Will the drug cartel become the new mafia story in Hollywood?

breakingbad scene

A scene from Breaking Bad

Although the Godfather films of the 1970s set the standard of how to tell a Mafia/mob story, it was Goodfellas that set a decade long trend of mafia stories that ended with The Sopranos. Goodfellas hit theaters in 1990 and after its success Hollywood was fascinated with the mob. Films like Bugsy, Mobsters, Casino, Donnie Brasco, A Bronx Tale, Hoodlum, Last Man Standing an even comedies like Analyze This and Mafia! all came out in the 1990s, almost to the point of one mafia-related movie a year.

The output slowed down a bit once The Sopranos hit televisions in 1999 with a few films, like Road to Perdition and Gangster Squad coming out, but The Sopranos set a new standard of how to tell mafia stories. Boardwalk Empire is continuing it with a different angle, but for the most part the mob stories seem to have run its course. So what’s Hollywood to do?

Drug cartels.

It’s the perfect storm for Hollywood and it looks like they’re starting to take advantage. With the cartel battles raging in Mexico, making headlines across the world, plus Hollywood trying to capitalize on the Latino dollar?  New organized crime stories with Latinos at the center of it might be the way they go.

Sure, there have been cartel films in the past like Traffic and Blow, but lately we’re seeing a rise in the cartel stories. The cartel angle of Breaking Bad was a favorite plotline among fans of the show. The 2012 Oliver Stone film Savages, starring Salma Hayek, Benecio Del Toro and John Travolta was a money maker at the box office. Plus the popular documentaries Cocaine Cowboys and Narco Cultura have shined a light on the inner workings of the cartels that are fascinating. And it’s not stopping there.

Benicio del Toro in Savages

Benicio del Toro in Savages

Benecio Del Toro will be portraying Pablo Escobar in the upcoming film Paradise Lost. Netflix also announced a new series in production that follows the life of Escobar called Narco. This comes after the very popular 2012 Colombian TV series, Escobar, El Patron Del Mal, a mini-series that detailed the life and emergence to power of Pablo Escobar.

In the past 10 years or so, Mexico has been ravaged by drug cartel wars and the stories are grim. Since the demise of the Colombian cartels in the ‘90s, Mexican cartels have taken over and control close to 90 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. The Mexican government have been battling the cartels for years but the cartels grow stronger and stronger thanks to corruption within the Mexican federal and local ranks. In Ciudad Juarez alone, more than 10,000 cartel-related murders have been reported within the past five years.

It’s a scary, sad, sickening and tragic situation happening in Mexico right now. But I can’t front, when Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the head of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, was captured last month, I was fascinated by the story. The details of his cartel’s global drug operation, the movements his cartel was making to take over different regions of Mexico, where it sometimes resulted in gun battles with other cartels in broad daylight in some sleepy Mexico town, I was blown away. Or the home of Chapo’s ex-wife where authorities busted down a steel door and found a secret door beneath a bathtub that led to a series of tunnels and canals connected to six different homes in Culiacan.


El Chapo after he was captured in Mexico

And that’s just El Chapo’s story. There’s also Jose Manuel Martinez, a gun-for-hire hitman for the cartel, who was recently arrested in California. He was the cartels’ Richard Kuklinski (real-life Mafia hitman portrayed in the 2012 film, The Iceman), claiming responsibility for dozens of murders over the past 30 years. Or Uriel Chavez Mendoza, a reputed top dog in the Beltran Leyva drug cartel who also somehow became mayor of the Michoacan city, Apatzingan. Plus there’s the stories of citizens banding together in small Mexico towns to form militias to battle the cartels and actually winning back control of their towns.

If Hollywood continues down this cartel-themed path, there’s tons of fascinating source material. But would that imagery — Latinos killing each other for money and power — be damaging? Some Italian-Americans were disgruntled about The Sopranos because they felt the show perpetuated negative stereotypes. So much so that the National Italian-American Foundation tried to get the show off the air. And when cast members tried to go to a Columbus Day parade in Newark, New Jersey one year, they were turned away.

I don’t see Latinos or Mexicans/Chicanos in particular, going that far, but I’m sure there will be some grumbling. A cartel boss character is a bit sexier than a gardener, a maid or a gangbanger, but it’s still a negative stereotype. However, if you look at the bigger a picture, a role like that for a Latino actor, or a Latino writer on a successful show, could be a springboard for those artists to tell different stories on a major platform. Doors that were closed would now be open. It could be worth it.

In all honesty, I’m low-key looking forward to it. Just like I looked forward to a new season of The Sopranos or a new Robert DeNiro/Joe Pecsi film. Is that a bad thing? Sound off in the comments!

About the author

Quibian Salazar-Moreno is co-founder of The Hollywood Shuffle. He's an experienced entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles, by way of Denver, Colorado.