Inside 'El Chapo' TV Series: How a Cartel Kingpin Became a Pop Outlaw

The ruthless cartel leader defined three decades of drug violence in Mexico – and a new show helps recast him as our latest cultural criminal obsession

Inside 'El Chapo' – how the Netflix/Univision series recasts the notorious drug cartel as pop culture's latest outlaw obsession. Credit: Univision

The most memorable images of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán paint him as an almost cartoonish figure: a stout, mustachioed man disappearing down a hole underneath the shower in his jail cell like a mole; a dirt-smeared fugitive being manhandled by military police as he's marched into prison. But the cartel kingpin who had dominated the drug trafficking industry for the past two-and-a-half decades was a cunning, ruthless criminal, one who held positions in most wanted lists from the Chicago Crime Commission to Interpol. His submarines, airplanes and vast network of tunnels helped supply and fuel the vast majority of the American cocaine industry. He's been accused of having his competition publicly slaughtered in the streets. And after his cinematic capture last year, the entertainment industry has jumped on the opportunity to paint El Chapo into our pop culture as our latest outlaw obsession du jour. 

That's the Guzmán you'll see in El Chapo, a three-season co-production by Univision Story House and Netflix that began airing last Sunday night. Starring Mexican actor Marco de la O as the titular druglord, the show tackles Chapo's entire career, from his days as a low-level cartel member in the mid-Eighties to his final capture last year. And as one of the first small-screen dramatic portrayals of Guzmán, this show could be a pivotal step in defining both the man and the growing mythology around him. "Everybody knows that drug dealers are drug dealers," says showrunner Silvana Aguirre Zegarra, who has been developing the series for the last three years. "But Univision's journalists have been following this story for a long time ... and we have the opportunity to portray a very complex character in a very complex world."

In many ways, the man known as "El Chapo" seems ripe for becoming the newest candidate in the pop gangster cannon. Now in his sixties, Guzmán has been the most powerful cartel leader in Latin America after the 1989 arrest of his boss Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known as El Padrino and the leader of the Guadalajara cartel. In the 17-count case against Guzmán in New York's Eastern District Court, where he is currently awaiting trial, he is charged with moving nearly 500 tons of cocaine across the Mexican-U.S. border – that's just the drugs that the U.S. government seized – in addition to his marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and MDMA operations. His indictment also points to his "stable of 'sicarios,'" a team of hitmen that they say committed "murders, assaults, kidnappings, torture and assassination at his direction."

The expansive and extreme nature of his criminal operation has shaped a popular mythology around him through the last three decades – one which sync up nicely with our ongoing fascination with those who represent the curdled flipside of capitalistic success and turn criminal enterprises into empires. "We have developed an affinity for 'the noble criminal,'" says Robert J. Thompson, media scholar at Syracuse University. "We've been replacing the good, old-fashioned 'Western Hero' as the American myth. And we replaced it with people who operate outside the system." From the Sopranos to Breaking Bad to House of Cards, "we as a culture have really gotten used to the dissonance that comes with watching a show where the main character is a bad guy." And it's not just fictional characters – that ongoing infatuation has naturally extended to true-crime figures ranging from John Gotti to Pablo Escobar.

Enter Guzmán, a larger-than-life figure who quietly rose up from rural poverty before seizing control of the drug trade; who narrowly missed an assassination attempt at an airport, where a Catholic Cardinal was murdered in his place; who had a member of a rival cartel assassinated by using so many rounds of ammunition that the victim was nearly decapitated; and who, after not one but two escapes from maximum security prisons, appeared unstoppable. The headlines practically do the work for him. "This is the true crime story of true crime stories," says Thompson. "We've got assassinations, we've got cartel wars, [we've got] those great escapes that were so extraordinary. There's enough drama pack into this to really create a spectacular story." 

Still, even with no shortage of over-the-top tales to draw from, constructing a TV character out of the real-life Guzmán proved to be a massive undertaking. The show's writers consulted with an international team of journalists – including Ioan Grillo, author of the 2011 investigation into the the sprawling industry of the cartels, El Narco, and Mexican journalist Alejandro Almazán – as well as scholars, law enforcement agents and government officials, to trace El Chapo's 30-year rise and fall. Unlike many other kingpins, Guzmán was a relatively private figure; in the show's opening sequence, the creators make it clear that while the narrative is based in real life, parts of the story had to be fictionalized. "Sometimes there were three theories about one event," says Zegarra, and they had to choose the most sensible, or most story-worthy, of the three. "We tried to make the story as real as possible, with the information we had." 

They were also very conscientious of the risk of glorifying Guzmán. "You do have to empathize with the main character in a series," says Zegarra. "But characters like this ... they can be very dark, but then they can also be loving parents or loving sons. It's raises our curiosity: how did he become the person that now he's known to be? What happened in his life? What is it inside that made him make these choices?" The showrunner says they were careful to keep that from dominating the story. "Hopefully, you get a sense of the bigger picture – at the end of the day, that way of life is very extreme, and very hard. If you see the whole series, you also get a glimpse of the repercussions of that."

Some of the biggest names in Hollywood are vying for a chance to do the same. Last month, Sony bought the rights to Hunting El Chapo, Cole Merrell and Douglas Century's upcoming book about the DEA agent who spearheaded the chase and final capture of Guzmán, and the studio is in talks to enlist Michael Bay to direct. "We're going to see more and more of it, as well," says Thompson, referring to the ever-growing stable of Chapo-related projects – some exploitative, some just-the-facts' deep-dives. Thanks to the deep bench of non-fiction and documentaries already out on the subject, "it's a story that everybody knows,” he says, though the breadth Univision's El Chapo – narrating the entire three-decades of his reign – hopes to provide the most dynamic, fleshed-out version of the cartel kingpin yet. 

And in Zegarra's eyes, Guzmán's story is also a tool to tell a political and social narrative that is underrepresented in the media. "His story is intertwined and embedded in that story of a country," she says. "He stands for 25 or 30 years of the story of Mexico." They hope to use the show to tell not just a cartel story, but to illuminate some of the governmental and institutional corruption that allows it to thrive. "And with a television series," she adds, "we can talk about things that as a journalist, you might not be able to." 

From a fleet of submarines to roughly 500 tons of cocaine, here's what U.S. Attorney Robert Capers plans to pin on the drug lord in court.