In the middle of the night in the desert of northern Mexico, Rafael Caro Quintero, drunk or high, lobs grenades into a deep hole. One. Two. Three. A huge explosion. A powerful jet of water. The door to what would become a multimillion-dollar business has opened. Viewers are watching the genesis of organized crime as we know it today.
It is difficult to know if what we see on screen is true to the facts way or if Netflix embellished it to attract more viewers with a thus far failsafe formula.
What is certain is that, when Caro Quintero, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, alias "Don Neto," discovered how to farm marijuana on a large scale and unite Mexico’s main drug players into a federation, they created the organized crime model that would control the economies of much of Latin America.
In the fourth season of Netflix’s Narcos series, actor Tenoch Huerta’s portrayal of infamous Mexican cartel boss Caro Quintero steals the show. He captures the man's charisma, hysteria, and penchant for violence, he maneuvers through the country’s political elites and ends up facing charges for kidnapping, torturing and murdering Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena. Caro Quintero served nearly 30 years for these crimes until his 2013 release from prison.
Now, the drug lord is believed to be in hiding and protected by local communities in Sinaloa while a new arrest warrant hangs over his head.
Huerta spoke with InSight Crime about the challenges of interpreting one of the FBI's most wanted and the impact of organized crime on Mexico.
InSight Crime (IC): Narcos seems to have matured in the new season.
Tenoch Huerta (TH): I think the series has a new face. They filmed it differently to have wider shots, which allow us to see more. They had the good sense to hire Mexican actors to play Mexican characters, (along with) Mexican directors. I think this helps to give the series depth, credibility and that biting, chili flavor it has.
IC: What was it like to play Rafael Caro Quintero?
TH: I wanted to play him. Caro Quintero was the character I could contribute the most to. At first glance, he may seem simple, but for me, the question was what in his life led him to be this way. And in searching for the answer, he became a very complex, nuanced character to me.
IC: Growing up in Mexico, what memories did you have of him?
TH: When I was young, little was known about drug trafficking. Even though Mexico’s drug trafficking history goes back over 100 years, we didn't know much about the traffickers themselves. They weren’t very public. Caro Quintero became famous because of his controversial statements. My parents told me that they went to a nightclub once, and Caro Quintero arrived with some girls when he was supposed to be in jail. A lot of people have anecdotes of seeing him in bars or at parties when he was supposedly in prison. But aside from that, I wasn’t really aware of him.
Drug traffickers as a threat became an issue for us with the Guadalajara Cartel, starting with the wars between the Arellano Félix Organization [also known as the Tijuana Cartel], “El Güero” Palma [Héctor Luis Palma Salazar], and others. And it definitely became a big issue 12 years ago when [former] President Felipe Calderón declared that the war [against drugs] had failed.
IC: What do you think about the show’s creators choosing that time period in Mexico’s history?
TH: I think it was a great choice because the Guadalajara Cartel is Mexico's first cartel. While we have a century-long history in the drug trade, especially along the US border -- because let’s not forget that they’re the ones doing tons of drugs -- [until the Guadalajara cartel] it used to be all local farmers with very low production levels.
With the Guadalajara Cartel, we see a cartel as we think of them in modern terms: a structured group with a hierarchy where there is production, distribution, collection, contacts, storage, people who take care of the product, armed security, technology, basically a company. That period is when it all began, when our sad drug trafficking history began.
IC: Caro Quintero was a pioneer who created an empire from nothing, but his thirst for power was also his downfall.
TH: Obviously if you start a business that makes millions of dollars, you’re going to get rich. That’s why drug trafficking still attracts so many people, and not just from classes with lower incomes. In Mexico, people who already have money get richer by doing business either directly or indirectly with drug traffickers.
For example, we have the scandal where HSBC was accused of laundering drug money. I doubt very much that the bank’s executives were street children who watched TV and wanted to get involved in the drug trade and launder money. This is about the ability of money and power to corrupt. (We see) the famous people behind drug trafficking, but we have no idea who is pulling the strings.
IC: How does organized crime impact Mexico, and what do you think about the approaches of its different governments?
TH: The drug trafficking issue is complex and has many factors, but one of the problems is that there is no social mobility in Mexico. When my father was young, if you got a college degree, you could make it to a different [economic] level in life and change your social position. Now, organized crime -- especially drug trafficking -- is what creates the most mobility in the country. It’s brutal.
That, plus corruption and impunity, is the perfect breeding ground to send a country, almost blindly, into the grip of crime.
IC: That’s a discouraging outlook.
TH: It is a discouraging outlook, but what’s encouraging about it is that people don’t want to live that way. I think that, today, Mexicans have a tremendous opportunity to change things, but society has to change them. This is not a job just for the government.
IC: Which time period would you portray in season five of Narcos?
TH: The creator of the series told me that drug trafficking in Mexico has so many important moments and so many protagonists that we could do five seasons [just in this country]. I would go by our six-year presidential terms, each one with a different key figure: the Arellano Félix Organization, El Güero, El Señor de los Cielos [Amado Carrillo Fuentes, former head of the Juarez Cartel]. Then we would do those who took their places: the powerful El Chapo, the Beltrán Leyva Organization, followed by the crazy part, when the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas got into it with each other, and then the last stage happening now.