'Narcos: Mexico': Executive producer Eric Newman and actor Michael Peña talk drugs, politics and violence
Drawing the line
How did you prepare to get into the role of Kiki Camarena?
Michael Peña: All the stuff written about Kiki was created through speaking to somebody who knew him, so I just went to the source and talked to his wife. You can overthink a character as an actor and make it more complicated than it needs to be. Kiki was a very simple man but he was very driven. He wanted justice. He was a very moral man and was very focused on doing his job.
How dangerous was it to film on-location in Mexico?
Eric Newman: Despite the tragedy early on where a location scout was murdered, it was an incredibly safe place to work. We shot in several different parts of Mexico: Guadalajara, Mexico City, Hidalgo, Puerto Vallarta and other cities. We didn't have any problems beyond our first incident, which was a random crime. As you know, there are dangerous areas everywhere in the world. Even in the safest cities, there are areas where it's not so safe. There's always the possibility of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were in Colombia for three years and we never had an incident. We were in Mexico for a year and outside of that one terrible tragedy, we never felt any danger.
Kiki was tortured to death in real life. Did you have conversations about how gory, gruesome and true to life it will be depicted on the show?
Eric Newman: We have an obligation to always tell the truth. We are very aware that it could feel like it's watered down, too soft and departs too much from reality. Unfortunately, Kiki's death was violent. Though we don't live in those moments gratuitously, we have to depict it accurately. As such, it can be upsetting for some viewers.
'Narcos: Mexico' is mainly seen from the point of view of the villain. How did you manage walking the line between turning them into anti-heroes?
Eric Newman: I can't help but be conscientious of the possibility of glorifying these people. It's a criticism that's occasionally made and we get it, but I think it's not accurate. What we do is we humanise them. I don't believe there are good guys and bad guys in the world. That kind of black-and-white thinking, right-and-wrong, good-and-bad, is one of the problems right now with the mentality in the world. The narco world is full of bad guys and very bad guys. For every narco, there's a corrupt politician, cop or an indifferent U.S. senator who doesn't think the drug war is worth consideration. At the same time, there are people who believe that anyone who is addicted to drugs is a loser and needs to be thrown in jail. That's exactly the wrong way to face this battle. What we try to do in the show is, rather than talk about heroes and anti-heroes, good guys and bad guys, we show a bunch of human beings, who are susceptible to greed, ignorance and indifference. The reality is we are never going to win the drug war. You can only battle it as a healthcare crisis, which is what it is. Instead of working on the supply, we have to work on the demand by focussing on addiction. We have to treat people who want and need drugs. The United States is the largest market for drugs in the world because we don't focus on treating the illness; we focus on treating the symptoms of the illness.
Michael Peña: Politicians who are complacent are even worse. At least narcos don't paint themselves to be saints. The politicians are the ones who promise trust and then completely misuse it. They do it for their own gains.
On both sides of the border?
Eric Newman: Yes, the Mexican government entered into a partnership with drug traffickers in the eighties. Once crack happened in the mid to late eighties, everything changed. It was then it became an actual epidemic. Prior to that cocaine was a drug that was used by rich people. By the time, this monster had taken hold, it was too late to do anything about it. One thing you see in 'Narcos: Mexico' is Kiki Camarena trying to get his superiors to understand what's happening. They actually think there are more important things than the Mexican drug trade. They would rather have a Mexican government that was complicit in the drug business than to have a leftist government. A narco is a criminal; he doesn't surprise you. Politicians and police signed up to protect the rule of law, and that's the real insidious nature of the drug game.
There's a growing leftist movement in Mexico, led by Andrés Manuel López Obrador. At this time, what would you like 'Narcos: Mexico' to communicate about the Mexican community?
Eric Newman: First and foremost, Mexico is an amazing country that is full of incredible and courageous people who have been suffering through the drug war in a way that the rest of us haven't. Kiki Camarena was killed in 1985 and since then, half a million Mexicans have died in the drug war. It is all of our struggles, but they are the ones dying and suffering, and that has to be respected. It will be interesting to see what Obrador does. If you look at the relationship between the President and the drug cartels over the past thirty years, there are a couple of different ways to go. Some have just embraced them to become narco-sponsored governments and they might have been able to maintain some level of peace at tremendous cost because they are in the drug business. Other presidents have chosen to attack the narcos, which has created tremendous bloodshed. The third option was they chose to ally themselves with traffickers in the interest of defeating some of the more violent groups. There are new and violent traffickers that only speak the language of the gun versus the old traffickers, many of whom we introduce in 'Narcos: Mexico', who understand that dead bodies everywhere are bad for business and the country. It'll be interesting to see which approach Obrador takes.
In the eyes of mainstream America, Mexico is perceived as the 'other'. This past mid-term election we had the migrant caravan, which was portrayed as the new drug menace. How do you see that?
Eric Newman: The fundamental flaw in American thinking is that the problem is over there, across the border. They think that they need to send over their resources to Mexico and Colombia to stop as if that's the problem. The problem is like I said, American is the largest market for drugs in the world. I don't know who number 2 on that list is, but they are a distant second. Until we address that, we don't have a chance. It's much easier for them to say the problem is over there in Mexico and Colombia, and that they need to go down there to kill that guy. So what? Kill that guy and three more guys take his place. Americans now more than ever are incapable of looking inwards. They somehow think that if we stop the migrant caravan, somehow that's going to protect them. It doesn't make any sense. They say the wall, which is the dumbest idea to ever enter into American politics in my lifetime, will stem the flow of drugs that cross the border. Do you know where you can find a lot of drugs, more than anywhere else? It's in prisons. Prisons are made of walls and drugs are finding their way in. Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is demand, there will be supply.
Michael Peña: We've got to put the responsibility on the buyer. If there is demand, people who aren't making much money are going to be willing to risk their lives to make a little bit more. If you take away the demand, there's no point in selling. That will stop it but I don't think America is ready to stop buying.