The third season of Netflix’s compelling Narcos: Mexico widened its focus and gained a new narrator as it entered a new decade (the 1990s), but the game remained the same. The stories that Narcos and Mexico have told over their combined seasons have familiar ebbs and flows: A dealer or grower has a grand idea to become a distributor or networker, and next thing you know, a new cartel is born. But just as that leader becomes wealthy beyond belief and begins courting politicians, it always signals the beginning of the end. Again and again, from Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel in Colombia to Félix Gallardo, Amado Carillo Fuentes, the Arellanos, and El Chapo in Mexico, the cycle of violence is as predictable as it is savage.
The other important half of Narcos, of course, has focused on the DEA and their role in that cycle of drug leaders and territory disputes; once the traffickers begin getting cozy with officials, the Americans start to take note and follow the money. One thing leads to another, violence ensues, and a new kingpin will rise. In Narcos: Mexico, it began with Kiki Camarena’s dogged pursuit of Félix Gallardo, and the latter’s fatal mistake of torturing and killing a federal agent, leading to new American operation to dismantle Félix’s Guadalajara cartel. But as Walt Breslin says to a colleague before one of many failed attempts to capture Benjamin Arellano in this latest season, getting Félix “was bullshit; they gave him up.” And once again, in this final run of episodes, by the time the DEA shows up the play has already been made from the inside.
In the wake of Félix’s end, Narcos: Mexico Season 3 ostensibly focused on Amado Carillo Fuentes, one of the most successful traffickers of all time, and who (according to the final frame of the series), may be the only kingpin to get out alive. But either way, Amado had to get out fairly quickly—it had to end. And this was a man who had a Mexican General in charge of the country’s drug war, one praised by the US government, on his payroll. It still wasn’t enough. The dream that Félix started the series with—of uniting the cartels into a business—was never sustainable. Amado didn’t try to unite anyone under his reign, he just out-maneuvered them and tried to drop as few bodies as possible. Yet his big idea was still related to Félix’s hopes: to sanitize the drug trade as much as possible by (in part) splitting it up into segments to protect himself and his lieutenants, while making connections with high-ranking politicians to clear the way to exceptional wealth and influence. It still didn’t work.
Season 3 had some flashy sequences that showed the drug money being spent by traffickers high and low on the chain, but that’s never really been what the series was about. It’s about those who tried to do something different, to go beyond nightclubs and street fights and build an empire towards legitimacy. That same desire, to tame trafficking, was shared by Benjamin Arellano Félix and his family—he also made friends with politicians and used his drug money to further mutual interests. But violence was always nipping at the heels of this plan in the same way it did for Amado, Félix, and the others. As soon as an upstart (in this case, El Chapo) feels disrespected, it’s not about lawyers and loopholes and lobbyists: the guns come out. Here, that violence escalated until Benjamin’s brother Ramón and his cronies shoot up the Guadalajara airport in broad daylight with not a thought spared for any innocent they mowed down indiscriminately with their gunfire. And that, of course, caught the attention of the Americans, where an increased DEA interest kept the Arellanos on the run while El Chapo and El Mayo filled that void. Once again, the DEA was involved, and was aware, but was also several steps behind while the Mexican government was inert. And even if the Americans or Mexicans did take one crime boss down, even a major figure, there are a host of others waiting in the wings. This “business” can’t be tamed, nor seemingly stopped—gunfire and brutal violence always follow.
Meanwhile, this carousel was being reported on by new characters introduced from the newspaper La Voz, a truth-telling publication that chronicled all of these crossed paths and payouts as best they could before they, too, were victims of extreme threats and violence. And in a storyline that really didn’t connect at all to anything else that was happening (but was nevertheless compelling its own right), we saw the ongoing murders of women who worked in factories around Juarez—a staggering injustice that still has not found an end.
All of this built to a devastatingly bleak finale in which no one really had a win (except, perhaps, Amado—the one character the series has always quietly liked and championed, curiously). For the most part, we saw a variety of different bad guys who wanted to be good guys, or at least “respected” guys in terms of avoiding the violent cycle of greed and corruption that had played a part in the downfall of their predecessors—and this includes Walt and the DEA. As Narcos continues to prove, even if you try and do everything “right,” as Walt does, it still goes to shit when it comes to trafficking and everything connected to it. Don Neto says the same to El Chapo in jail: “You’re still looking for what’s ‘right’ in all of this?” It doesn’t exist.
When it’s at its best, Narcos echoes HBO’s excellent series The Wire, which investigated all sides of the drug trade in the inner city of Baltimore, and the many systemic failures of the War on Drugs. Narcos does the same, if not as elegantly in its execution. But also like The Wire, there aren’t many satisfying conclusions, and high-level investigations tend to get stopped as soon as people with political power start to get named. Because again, the true power lies not in the violent warring of the traffickers, but in the quiet halls of supposed justice. There’s a scene late in Narcos: Mexico Season 3 between Hank and Amado that tells the score:
Amado: “Someone tries to kill me, that changes things. You have to adapt. That’s what I do.”
Hank: “There isn’t anything you have without me.”
Amado: “It’s the end of my business…”
Hank: “You don’t have one. That’s something you made up. It doesn’t exist.”
Later, once Amado has found a new supplier, he reminds Hank that his “business” does exist and does affect him, but Hank still refers to it as “ours.” The reality is that Hank is right; it’s not a business at all, at least not in its own right. Technically yes, some of the traffickers did and do have ambitions to create something as stable, but the volatile nature of the drug trade will never allow that stability for long. (Look at a figure like El Mayo, who seemed to exist outside of the drama on the quiet fringe, until he made his brutal play for power.) As Narcos illustrates again and again, it is ultimately controlled by violence and the whims of cruel personalities, with everyone struggling and striving for that same golden ticket. Unlike the boardrooms and halls of power that some of the traffickers aspire to, their world is still define by guns and death, much of it random and arbitrary, and that won’t end. It’s all corrupt, it’s all connected, but while the true businessmen and politicians may profit from them, the traffickers will never achieve their same false piety and safe cover of legitimacy. The world turns.
As such, Season 3 concluded with something of a shrug from Walt and Jaime of “that’s Mexico for ya!” even though we saw Walt speaking with Andrea from La Voz to try and shine a light on some of the horrors behind the scenes of this cursed war. But as Andrea’s narration says in the end, sometimes the truth isn’t enough. It’s worth fighting for, but that’s also all we see of this world: fighting. Narcos: Mexico’s final season started and more or less ended with Amado in a shootout on an airfield. None of the money and power he amassed in between mattered. In the end, he—and all of the other narcos—are still vulnerable to the bullets that define their empires.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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