The Godfather Decides to Expand His Enterprise in Absorbing ‘Narcos: Mexico’ Season 2

Being a captain of industry means issuing a few bloody threats and making bodies disappear in Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico.” This second season of a continuing chronicle of the rise of the Guadalajara cartel is as absorbing as the first. What makes it endlessly intriguing is the way it mixes history and intricate character development. Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna), lovingly referred to by associates as “El Padrino” (The Godfather), could have been a great businessman in any field. Life placed him in Mexico just as the cocaine trade was booming. In this new chapter Gallardo does what any successful enterprise decides to do, expand.

Last season ended with the brutal killing of DEA agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña) by Gallardo’s men. Now his colleagues, led by narrator Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy), go deep into Mexico on a clandestine near-rampage. Their mission is to target anyone involved in Camarena’s killing and use unorthodox methods to make them talk, which will hopefully bring them closer to the seat of cartel power. That seat is slowly being taken over by Gallardo, who is attempting to hold together his narco federation which was meant to end squabbling between the various drug operations in the country. His criminal collaborators are not happy that an American agent’s death is bringing gringo heat down on their world. Tensions rise between Gallardo’s group and the Sinaloa cartel. Meanwhile as the cocaine trade expands the main suppliers in Colombia are becoming both more demanding and stingy. This inspires Gallardo to propose that the Mexicans become independent, and demand to purchase a chunk of the drugs the Cali cartel can’t transport into the U.S. without their hired hands. 

While the first incarnation of “Narcos” had a built-in audience due to its subject matter, the rise of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, “Narcos: Mexico” had to prove itself with a lesser known, though no less significant crime saga. When tackling one of these stories there’s always a threat of recycling stereotypes or old gangster clichés, and while the men strut like well-dressed macho roosters, the thriller elements are combined with a wider historical panorama. Breslin’s narration combined with vintage clips frame Gallardo’s rise as possible at a time when the Mexican system’s cracks were becoming more exposed, especially after a devastating 1985 earthquake which the one-party state failed to properly deal with. When Breslin’s men capture a minion aligned with Gallardo’s cartel to make him talk, he admits the U.S. was actively training Latin American security forces in the ways of torture to battle insurgents. So when he starts chopping fingers the subject knows how to keep quiet because he himself has already undergone training with Uncle Sam. Another drug lord complains to Gallardo that they need to get rid of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, since popular revolutions are bad for business. Along with the 80’s soundtrack and neon-glow nightclubs, the fascinating historical details in the writing make “Narcos: Mexico” an immersive drama about crime brewing underneath the historical events of the decade.

This is still a crime drama after all, not a historical treatise. The true focus is Gallardo taking his enterprise and making it grow into a violent behemoth. Diego Luna’s controlled, cold performance evokes the brain of a business mind in action. Mafia stories at their core are either about family or old fashioned capitalism. If the first “Narcos” was grandiose and operatic, “Mexico” is stylish yet subdued. It’s more about the way characters sit around discussing percentages and routes. Gallardo was an up and comer in the first season, now his Sinaloa partners, including the ever rising “Chapo” Guzman (Alejandro Edda), gift him a live tiger for his birthday during a lavish party. His wife is a snob aloof to how their wealthy but criminal circles see her. When Gallardo discusses expanding the federation’s power with Don Neto (Joaquín Cosio), it sounds like any other business venture except it means possible war with the Cali cartel. The other characters are like pistol-packing, short-tempered CEOs. Big partner Amado Carillo Fuentes (José María Yazpik) is getting more annoyed with the Sinaloa branch of the franchise and when a smoked out colleague forgets to build a new air strip over “personal problems,” Fuentes offers to fix it with a 50-man hit squad. The women are no pushovers either. Enedina Arellano Felix (Mayra Hermosillo) keeps track of shipments and product with a sharp eye while Isabella Bautista (Teresa Ruiz) muscles her way into the cartel’s top spots with seductive tact.

But now back to history, because deep into the second season the major development for Gallardo is his decision to essentially make Mexico’s criminal underworld independent from Colombia. During his 40th birthday a Colombian representative makes it clear they will do as they wish, even withholding money owed to Gallardo for shipping Colombian cocaine into the United States. Ever the businessman, Gallardo wonders why the federation should be at the mercy of a cartel with only 800,000 compatriots in the U.S., when at the time there were about 15 million Mexicans. Read the daily headlines coming out of modern-day Mexico and you can see why this move proved momentous. 

“Narcos: Mexico” is mounted with a gritty elegance, where nice suits cover rugged faces pulled from the dregs of Mexican society. It’s not a romantic tale this show tells, but something Shakespeare would admire in the way these characters seek wealth and power, but dipping their hands in blood that can never wash away. It’s never just business when a deal could mean life or death.

Narcos: Mexico” season two begins streaming Feb. 13 on Netflix.