, the Mexican government military and police forces are simply out-gunned. Although, the small-time street gang members may only possess limited firepower and can be easily dispatched of by Mexican police, the upper tiers of the cartels control para-military forces that possess the logistics, firepower, command and control, the training, the leadership, and the motivation to engage in sustained combat with Mexican government forces and win.

If Mexico does not have the political will or the capabilities to bring some semblances of security to the country, could the United Nations intervene, as it has done in other countries? In 2009, as the fighting between cartels left Ciudad Juarez in ruins, many business owners and civilians openly called for UN peacekeepers. At the time, there was still misguided hope that the Mexican government could control the situation or that once the inter-cartel fighting was over, things would settle down quickly again. It never did. In 2011, Mexican President Felipe Calderon told the UN General Assembly that the world must do something about both the drugs other nations were consuming and the number of weapons pouring into Mexico, bound for the cartels. “Now, more than ever, countries with the highest levels of drug consumption must take effective action to reduce demand,” Calderon said.

At the same time, he also said the UN “must continue to drive forward negotiations for the International Convention on Trade in Arms so as to avoid their diversion to activities that are forbidden under international rules.”

Ten years later, the problem has only grown worse. With large tracts of Mexico completely under cartel control and drugs flowing freely between Mexico the rest of the world, it is past time to consider the deployment of an armed United Nations peacekeeping force to Mexico or a Humanitarian Intervention under the concept of Responsibility To Protect. The mission, under either scenario, would be to disrupt the wholesale slaughter of the population and disrupt the unfettered distribution of drugs. There is no doubt that the violence perpetuated by the cartels are a crime against humanity and the mass quantities of drugs leaving Mexico constitute a threat to global security.

The United Nations Charter, of which Mexico signed on June 26, 1945, spells out the conditions for armed intervention by member states in Chapter VII: Action with Respect to Threats to The Peace, Breaches of The Peace, And Acts Of Aggression. Article 39 of Chapter VII allows The Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of pace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.” Article 41 measures may include economic and diplomatic initiatives, but if these do not work, then Article 42 allows the Security Council to “take such action by air, sea, or land forces as maybe necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.”

In this capacity, the United Nations could lay the groundwork for the deployment of armed peacekeepers with Mexico’s consent. While the Mexican government may not fully consent to the deployment out of national pride, a concerted diplomatic effort may persuade the government otherwise. To put it simply, Mexico has nothing to lose by allowing external forces to assist in disrupting the violence and narcotics trade in Mexico. Entire swaths of the country are currently under control of narco-trafficking organizations and corruption permeates every level of government, military, and security forces. 

By allowing a limited intervention by UN backed forces, Mexico could regain control of its national sovereignty.

All members of the UN Security Council have vested interest in disrupting cartel activity in Mexico, as the drugs coming out of Mexico have been disruptive to their own societies. China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States are all directly affected by the cartel violence in Mexico, none more than the United States, of course. For example, in June, the US Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated four Chinese individuals and one entity as under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for “facilitating payments for the purchase of fentanyl analogs or other controlled substances, including synthetic cannabinoids or cathinones, for the Zhenge Drug Trafficking Organization. In June, a Chinese national pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering in connection with more than $4 million in drug proceeds generated by large-scale cocaine trafficking. The extent of cartels operating in Europe led to an alarming report by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction and Eurpol which stated “Mexican cartels are believed to have intensified their cooperation with other criminal groups to orchestrate cocaine trafficking into the EU.”

Furthermore, the report concluded that a 2019 operation disrupting three large centers of crystal meth production uncovered Mexican cartel involvement stoked fears the European Union itself could become a major meth producer and market. “The know-how has been transferred to Europe and the EU needs to assess the threats linked to Mexican organized crime groups to develop answers.”

Mexico’s role on the Security Council as an Elected Member for 2021-2022 is problematic for consideration. While it does not possess the veto power to keep the United Nations from intervening, it is position on the Security Council gives it a significant platform from which to oppose intervention. The historical phobia of external interference in Mexico notwithstanding, Mexico’s constitution, as established in Article 89 (X), established that its guiding principles in Foreign Policy are, among others, the self-determination of peoples; nonintervention; peaceful settlement of disputes; and elimination of the threat or use of force in international relations. Although at first glance, this may preclude Mexico from enthusiastically supporting any external force on Mexican soil, the Mexican ambassador to the UN also emphasizes that the UN needs to work to prevent and combat illicit trade in small arms and light weapons; the protection of vulnerable group; and respect for the rule of law. Mexico

Short of a UN authorized peacekeeping force, the UN could sanction an armed intervention force for humanitarian reasons under the widely accepted doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Since it is endorsement by the United Nations 2005 summit on the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, R2P interventions have taken place in several countries. The three pillars of R2P are Pillar 1: The protection responsibilities of the state; Pillar 2: International assistance and capacity-building; and Pillar 3: Timely and decisive response. If a state is unable or too weak to protect its population under Pillar 1, the international community may intervene under Pillar 2. Even if Mexico was opposed to R2P intervention because it would violate Mexico’s sovereignty, the UN and the R2P doctrine says that sovereignty cannot be looked at merely as a government being in control of the population, but the government has a responsibility to its population and the international community. With the Mexican cartels firmly in control or at war in large swaths of Mexico and their drugs flowing throughout the world, the R2P doctrine is necessary.

Finally, without the explicit approval of the United Nations under Chapter VII or R2P, the international community could deploy forces into Mexico under the principle of humanitarian intervention. Because of the UN Charter’s strict guidelines for Security Council resolutions to pass with any one of the five permanent members being able to veto a resolution, members often delay or outrightly reject the deployment of peacekeeping forces. Yet, the situation in Mexico is at the point where it precludes the requirement for tacit Security Council approval. In looking at the crimes against humanity ongoing in Mexico, humanitarian intervention and the deployment of international forces, may technically be in violation of the explicit rules of the UN Charter but intervention may be necessary for moral reasons. In this case the brutality of the war in Mexico calls for intervention faster than an authorization resolution could work its way through the UN. Although unauthorized intervention may pull at two competing values – strict adherence to the UN Charter versus the immediate need to protect a population – the failure of the UN to intervene in the Rwandan genocide until it was too late, has shaped world’s view, making it easier to call for humanitarian intervention.

No matter the final justification for intervention to disrupt the bloodshed, contributing nations must carefully think through the force structure and mission. A failure to establish a clearly defined mission will doom the mission to failure or malaise. Many of the UN peacekeeping or interventions around the world fall into this trap. Without a clear purpose with explicit missions, once the initial euphoria or excitement fades, international forces will end up expending great sums of treasure and quickly sleepwalk into an endless presence. They will be torn between whether their mission is to observe and report on the violence, to protect civilians if they come under fire, or to actively engage cartel forces. Additionally, a clear mission is necessary to solicit assistance from potentially contributing countries. Countries deploying forces need to know their role and how their forces fit into the bigger mission.

To win support for intervention, one unmistakable fact must be reckoned with. That is, the drug war cannot be won by military or law enforcement forces. Simply put, a sizable portion of the world’s population, for whatever reason, wants to consume drugs and are willing to pay any price for them. At the same time, the allure of riches makes getting into the drug business is too enticing for enterprising individuals or employment with the cartels, no matter how dangerous, still provides a source of income to impoverished communities. It is a difficult proposition to call for intervention when the likely outcome is known at the outset.

What the international community can do, however, is to disrupt cartel activities enough that they cannot wage unrestricted warfare and commit crimes against humanity throughout Mexico without fear of being stopped. Intervention with the intent to disrupt cartel operations can buy time for Mexican government forces to consolidate their gains and prepare for a resumption of a high tempo of operations without the international community. A disruption would also allow the international community to get a handle on their drug problems and give them the space to set up new treatment programs and train their forces to counter the trafficking of illicit drugs into their countries. A disruption would allow the Mexican people to recover from the psychological trauma of the war, rebuild their shattered economies, and provide them the breathing space to establish their own defense networks. Finally, a disruption of cartel activity, might generate just enough breathing room for the warring cartels to negotiate their own cease-fires and eventually stabilizing the situation. Nobody should be under the illusion a clear-cut victory in the so-called war on drugs is possible but a disruption is possible.

If the international community decides that it is time for intervention in Mexico, there is one model the community could replicate in Mexico. In 2013, in response to continued rebel activity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations, under Resolution 2098, authorized the first Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). The UN specifically ordered the FIB to carry out targeted offensive operations to “neutralize and disarm” armed groups considered a threat to civilians and the Congolese government. The main group at the time was the M23 fighters which the FIB easily defeated in 2013. M23 did not disappear completely, but their ability to ever launch a significant offensive again evaporated. A Mexico FIB (MFIB) could accomplish something similar against one or more designated cartels.

A MFIB could accomplish this through several means including direct military action; crop interdiction; establishing checkpoints; surveillance and electronic detection of cartel communications; and transportation and logistics for Mexican government forces; or a combination of all strategies.

However, the MFIB is comprised and what its final strategy is, it will be better than maintaining the status quo. The international community has turned a blind eye to the suffering of Mexico and the horrific crimes against humanity going on there now. The drugs are pouring into every corner of the world from Mexico and the international community can no longer say the drug war in Mexico is not their problem. The international community has a choice: Maintain the status quo and watch the death toll in Mexico continue on its apocalyptic path or intervene to disrupt the flow of drugs and help the people of Mexico regain some measure of peace.


Thu, 11/18/2021 - 12:45pm

Howard Campbell is spot on with the inaccuracies and sensationalism of the series. I know because I was a DEA agent in Juarez in the 1990's. See for the truth.