An accused Mexican drug trafficker is taking action against Netflix and Telemundo, marking the latest legal battle surrounding portrayals of drug traffickers on television.
Sandra Ávila Beltrán, once dubbed Mexico’s “Queen of the Pacific,” is demanding the streaming platform and TV channel pay her 40 percent of the royalties for the Spanish-language show “Queen of the South,” co-produced by Netflix and Telemundo.
Ávila’s claim states that the media companies “exploited” her image to promote the second season of the drug trafficking drama, according to documents obtained by Mexican newspaper Milenio. Although Ávila filed the compensation claim with the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property (Instituto Mexicano de la Propiedad Industrial -- IMPI) in January, the case only recently became public.
In communication with InSight Crime, the IMPI confirmed it is currently in the process of evaluating whether Ávila’s image was used legally or illegally. As this is an administrative process, the IMPI clarified this cannot be considered a lawsuit, as mistakenly reported by many international media outlets.
Nevertheless, Ávila’s lawyer, Israel Razo Reyes, reportedly told Milenio that his client’s compensation claim with the IMPI was a step towards a lawsuit.
The images used by the media companies were from Ávila’s 2007 arrest and 2012 extradition to the United States. Razo alleged the unauthorized use of this footage to promote the show’s second season during a 2019 Telemundo News broadcast directly affected his client’s reputation, noting that Ávila has never been convicted of leading a drug cartel.
Ávila, who was born into a family with links to the Guadalajara Cartel, did however plead guilty in a US court in 2013 to aiding and abetting her boyfriend, Juan Diego Espinosa Ramírez. He was a former member of Colombia's Norte del Valle Cartel who served as a go-between with Mexican groups, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel.
Do These Claims Have Legal Standing?
Ávila’s claim spotlights the legal grey area surrounding dramatizations of real people and events connected to organized crime. Based on a book by the same name, “Queen of the South” tells the story of Teresa Mendoza, a Mexican woman who falls in love with a cartel pilot who goes on to become the head of an international drug trafficking organization.
Despite several major differences between the Mendoza character and Ávila, various media outlets have stated that Ávila was the inspiration for the show’s lead character. Yet that is not what is behind the compensation claim.
The purpose of the IMPI claim is for the institution “to issue a decision determining whether the violation, the use of her image without her consent, occurred or not,” José Antonio Aguilar, an intellectual property lawyer practicing in Mexico, told InSight Crime.
"Even if there are widespread rumors or indications that the person is engaged in drug trafficking, as long as there is no conviction, she is innocent … if [her claim] is backed by legal norms and she duly proves this, she could obtain a favorable outcome,” Aguilar explained.
According to Aguilar, Ávila and her legal team would have to prove that her image was used beyond the legal parameters and to the benefit of Netflix and Telemundo.
But even if the IMPI sides with Ávila, that does not mean she will receive 40 percent of the show’s royalties. “That is up to the IMPI,” explained Aguilar.
Ávila’s lawyer Razo told Milenio that the claim is not just about money. “What we want is to set a precedent [stating] that you cannot use someone’s image lightly ... They are going to have to pay,” he said.
Meanwhile, the coordinated legal defense for Netflix and Telemundo has responded to the claim, arguing that Ávila is of public interest as a public figure and therefore has no right to the show’s royalties for the images used.
In order for Ávila to successfully sue the US media companies, Louis P. Petrich, senior counsel for Netflix’s defense in the Vallejo v. Narcos Prods. LLC lawsuit, told InSight Crime that “a right of publicity or a defamation claim would require [Ávila] to prove that an audience would reasonably believe the show to be depicting her and not just being inspired by aspects of her life.”
The “Queen of the South” is “a fictional character created through visits and conversations with many kinds of drug traffickers … [who said] it was impossible -- and that's why I wrote the novel, to make it possible -- for a woman to reach such a degree of power in a world as closed and chauvinistic as that of drug trafficking at that time,” the author wrote in 2020, describing Ávila as a low-level criminal.
He also dismissed the similarities in their criminal aliases. “Every time a woman related to drug trafficking is arrested in Mexico, the media call her a queen,” he said.
Petrich also pointed to several other television characters and songs allegedly inspired by Ávila, against whom she has not filed any claims at this time. However, these did not appear to have used her image.
A favorable outcome for Ávila could potentially lead to a slew of legal challenges regarding compensation claims, lawsuits, and storytelling related to organized crime.
The courts “apply the law. Whether it is fair or not is another issue,” Aguilar, the lawyer, told InSight Crime.
Similar Legal Challenges
In an interview with InSight Crime, Michael Lettieri, co-founder of the Mexico Violence Research Project, said the lines separating these shows from their subjects are getting blurry.
“Everybody is trying to get a piece of the pie, because there is money in it,” he told InSight Crime, referring to the various industries profiting off narco-culture.
Indeed, “Queen of the South” is not the first narco-series to face a lawsuit or threats of legal action.
In late-2021, the son of Cali Cartel leader Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela announced he would sue the producers of “The Snitch Cartel: Origins,” a series produced by Caracol and available on Netflix, for the portrayal of his father. He also claimed the show plagiarized from two books he wrote on his family.
Netflix’s “Narcos” franchise has also been affected. In 2021, the son of an Army general and the sons of a prominent businessman and politician announced they would sue “Narcos Mexico” over the show’s portrayal of their fathers as corrupt officials. Similarly, in 2020, the doctor charged and later absolved of participating in the death of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena also announced a lawsuit against Netflix.
In 2018, Colombian journalist Virginia Vallejo, whose affair with Pablo Escobar was represented in the “Narcos” series, also sued Netflix. Vallejo claimed the show’s producers took information from her book about her relationship with the head of the Medellín Cartel without consulting her. Vallejo lost the lawsuit.