“Narcos” has come of age.
In its fourth season, the extremely popular Netflix production has left Colombia's underworld to zoom in on the country that is now at the epicenter of Latin America’s criminal hubs: Mexico.
The choice of location, time period covered and cast was not casual: it provides a view of Mexico’s criminal landscape through the eyes of Mexicans and at the precise time when some of today’s most powerful and violent criminal organizations were born.
But "Narcos: Mexico" is not just about the past. A closer look at the series provides some essential clues on the current state of the country's underworld and its outlook.
Here are four of the top ones:
(Warning: This article contains spoilers)
1. The DEA's Kingpin Strategy
From its first season, taking a creative view of the rise and fall of Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, Netflix’s “Narcos” has offered a dramatized peak at the birth of Latin America’s current underworld through the eyes of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In episode after episode of "Narcos: Mexico," DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena is seen working as part of a larger team in Guadalajara, frantically searching for top drug lords, including Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero. The “kingpin strategy” argues that arresting or killing the heads of criminal organizations makes these structures fall.
Several decades have passed since, and even though the strategy has proven ineffective and counterproductive, it remains in place. Focusing all gangbusting efforts on the heads of criminal organizations without a wider long-term strategy to tackle illegal economies only leads to the fragmentation of these groups. Fragmented organizations are much more difficult to identify and tackle.
But neither the DEA nor Mexican authorities seem to have learned from this. Today, the DEA is still focusing on the heads of large cartels. It has now shifted its focus from Félix Gallardo and the Guadalajara Cartel to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) and the group’s leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias "El Mencho."
Both US and Mexican authorities are offering multimillion-dollar rewards for El Mencho’s capture. The US Justice Department, along with the DEA and other agencies, also recently announced new “coordinated enforcement efforts” to “dismantle” the CJNG.
2. A New Criminal Landscape
The scene showing a personified Félix Gallardo nearly returning from the dead to retake his seat at the head of the table of a federation of like-minded criminals at the end of the latest season of "Narcos" was the starting point of what ended up being a lucrative business model. But the many underlying internal fights were a sign of what was to come.
Over time, this hierarchical structure has been replaced by many smaller, more fragmented groups.
The Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG are Mexico’s strongest criminal groups today. But a series of arrests and killings of important cartel members, in addition to internal disputes, has caused these groups to splinter. New groups have emerged as a result and are forming alliances with the rivals of the cartels in power, carrying out attacks with the hopes of seizing control over key illicit activities.
This has ushered in unprecedented levels of violence. Whereas violence is bad for business for drug trafficking organizations, smaller groups rely on it to engage in kidnappings, extortion and other crimes. In 2017, Mexico tallied more than 30,000 homicides, more than any other year in the country’s history. Homicides are on track to reach new record levels in 2018.
3. Colombia and Mexico: Partners in Crime
The meeting between Félix Gallardo and Pablo Escobar (and their conversation about hippos) halfway through the season could have been a result of creative license. What is clear, however, is that the Félix Gallardo generation opened up the relationship between criminal organizations in Mexico and Colombia. And what a lucrative partnership that has become.
Today, Colombia’s criminal groups have essentially ceded the US cocaine market over to the Mexicans while they seek new markets in Europe and China that offer higher profits and less risk.
Crime groups like the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG still receive the bulk of their cocaine from Colombia -- the world’s top producer of the drug -- but are now forging new criminal alliances in the country after a November 2016 peace agreement signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), as well as the steady downfall of the Urabeños.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
The Mexicans are now establishing an increased presence in Colombia and sending emissaries to ensure quality control from their new partners.
In 2016, for example, the son of former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin El Chapo made a prolonged visit to Medellín and was reportedly protected by the Oficina de Envigado criminal organization. In the city’s rural outskirts, he allegedly visited two cocaine laboratories that shipped 400 kilograms of cocaine per week to Mexico via Colombia’s Pacific port of Buenaventura.
4. Why Focus Just on Drugs?
As "Narcos: Mexico" progresses, Félix Gallardo realizes that in order to stay powerful, he needs to diversify his criminal activities from only trafficking marijuana to also include cocaine.
Since then, criminal organizations have been following this logic.
Two of the most prominent illicit industries to emerge since the 1970s and 1980s are the trafficking of synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine, as well as heroin, and the illegal oil theft trade.
As US demand for marijuana declines and demand for opioids climbs, Mexican crime groups have adapted accordingly. The CJNG and the Sinaloa Cartel are battling to corner the US heroin market. More than 90 percent of heroin analyzed by the DEA in 2017 originated in Mexico, according to the agency’s 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment.
In addition, massive seizures of methamphetamine and fentanyl suggest that criminal groups are producing more synthetic drugs to adapt to market shifts, which may also be helping fuel the rise in US overdose deaths recorded in recent years. Drug overdose deaths -- driven largely by opioids -- jumped 21 percent to 63,632 in 2016, according to the DEA.
Outside of drug trafficking, oil theft is quickly emerging as a highly lucrative criminal activity that rivals the profits earned from the drug trade. In 2017, Mexico’s state-owned oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) recorded nearly 10,000 incidents of fuel theft, shattering the previous year’s record.
The billion dollar illicit business -- which some reports suggest has “a potential source of wealth far greater than illegal narcotics” -- has also fueled increased violence. In one bloody five-day stretch in September 2018, at least 54 individuals were killed in confrontations between rival criminal groups over control of the illicit trade in central Guanajuato state, which has been dubbed a “paradise” for oil thieves.