El Chapo: Netflix's Gruesome, Gripping Answer to The Wire

Like all great folk villains, the Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán has a story that demands to be told. Netflix have dutifully obliged with the show El Chapo, which premiered last week. Most people became aware of Guzmán in 2015 after his “jailbreak of the millennium”, escaping from a maximum-security prison in Mexico through an underground tunnel riding a motorbike on rails. It’s the kind of break-out MacGyver storyliners dismissed as too implausible. El Chapo’s tunnel makes you wonder what miracle of mind and will made it possible. He may not look like much, but Guzmán is a rock star in supervillain circles.


Netflix junkies may well experience deja vu when they dig into the series. For the second time in two years, the streaming service shows us the rise to power of a real-life drug lord. Narcos followed Pablo Escobar’s journey from small-time dealer to billionaire robber baron. Now El Chapo offers ringside seats to Guzmán’s rise from minor member of the Guadalajara cartel to the most powerful drug trafficker on the planet.

It is fitting that Guzmán spends the first hour of El Chapo on a frantic do-or-die mission for Escobar. Like Narcos, El Chapo traces the Scarface blueprint of a young buck with a big idea who butts up against the established order and prevails thanks to clever alliances and chilling ruthlessness. If you’re expecting carnage, the show will not disappoint. Explosions, decapitation, torture, unimaginable cruelty, slaughter of innocents and coke-induced psychosis pop up with the reliability of a drug dealer who always comes through.

What you may not expect is how El Chapo subtly chimes with another show about the drug trade. Much of the critical acclaim The Wire received was due to its portrayal of how the three key tiers of the drug game – the street, the police and the politicians – interacted in a broken system, with deadly results. In El Chapo, it is clear that the state and politicians are as ruthless as the cartels.

The character of crooked politician “Don” Conrado Sol is a fictional construct, embodying the political corruption in Mexico that has allowed the likes of El Chapo to flourish. On the surface he is meek, unassuming and concerned only with humbly serving his country, but underneath Sol is gripped by an ambition to be president. His rise through the political ranks parallels El Chapo’s criminal ascent, and is all the more chilling for how quietly it is done.

It would be wrong to characterise El Chapo as simply another gory story about opium-fuelled ultraviolence. We watch as the state buddies up with drug lords, sanctions murder and takes sides in turf wars. Over time, it becomes a comment on the idea of Mexico as a failed state and the larger scandal of the failed war on drugs.

As a teenage Guzmán attends a barbecue thrown by the local drug lord, an older, wiser head informs him about some of the groups present: “The guys standing over there are the politicians. Be careful with them – they’re the real assholes.” Like Bodie in The Wire, El Chapo realises early that the game is rigged. His tunnel may be an engineering marvel, but it is the bridges he builds with the state that aid his land grabs and purges, securing his entrance into the criminal hall of fame.

In The Wire, no one got the better of Stringer Bell until he came up against state senate grifter Clay Davis and his magical money faucet. It’s the same message in the Franklin Terrace projects or the Sinaloa poppy fields; even mass-murdering sociopaths must concede you can’t fight city hall. It’s a lesson every would-be Escobar must learn.

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