Who are the Guadalajara cartel? The real history behind Narcos: Mexico

Meet the real life Felix Gallardo and Kiki Camarena

Narcos: Mexico

The war on drugs is alive and kicking in Mexico in 2018. In the past 12 years, over 200,000 people have been killed as a result of narcotics-related violence, and much of this stems back to the 1980s, when a drug baron called Felix Gallardo ruled the roost.


And now, the producers of Netflix’s true crime drama Narcos is exploring the rise of Gallardo’s Guadalajara cartel in the fourth season.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Diego Luna plays Gallardo, and the show delves into both sides of the war, the US government’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) (fronted by Michael Pena’s Kiki Camarena) and the criminal syndicate that Gallardo constructed to filter drugs from Colombia and Mexico to the States.

Below, we take a look at the history behind the drama.

What is the Guadalajara Cartel?


This was a large-scale criminal syndicate that ran the drug trade in Mexico in the 1980s. It was headed up by Felix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca and Rafael Caro Quintero (former lackies of the Sinaloan druglord Pedro Avillez, who was killed by police in 1978).

They started off by moving opium and marijuana through Mexico, before tapping into a connection with Colombia’s Cali Cartel (the subject of Narcos season three) to traffic cocaine over the US-Mexico border. They turned this into a hugely profitable enterprise by taking 50% of the cocaine they transported rather than cash payment.

The Guadalajara Cartel enjoyed the run of the country’s drug trade – having brought disparate traffickers together in a nationwide network – for the majority of the 1980s.

According to writer Peter Dale Scott, they thrived because they had greased the palms of Mexican intelligence bigwig Miguel Nazar Haro, head of the Federal Security Directorate (DFS).

Who is Felix Gallardo?


Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was known as El Padrino (The Godfather) of the Guadalajara Cartel during the 1980s. He also served as a mentor to infamous Mexican druglord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman (who features briefly in Narcos season four).

According to a New York Times article from the date of his arrest in 1989, he had “been named by agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration as the head of an international ring that shipped up to two tons of cocaine into the United States each month.” No small feat.

A further report from The Times suggests that Gallardo had friends in high places, which aided the longevity of his reign – hinting at some of the corruption addressed in the new series of the Netflix drama.

“Most people here agree that [Mexico’s drug problem] reached its nadir during the administration of Antonio Toledo Corro, who was governor from 1981 through 1986,” Larry Rohter wrote. “The governor and Mr Felix Gallardo were once members of the same wedding party, posing together publicly for pictures.”

He continued: “According to American officials, Mr Felix Gallardo also spent a time as the governor’s house guest, which Mr Toledo Corro has denied. When asked about his association with Mr Felix Gallardo, the governor said he was ‘unaware of any outstanding arrest warrants’ against the drug figure, though six such orders had been in effect since 1981.”

Gallardo continued to run his trade from behind bars, but this resulted in the fragmentation of his enterprise, and allowed for other cartels to move ahead of him in the trafficking game.

What happened between Felix Gallardo and Kiki Camarena?


In 2017 Felix Gallardo was sentenced to 37 years in prison for his involvement in the 1985 killing of Mexican-American DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena (played by Michael Pena in the drama). He had been heavily linked to the murder since the year it took place, and his fellow former heads of the Guadalajara Cartel, Fonseca and Quintero, had both already been convicted.

Camarena had become a thorn in the drug boss’s side, thanks to undercover work which had led to the seizure and destruction of massive marijuana plantations. He was kidnapped off the streets in Guadalajara on 7th February 1985, and his body was found a month later, with signs that he had been tortured to death. According to Mexico’s Attorney General, Gallardo managed to evade capture with the help of Mexican police and government officials.

After his arrest for drug trafficking involvement in 1989, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison, but it took a decades-long retrial to finally convict him for Camarena’s murder.


Narcos: Mexico launches on Netflix on Friday 16th November