The new Netflix series, “Somos.,” (We Are), offers a respectful but powerful look at the Allende massacre, one of the most brutal episodes of Mexico's war on organized crime, which sets it apart from other narco-series.
Over the course of six episodes, "Somos." gives a platform to the victims of the Allende massacre to tell their stories. Over three consecutive days in March 2011, a series of attacks were carried out by 60 hitmen associated with the Zetas around Allende and its surrounding municipalities in the border state of Coahuila. As many as 300 people are believed to have been abducted, killed and their bodies burned.
The series is based on a 2017 ProPublica report by journalist Ginger Thompson, who collected dozens of testimonies from witnesses, relatives of victims, law enforcement officials and criminals associated with the Zetas, Mexico's most feared drug cartel at the time.
Thompson exposed how a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) leak to the Mexican Federal Police – which later reached the Zetas – triggered the violent events. Zetas leaders Miguel Treviño, alias “Z40,” and his brother, Omar Treviño, alias “Z42,” learned that their associates had reported them to the US agency and allegedly ordered the attacks in retaliation.
SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile
Mexico's current Defense Minister, Luis Crescencio Sandoval – who was the regional military commander for the area around Allende in 2011 – stated July 6 that the Army could not act at the time of the massacre because "they had no operational responsibility."
In the face of these attitudes, "Somos." presents a troubling narrative, inviting viewers to reflect on the human tragedies that Mexico's ongoing war on drugs has left behind.
Focus on Victims, not Kingpins
“Somos.” is almost unique in that it shies away from the story of the drug lords and focuses on what the victims of the violence have to say.
Far from glorifying organized crime, it focuses on the societal harm it causes. And while the names and other personal details of the victims have been changed, characters in "Somos." represent those who were truly affected: a prominent ranching family, high school students, children and ordinary workers who had no links to organized crime.
The series highlights the many ways in which criminal groups targeted the population through extortion, threats, forced recruitment, homicides and forced displacements.
It also exposes the dilemma residents found themselves in as they were unable to ask for state protection.
"What the series did very well was capturing the spirit of what happened in terms of the menacing presence of [the Zetas] in this community, in terms of the absolute failure of the government institutions that are sworn to protect it ... and how tragic and senseless the violence was,” Thompson, the journalist, told InSight Crime.
One of the most captivating stories is that of the character Paquito, a young man living in poverty who is unjustly arrested by the municipal police under orders from the Zetas to fill the Piedras Negras prison with young men. The Zetas had absolute control of this prison and used its facilities to disappear their victims.
Within the prison, Paquito is taken in by the Zetas as a means of survival, forced to participate in acts of extreme violence before eventually being killed. Paquito's story breaks the myth that joining an organized crime group is "desirable," as it is commonly portrayed in many series, and exemplifies how the line dividing victims from perpetrators is not always clear.
"['Somos.'] focuses on the lives of the people who are caught up in this whole mess [of violence and criminality]. It's one of the first times a series dignifies [the victims]," said Thompson.
The series also seeks to undo the "cops and robbers" mentality, in which US agents are depicted as the heroes fighting against the Latin American “enemy,” as has been the case in Narcos, Triple Frontier or Sicario.
On the contrary, "Somos." acknowledges the DEA's responsibility in the dynamics of violence in Latin America and critiques the lack of sensitivity shown by some US agents in regards to protecting informants and their families.
“It captures very well the role that the DEA plays in Mexico’s fight against drug traffickers, the failings of that role and the lack of accountability that the DEA has been allowed to enjoy," said Thompson.
However, some reviews have criticized the fact that the series does not fully address the responsibility of the Mexican federal police and omits the involvement of local authorities in the Allende massacre.
The Complexity of Organized Crime
"Somos." succeeds in showing how complex actions by criminal groups can be, touching upon the different actors involved and showing how this massacre affected different spheres of society.
Eschewing any "good versus evil" perspective, it shows that those acting within criminal groups do not necessarily do so of their own volition, but because they are forced to do so, because of family relationships or other circumstances.
For example, the character of Doña Chayo, a street vendor, ends up working as a "halcón" (lookout) for a Zetas operator in exchange for protection for Paquito, her wrongly imprisoned son-in-law. Meanwhile, Samuel is the son of the Treviño brothers' lieutenant in Coahuila and is affected by his father's actions despite not being involved in the business nor condoning the violence.
Benjamín Linares, the son of a prominent rancher from Allende, ends up collaborating with the Zetas because – for reasons not mentioned in the series – he owed them money and this was the only way to buy himself some time.
On the other hand, “Somos.” also shows that organized crime is not just about drug trafficking. The Zetas controlled all the criminal economies in the territories where they operated and engaged in predatory criminal activities such as extortion and human trafficking. The series also tells the stories of two Central American women who migrated to Mexico and were kidnapped by the Zetas for sexual exploitation.
“I hope that what people take away is that this is just not Allende, ... these kinds of things are happening in far too many places in Mexico,” concluded Thompson.