Narcos: Mexico: Here's what's true about Kiki Camarena
Narcos: Mexico showrunner Eric Newman explains which parts of DEA agent Kiki Camarena’s story were true, plus answers some of our other burning questions about the new season.
[Spoilers]. In the latest installment of the Netflix drug drama, Camarena (Michael Pena) moves his family to Mexico for a post in the DEA’s Guadalajara office in 1981. There he struggles against local police corruption and U.S. government bureaucracy as he tries to take down the country’s first major organized drug cartel. He eventually has a major score, helping seize and burn a marijuana “super field.” But the DEA’s investigation inspires cartel forces to abduct and kill Camarena. Below Newman addresses which elements from Camarena’s story actually happened and which were creative license.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I wanted to first drill down a bit into what Kiki Camarena’s story. From what I’ve gathered so far, he really did transfer along with his family from Fresno to Guadalajara…
ERIC NEWMAN: Yes.
He really did expose the super field leading to it being burned…
He really was kidnapped in 1985 by corrupt police officials when he was supposed to meet his wife for lunch — and he was just about to transfer to San Diego when that happened…
And he really was tortured over a long period, injected with drugs to keep him conscious, and tapes of his interrogation later surfaced — all that sound right?
That’s all true.
It’s a rather incredible and heartbreaking story. I left wondering about a couple other things, like did he really go undercover to work on the field to find out its existence?
He did visit the field undercover — less as a migrant worker than as an interested party. Unfortunately, his partner passed away recently so I wasn’t able to get the exact details on how he pulled it off. But he had contacts, he was posing as a marijuana buyer so he was able to go check it out. We took license as to how he got there.
What about the part where he has a suspect hold a gun to his head to convince him he wasn’t a narc?
That was a way we came up with the show how committed he was. He did lots of dangerous stuff. He punched one of his commanding officers. He was a pretty take charge guy. That was a strong metaphorical, “I’ll put my head in the lion’s mouth to prove it.”
What other beats from his story in the show were creative license?
He had three children and we gave him two because kids are so hard to work with. In the same way we decided to keep Juan Pablo Escobar a child even though he did grow up into a sort of awful teenager, we kept him a kid because he was a child, so we forgive him for following his father — how could he not? It would take a stronger man than me to break from your dad who says we’re doing exactly what we should be doing.
One thing I was struggling a bit with as a viewer: Was Felix Gallardo (Diego Luna) really so against kidnapping him? The show seemed like it came precariously close to making it look like the cartel boss wasn’t at all to blame for the DEA agent’s high-profile abduction and death by his own men until the very end when you made his complacency, at least, clear.
There were a lot of opinions for sure. We believe Gallardo was too smart to [to kidnap him] on his own — and Rafael Quintero had ordered his abduction without consulting Gallardo because the government needed to know what he knew. The was a wiretap — this hopefully comes across but maybe we could have been more overt about it — the government knew there was a wiretap the DEA had run and they were terrified about what they knew. So they used the traffickers, as they often do, because the traffickers work for the government. One of the great tragedies in Mexico is the government lost control of the cartels. For a long time it was this partnership where when they’re done with you they can give you up so you better hope they’re never done with you. So it seemed to us that this was very much a poorly thought out endeavor and not one that Felix Gallardo would get away with.
There are some reports I read online claiming the CIA was complicit in Kiki’s death — something that is not depicted in your show. Did you look into that claim?
Yeah, I don’t believe it. What is true is many [government agents] had interactions with the cartels for sure. In some cases they may have trained them. There was a time when the real enemy were the communists. The American government and the traffickers had a shared enemy. But I don’t believe the CIA would knowingly participate in the murder itself or the coverup of a federal agent, I just don’t buy it. Not when the stakes were these. If it was some vital matter of national security then that would be different.
What’s interesting is that knowing the outcome of Kiki Camarena’s story ahead of time didn’t lessen the impact. If anything, knowing how it ended filled many scenes with a sense of dread. Were counting on viewers being surprised or already knowing what happened, since his death was mentioned in season 1?
I assume it will be equally split. I assume there are segments of the audience who have never read a newspaper who will go into this thinking, “I like that guy I hope nothing bad happens to him.” There are others who know this is the story of Kiki and something bad is going to happen to him. I remember saying, “Who’s going to want to watch a movie about ship sinking when everybody knows it’s going to sink?” You can know that something bad is going to happen — in fact you can be certain — and still be on the edge of your seat. I’ll read the last page of a book before I start sometimes and it doesn’t diminish the experience at all. But it was designed to play both ways. There are a lot of ways to experience this show that are diametrically in opposition to each other. You can root for the cops to take out the bad guys. Or like me, you can see it as an incredibly complicated mess and once you’ve gotten rid of Pablo Escobar you’ve cleared the way for his successors, a hydra on a dragon.
Speaking of which: What was it like getting bringing back Wagner Moura to play Pablo Escobar?
It made me very happy, just being there with him, working with him, writing his voice again, that was probably one of my favorite professional experiences in my life. We finally got [Escobar’s] hippopotamus in the movie. We were trying forever to write that in. You don’t see it, but you hear it. We needed to do that. We missed a huge thing that everybody loves to talk about and we [tried to write the hippo in] in a bunch of times.
Obviously, he wasn’t at the same weight as when he was shooting his seasons.
But remember, but he was 10 years younger here. He died in ’93 and we’re in ’83 there.
So with this ending, is the assumption the next season will continue Felix’s story?
If there is a next [season] that would make sense.
Many of the drug war have advocated for the legalization of addictive drugs. The recent opioid epidemic suggests that might not be a great solution. As somebody who’s heavily researched this subject, what’s your take?
We’ve gone about this the wrong way for a long time. We continue to treat [drug use] as a law enforcement issue when we should be treating it as a healthcare crisis in the United States and a humanitarian crisis elsewhere. As long as demand of drugs exists — and the United States is the largest market for illegal drugs in the world — you’re never going to have a shot at attacking the supply. The supply is a product of the demand, so it stands to reason that’s where we should focus our efforts. And not locking up people who use drugs. People who use drugs need help, they don’t need prison… You know, there’s a lot of talk about building a [border] wall — which is stupid in so many ways. But what really blows my mind is the idea that a wall will curtail the flow of drugs into the United States. You know where you can find a lotof drugs everywhere? … Prison. And prisons are surrounded by walls. If there’s a will there’s a way. Its very simple, supply and demand.