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El Chapo’s dreams of on-screen fame become a reality

Univisión and Netflix create miniseries about rise and fall of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán

Watch: Marco de la O plays Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán in the new show.

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a notorious Mexican drug lord better known as ‘El Chapo,’ had long dreamed of seeing a movie made about his own life. But these plans seemed to hit a wall after the leader of the Sinaloa cartel was captured a third time in January 2016, sent to a maximum security prison, then extradited to the United States, where he awaits the thing he fears the most: being tried by a US court.

But as the dreaded day approaches, El Chapo can take comfort in the fact that his plans to see his story appear on screen, at least, are working out. The US-based Hispanic network Univisión and the streaming media distributor Netflix have joined forces to create a miniseries about the rise and fall of the man who was once the most powerful and wanted kingpin of the drug world.

The Mexican actor Marco de la O had mixed feelings when he got the call about playing the part of El Chapo in the miniseries. “I hadn’t realized that I looked like him, either a little or a lot,” he explains.

We just want to tell the most truthful story possible, and for people to make their own judgment

Marco de la O, actor

The actor called his wife and explained about the audition. “Yes, you do look like him,” she confirmed. So he shaved his beard, left the mustache, and put on a colorful shirt of the type favored by the drug lord. The character was starting to take shape. De la O, who has made a name for himself in theater and in television soap operas, accepted the challenge of embodying an individual who triggered passionate reactions wherever he went, both good and bad.

The nine-episode production premiered this past Sunday on Univisión, and will be available on Netflix in a month. Directed by the Mexicans José Manuel Craviotto and Ernesto Contreras, it will try to explain how a Mexican boy from a humble family ended up heading a criminal organization that handles close to $8 billion a year.

Actress Kate del Castillo came under investigation for her ties to Guzmán.
Actress Kate del Castillo came under investigation for her ties to Guzmán. AP

The scenes were shot in Colombia because of security concerns in Mexico. And there was such a degree of secrecy around the shoot that it was deliberately misnamed Dolores de amor (or, Love woes), a title suggesting a soap opera, in order to divert attention from the real subject of the story, said De la O in a telephone conversation.

The lead actor said that it was difficult to act out the first few years of Guzmán’s life because there was no audiovisual material from this period to work with. And El Chapo himself has always been quite secretive about his private life.

“We had to create a more personal character in which the accent, the voice and the gait were very particular, very personal. We didn’t make a documentary-style Chapo Guzmán because there is no material for that,” said De la O.

Hollywood enthralled

The research and development of the series began three years ago, aided by work by a group of Univisión journalists, US Drug Enforcement Administration reports, El Chapo’s psychological profiles conducted in prison, and assorted bibliography.

“It is not reality, but it is the closest thing to the facts that took place in Mexico in connection with this drug-trafficking issue,” said De la O.

The actor underscores that the TV series does not constitute praise for Guzmán, and that viewers are not encouraged to admire the characters in the story, as that would be “immoral and irresponsible.”

I hadn’t realized that I looked like him, either a little or a lot

Marco de la O, actor

“We are not a soap opera, we are a series, that’s the big difference. We don’t want heroes or villains, we just want to tell the most truthful story possible, and for people to pass their own judgment,” he added.

It is not just audiences that have shown an interest in stories based on drug traffickers. So has Hollywood, which was fascinated with the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar before becoming similarly enthralled by El Chapo. Sony is already in talks with Michael Bay, the producer in charge of the Transformers franchise, to make a movie based on a bestselling book about El Chapo’s capture.

Fox is also working on its own story about Guzmán; the same that will be told in The Cartel, directed by Ridley Scott. And Mexican actress Kate del Castillo has told Access Hollywood Live that she still wants to push forward with her own project about Guzmán, despite being under investigation for her earlier meetings with the drug lord.

While producers everywhere are busy cooking up various versions of Guzmán’s life, the man himself remains locked up inside a narrow cell with a turned-off TV set, unable to see on screen how his ambitions of cinematic grandeur led to his own downfall.

English version by Susana Urra.

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