Latin America

Why Mexico still shuns television series about drug traffickers

Broadcasters are wary about producing prime-time programming about cartels

Luis Pablo Beauregard
A scene from 'El señor de los cielos'.
A scene from 'El señor de los cielos'.Telemundo

Cristian González landed in Guadalajara two hours before Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocamp was gunned down in the airport parking lot.

The filmmaker had traveled to the capital of Jalisco state on May 24, 1993 to begin shooting a movie about the Branch Davidians religious sect, whose members had died in a fire following a standoff with the FBI outside Waco, Texas the month before.

One TV critic believes it is only a matter of time before a cartel leader is portrayed in a Mexican series

After the cardinal’s murder, González immediately called his producers back home to tell them that the Branch Davidian case was old news.

In a week’s time, González, with the help of two assistants, had a new script ready: La muerte de un cardinal (or, The death of a cardinal), another among the 90 low-budget films he has made in his 30-year career.

“I think the clergy were keeping closer eyes on me than the drug traffickers when we were filming in Sinaloa,” he says.

In Mexico, these low-budget films are known as “videohomes.”

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González says that no one tried to censor his production but a few people who were invited on the set for lunch gave him some advice.

“Don’t say that the murderers were drug traffickers. It would be better to say they were farmers. Your film would be more realistic,” they told him.

Actor Eric del Castillo played Cardinal Posadas.

Now, 18 years later, Del Castillo’s daughter Kate has become one of the biggest television stars in Latin America with her portrayal of Teresa Mendoza, the ruthless drug cartel chief in the television series La reina del sur (or, The queen of the south).

The telenovela, produced by the US Spanish-language network Telemundo, is based on the book by Spanish author Arturo Pérez Reverte.

“Telenovelas have been caught in a time warp and the public needs fresh scripts,” says television critic Álvaro Cueva. “Any series about drug traffickers is a way to capture audiences, because they show glamor and beauty.”

Telemundo, the second-largest Spanish-language broadcaster in the United States, has produced 13 series, six of which follow the same narco-theme made famous by actress Kate del Castillo.

Colombia was the first country to give way to the ‘narco-novela’ but it evoked a lot of controversy

Among them are Señora Acero (or, Mrs Steel) and Dueños del paraíso (or, Owners of paradise).

The ratings, however, still haven’t convinced Mexican broadcasters to lend their prime-time slots to this type of show.

“Telenovelas are so powerful when it comes ideology, culture and economy that they are closely watched, and go through a series of vetting processes. This makes it almost impossible for them to advance,” explains Cueva.

But the television critic still believes it is only a matter of time before a cartel leader is portrayed in a series by Televisa, Mexico’s largest television network, or Televisión Azteca, the second-biggest broadcaster.

“It would be an audience-grabber but it would have implications at the corporate level. Authorities would no longer give them any types of benefits or they would lose a lot of advertising,” he says.

Colombia was the first country to give way to the “narco-novela,” but it prompted a lot of controversy at the time.

In 2006, Caracol, the nation’s largest television and radio network, produced Sin tetas no hay paraiso (or literally, Without Tits There Is No Paradise), and two years later came out with El cartel de los sapos (or, The toad cartel).

If viewers ask for them, they have no choice but to show them” Filmmaker Cristian González

Óscar Naranjo, who was head of the national police force at the time, criticized the production for poking fun at authorities. But viewers and critics thought otherwise.

“The situation in the country is better told on the small screen than what we learn day-to-day,” television critic Omar Ricón said at the time about El cartel.

Recently, Caracol broke all taboos when it brought Pablo Escobar’s life to the screen with El patron del mal (or, The boss of all things bad). Netflix produced its own version of the life of the late Medillín cartel boss as seen through the eyes of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Accused of double standards, Mexican television broadcasters are a paradox. They decline to give up their prime-time hours to programs concerning drug traffickers, but they still show them on their cable and second channels.

“They try to stop and hide them,” says filmmaker González, who is known as the videohome king.

“For the newer generations, telenovelas about drug traffickers are just as important as El chavo del ocho [The kid from the 8th house],” he says, referring to one of Mexico’s most beloved comedy series. “If they asked for them, they have no choice but to show them.”

English version by Martin Delfín.

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