As the real Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is behind bars in an isolated cell in New York, his fictional counterpart is free and in top form in Colombia, where Univision and Netflix are producing a TV series documenting his life.
Ironically, Guzman’s re-arrest in 2016 — after two climactic prison breaks — has led to such a violent power struggle for his Sinaloa cartel that the series’ producers felt it would be safer to film the show in Colombia, the country that was formerly the epicenter of drug violence.
Guzman was extradited to the U.S. in January to stand trial for a 17-count drug trafficking indictment, and his attorneys complain that the conditions he faces in a Manhattan jail while awaiting trial are so horrible they violate human rights.
The filming was so wrapped in secrecy that the crew told locals they were making a mythical TV soap opera, “Dolores de Amor.” The Associated Press went to one filming session in Tabio, where a half-dozen extras reported that they were unaware of what the show was about.
The real title of the show is simply: “El Chapo.”
When filming started, Guzman was still in Mexico, and the series’ location was changed for security reasons, according to producer Daniel Posada. “Colombia was an option because we have well-trained crews and it is similar in appearance to Mexico.”
Guzman hired a team of attorneys to file seemingly endless legal appeals in Mexico. One of the attorneys, Jose Refugio Rodriguez, said that the producers could face legal consequences for using Guzman’s name and story without his consent.
“If they are producing something that (Guzman) has not authorized, if they start attacking him, or publishing things from his private life, then there will be a legal response,” Rodriguez stated.
When Netflix and Univision announced the series last year, they said it is “based on the life of one of the world’s most notorious criminals.”
Another one of the drug lord’s attorneys, Andres Granados, told The Associated Press at the time that the networks would have to pay to use Guzman’s name and nickname.
“If they air this, they are going to be sued,” Granados added. “They need the authorization of Guzman because he is not dead.”
Guzman initially awarded rights to his life story to actress Kate del Castillo, who set up a secret meeting with the then-fugitive and Sean Penn back in 2015. Del Castillo hasn’t revealed what she would do with those rights.
The series is scheduled to premiere on Univision on April 23rd in the U.S. and will be released worldwide on Netflix a few months after.
Marco de la O, the 38-year-old Mexican actor who plays “El Chapo” shows a striking resemblance to the drug lord.
De la O said: “It was a challenge to play Chapo, because of his complexity.”
Research for the show was initiated three years ago, based on meetings with journalists who covered the drug enterprise, acquaintances, DEA reports and psychological profiles of Guzman compiled in prison.
“I have never known of a drug trafficker who has had such a long career, and from each stage of his life are accounts that have allowed us to construct a portrait of his personality and characteristics,” Gerardo Reyes, the Univision research director who worked as an adviser on the show, said.
The final script ended up being a combination of reality and fiction.
“We have avoided the Robin Hood image that many have wanted to project,” Reyes said. “He came from a poor background and was obsessed with not returning to it, and this obsession was also violent.”
However, the story is not only about the violent tendencies of “El Chapo”; it’s also about the widespread corruption in Mexico that allowed him to rise to the top.