This interview contains spoilers for Season 2 of “Narcos: Mexico.”
Over a two-season run on “Narcos: Mexico,” Diego Luna has played the drug trafficker Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, founder of the Guadalajara Cartel, as a Man Behind The Desk type, attempting to bring a corporate order to a business full of outlaws.
Puffing his way through smoke-filled boardrooms, luxury hotel rooms and government offices, Luna’s Gallardo sees himself as the visionary who can unite the rival drug fiefs and bring the police and government to heel through bribery and intimidation. More money, less violence.
“That’s what really excites him, I think,” Luna said by phone on Tuesday. “Surviving his own ideas.”
In Season 2 of “Narcos: Mexico,” which was released on Netflix last week, Gallardo pays for his hubris. After he ordered the kidnapping, torture and murder of the D.E.A. agent Kiki Camarena (Michael Peña) at the end of Season 1, the U.S. government responds with Operation Leyenda, a large-scale investigation that increases drug seizures and loosens his grip on power. As his empire collapses, the cool businessman of Season 1 resorts to desperate spasms of violence and intimidation.
Although Luna was a child in Mexico City during Gallardo’s ascendence, he mostly remembers the political upheaval that followed, as the war on drugs escalated and Mexico’s longtime ruling party started to fall apart. He has found consistent work in Hollywood since his breakthrough performance in “Y Tu Mamá También” (2002), but he and his family reside in his native city, where he remains active in social and political causes.
Eric Newman, the series’s showrunner, had to convince Luna that Gallardo was not a simple black hat, but the symptom of a larger disease. But Luna saw an opportunity to help non-Mexicans understand the scope and complexity of a problem that extends far beyond its borders. Speaking from Mexico City, Luna discussed his final season on the series, the rise and fall of Félix Gallardo and what he thinks Americans need to understand about the drug war. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How would you describe the arc of Félix Gallardo over two seasons? Is this someone whose soul has been corroded, or have events merely revealed him to be the person he always was?
I think it’s a mix of both. The arc is quite dramatic, very interesting for an actor to play. Here’s a guy who starts with an ambition that nobody shared. And his desire is to build an empire, but it’s not about the power that he can have. It’s the power he can create, which doesn’t exist yet. He doesn’t want to take the position of someone else. He’s creating something that no one in his country knew was possible, and he’s seeing something no one else is seeing, which is how things are going to change and how crucial Mexico will become.
At the start, I don’t think he knows what he really wants to be. He doesn’t see himself just as a drug dealer. He see himself running the structure that allows drugs to reach the north. He’s thinking more about that, as if this were a corporation. He has this constant ambition that pushes him to take one risk after another, no matter how dangerous it sounds, no matter how difficult it sounds.
What is his moral calculus? Is he thinking that he can do this and it will be a less violent, more businesslike endeavor? Is that how he justifies it to himself?
I guess he does. He thinks the system they can implement will become more important than anyone involved in it. Obviously the system has to be run by him. He comes in and says, “Let’s not waste any time and any resources in fighting each other.” He does think coordination is important, and the character, as I play him, understands the power of discretion. He’s not flamboyant. He understands he can get really far if people don’t notice him.
In that sense, he could not be more unlike Pablo Escobar on the first two seasons of the show. He’s not really a man-of-the-people type, and he’s not as impulsively violent.
One of the reasons I decided to play Gallardo as I did was how little information you can find about his personal life. There are a lot of questions. There are a lot of blank spaces. In my research, I found a lot of my questions had no answers. It allowed me to create a character with complete freedom, using the material I had and filling those spaces.
What he built in Guadalajara was incredible: He had hotels. He had banks. He had schools. He had country clubs. And these things were functioning where the elite would interact. Which tells me he had the aspirations of a businessman. It was my feeling that his ambition was to be in power among men in suits, where the real decisions are made, with politicians and business executives. He understood the machinery behind the system.
As someone who grew up in Mexico City, did you take some ownership over the accuracy with which all of this stuff is being presented? Did you feel you had a responsibility beyond your character to make sure things were done in the right way?
I do with everything I do, not just with “Narcos.” I had a long conversation with Eric Newman, and from the beginning I said that if we were going to tell a story about good people chasing bad guys, I’m not interested. Because if it were that simple, we wouldn’t be going through this nightmare that persists today. To me, it was important to see how every level of power has to be involved in order for something like Gallardo’s cartel to exist. And to operate so well, to be such a great business for so many. I wanted to see how complicated it was — not just the Mexican structure, but the demand in the States that needs to be there for this to happen.
You were a small child during the time these two seasons take place. Do you have any memory of what it was like to be raised in this environment? It seems like the rigging of the ’88 elections, which is shown in the second season, was a particularly important event.
In ’88, I started to have more independence and to be more conscious of where I was living. I could see something was happening. I could feel the energy. I come from a very political family. I remember loud discussions whenever the family got together about what was happening, and this first feeling of a real democracy developing after so many years of having P.R.I. [the Institutional Revolutionary Party] in power. A very good writer in Mexico, José Agustín, calls it the “institutional monarchy.” P.R.I. ran Mexico for 70 years, just pretending there was a thing called democracy every six years when, in fact, it was just a theater play. Suddenly this theater play wasn’t any more just a play, and you could feel that energy of change approaching.
How do you see the series accounting for how things are in the present day?
We can still see the complications and corruption in front of us now. The great business drugs has been and still is for many people — in the government, in the business world, in the police, in the military — and how corruption has reached every level of society. The TV series raises these issues, but in the end, it’s just a TV series. I hope this detonates the expectation and desire of audiences to go out and go deeper to understand what’s going on.
What do you think Americans need to understand about the drug war from a Mexican perspective that they may not understand now?
The violence we’re living with in Mexico is not our violence. It’s a violence that belongs to a global problem that needs a global solution. It has to be tackled like that, or it will never be solved. I would like people to remember that the violence in Mexico has to stop, and we need your help. We need the help of everyone. It’s not something we can do ourselves. I’m talking about citizens — to be clear, I’m not talking about intervention. We are all part of this. This violence wouldn’t exist if there was no market.
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