‘Narcos: Mexico’ Season 3 Gets Bloodier With the Rise of New Kingpins

Like the lives of many criminals in the real world, Netflix’s “Narcos: Mexico” closes its saga with more of a whimper than a roar. This is by no means a defect, but a testament to how this series has explored the world of drug cartels with a stark, sobering realism. The immense roster of names and dates are not as important as the central idea that comes across. Drug trades thrive because in a sense they are the ultimate form of capitalism, driven primarily by profit and expansion. If you have competition, just kill them. This third season of the series’ Mexican edition is reportedly the last. It ends in the perfect spot, when the cartel world begins morphing into what it continues to be now. There’s not much of a heroic ending, because the story is still going on.

The new season begins soon after the downfall of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (Diego Luna), which means those left free are now fighting for control of the ever growing drug trade. Power resides particularly in cartels, which control border cities next to the U.S., like Ciudad Juárez or Tijuana. Now the story also features a new narrator, Andrea Nuñez (Luisa Rubino), a Tijuana journalist trying to do her job in a society rife with corruption. DEA agent Walt Breslin (Scoot McNairy) is still active, this time snooping around transport operations being run by the Juarez cartel. That particular outfit remains the home of Amado Carrillo Fuentes (José María Yazpik) aka “The Lord of the Skies,” who we see crashing one of his planes and attempting to bribe Mexican soldiers.  He is growing increasingly frustrated by his partners’ sloppy methods. The top cartel remains that of Tijuana, run by the Arellano family. Bosses Benjamin (Alfonso Dosal), Enedina (Mayra Hermosillo) and Ramon (Manuel Masalva) now have political protection from Carlos Hank (Manuel Uriza), a corrupt operator in the ruling PRI party who seeks the presidency. The outliers remain the Sinaloa cartel, where Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (Alejandro Edda) is growing frustrated with both the other cartels’ disrespect and having no control of any border territories. That will soon change.

Gone are the flashier drug lords of the previous incarnations of “Narcos.” The days of Pablo Escobar in Colombia and Felix Gallardo in Mexico are an afterthought this season. The story of what remains is almost a metaphor for globalization over the last thirty years. As the ‘90s dawned, Mexico underwent turbulent socio-economic changes. NAFTA, the controversial free trade agreement that would also contribute to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, was just around the corner. The drug business was expanding like a multinational. Enriched by money and power, the gangsters become even more decadent. In Tijuana the younger Arellanos ride around with the “rich kids” of the local Mexican elite, sometimes leaving the girls waiting in the BMW while someone carries out a hit. Yet even within crime there are divisions of status and for the Arellanos the Sinaloans are practically hillbillies. El Chapo shows up to a wedding with nothing but flowers deemed insulting. He speaks with a rural accent that contrasts with the Spanish of big city Mexicans. It’s a great performance by Alejandro Edda, who captures the proud, almost manic twitchiness of the real person. Dramatically it is a touch of brilliant irony, since anyone following the news knows Guzman would ascend to be the ultimate kingpin.

For many of the other parties involved, the allure of the gangster lifestyle turns into the stress of running an illegal business. Carrillo Fuentes is less colorful now because he is trying to get the Juarez cartel better organized, with a more intricate transport system that won’t get them caught. Sometimes he needs to put a bullet through the face of some idiot getting in the way. It’s hard to keep track of nearly every development because this season of “Narcos: Mexico” decides to cram everything it can say about contemporary Mexico in addition to the drug war plots. Andrea is the scrappy reporter who works for a paper whose editor is so determined to tell the truth, he has the printed issue made in San Diego. It’s a nice nod towards Mexico’s journalists at a time when many have been assassinated amid the ongoing drug war in that country. She’s the one truly ethical character willing to risk the dangers of sneaking into an Arellano wedding or nightclub, taking down the names of what judges and politicians hang out with the criminals. The show also takes time to touch on momentous events from the ‘90s in Mexico, like the assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, long suspected of being some kind of political-cartel plot. The show certainly tells us what it thinks when a character states Colosio was killed for being a reformer who might have challenged cartel power.

Another important topic explored in yet another subplot is the infamous femicides that began in Juarez during the decade. Luis Gerardo Méndez plays Victor Tapia, a strong-willed Juarez cop determined to figure out who the killer or killers might be. Even when the show veers off, it isn’t meandering or meaningless. The Colosio killing and the Juarez femicides are like the inevitable, dark outgrowth of what the increasingly powerful cartel culture has wrought in conjunction with extreme capitalist reforms to the economy. The Juarez women murdered tended to be sweatshop workers who would then walk home to poor neighborhoods in dark back roads with no sense of security. “Narcos: Mexico,” like the original “Narcos” set in Colombia, has always stood apart from other crime shows by paying attention to themes like politics and history, and how the rise of a potent criminal class cannot escape its links to these forces. It’s the same as the rise of the Italian mafia as a result of feudalism or the Russian mafia’s sudden growth following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Narcos: Mexico” then closes not with big shootouts, but with passive moments that signal there is no end to this story. Breslin sits in a diner contemplating all that has come, while in a Mexican prison El Chapo cements his power and strikes alliances, smugly grinning because he knows he will soon make his famous escape. To close the show without definitive assurances that the drug war is over is wise, because El Chapo may be serving a life sentence now in a U.S. prison, but Mexico continues to drown in a wave of cartel violence. One kingpin’s empire falls and then shatters into pieces others will pick up. In the same way, we can be sure that while “Narcos: Mexico” is over, we haven’t seen the last of its kind.

Narcos: Mexico” season three begins streaming Nov. 5 on Netflix.