Question: What do Charles Manson, Al Capone and Houdini all have in common? Answer: All three personas found refuge in the dark soul of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the notorious drug kingpin of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. El Chapo’s amazing, ripped-from-the headlines story will be the subject of a TV miniseries airing on Univision.
When I was living in McAllen, Texas, one warm, summer night as the balmy breeze made its way up from Mexico, I had a cold beer with a fellow who had recently been released from prison. He’d shared a cell with a low-level narco traficante. This narco had amused my drinking amigo with stories of his drug cartel adventures.
I was curious. They’re called drug “cartels”, but they don’t’ operate like, say, oil cartels (OPEC), who cooperate to fix prices and production to their advantage. I asked, “The United States has more than enough customers for all kinds of drugs. Why do the Mexican drug cartel fight with each other? Why not join forces to distribute and sell drugs? There’s plenty of customers for all.”
“Because,” he said taking a sip of beer, “It’s not just about money. It’s about loyalty, honor, revenge and territory.”
US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is gearing up to re-start the War on Drugs. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign fell flat on its face. But it was a boon for the prison industry as thousands of so-called “drug offenders” found themselves in prison for possessing a dime bag of marijuana.
It’s an undisputed fact, the United States is the biggest customer for illegal drugs. What is it about modern American society that drives so many to seek drugs to ease their pain or escape from reality. That’s a topic for another miniseries.
But, where does someone like El Chapo fit into all this? He’s a classic, capitalist entrepreneur operating on the free market principle of supply and demand. However, unlike his capitalist counterparts in the US who deal with their competitors by lowering prices or forming monopolies, El Chapo kills the competition and takes over their routes.
In the premier episode of El Chapo, we find Joaquin working as a mid-level operative for a drug cartel. Guzman is ambitious and wants to prove himself to drug lord Pablo Escobar. Like Al Capone back in Chicago during Prohibition, he has ideas on how to best move the “merchandise” and increase profits for all concerned. It’s a risky move on his part because failure could mean losing his life. But he pulls it off and impresses Escobar.
As played by Marco de la O, El Chapo comes across as a likeable, highly-motivated go-getter. Like Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, GoodFellas, he’s just trying to provide for his family and not get stuck in a boring, typical nine-to-five job. Being a successful narco traficante is not only profitable, it’s a constant, addictive adrenalin rush. It’s an exciting, colorful life-style.
But therein lies the tendency to romanticize these outlaws in films like bonnie and Clyde, Dillinger, and, one of my personal favorites, La reina del Sur. It’s hard not to like, and often even sympathize, with these compelling characters. But we must not forget: these are bad people who have done very dreadful things.
Marco de la O’s El Chapo looks like the guy who works in a local Mexican bakery whom you buy pan dulce from. He’s a charming guy, appealing, engaging. Like Charles Manson, he has a certain charisma that attracts celebrities. Recall that Manon became close to the Beach Boys’ drummer, Dennis Wilson. Manson even recorded some of his music with them.
Before being recaptured for a third time on January 8, 2016, El Chapo was visited by actor/activist Sean Penn and actress Kate del Castillo, of La reina del Sur fame. Both received lots of criticism for associating with the person who was considered the most dangerous man in the world
But you can’t blame them for being curious. I’d be curious to find out more details about his spectacular, Houdini-like escapes from prison. El Chapo’s many “Great Escapes” would draw an approving wink of approval from the last actor Steve McQueen. But, I would also be very interested in El Chapo’s motivation for getting into the drug trafficking business in the first place.
Certainly, the lure of money and adventure played a significant part. But there must be more to it. The reason we are so fascinated by arch criminals like El Chapo, is because they are so complicated, contradictory, morally conflicted, and yes, evil people. Admit it, when you were a kid and played cops ‘n robbers, it was more fun being the robber, wasn’t it?
The Univision and Story House Entertainment production of the miniseries of El Chapo holds the promise and possibility of painting a detailed, realistic portrait of one of Mexico’s most infamous drug lords. As head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman ruled a huge drug cartel empire with an iron fist. But somewhere in that ruthless kingpin soul, there’s a humanity, however flawed, that warrants exploration and even an attempt at an explanation.
The miniseries creators, Silvana Aguirre Zegarra and Carlos Contreras and producer Daniel Posada, have put together a great looking story with a huge array of talented Latino actors, headed by Marco de la O in the title role.
El Chapo premieres on Univision on April 23, 2017.