Going along with the twists and turns of Ingobernable requires something more than the suspension of disbelief: the debut episode includes the first lady of Mexico eluding secret service agents and running through the streets of Mexico City undetected (and in heels) thanks to the sly use of a popped-up jacket collar and some well-timed escapes out various back doors.
But set aside uncanny coincidences and melodramatic commotion (this is a telenovela, after all) and Netflix’s latest Spanish-language drama is actually rather brave. Starring Kate del Castillo as the first lady on the run following the murder of her husband (for which she is a suspect), Ingobernable takes on a host of contemporary Mexican political issues with little attempt to soften its message – one of dissatisfaction with political elites and distrust of institutions both in Mexico and, later, the United States. The question is whether audiences in either country will be receptive to it.
“Our aspiration is that Ingobernable will cross over and have just as much interest in the U.S. as in Mexico,” Epigmenio Ibarra, a creator of the show and previously the producer of series including Las Aparicio and Capadocia, told AQ via email. “The drug war is an issue that is also of interest to North Americans.”
Much of the conflict of Ingobernable centers around so-called pax narca and the role of the military in conducting police operations in the context of the war on drugs. In the series, a military operation in the barrio bravo of Tepito, in Mexico City, has left a small band of local residents looking for answers about what happened to a friend who was swept up in the raid. The first lady has sought refuge in the barrio and, in exchange for the group keeping her whereabouts a secret, she agrees to help them uncover the truth about their missing friend. Their efforts quickly reveal a blurred line between criminality and authority that, given headlines in Mexico that include the arrest this month of a state attorney general for allegedly running drugs for the Jalisco Nueva Generación cartel, is nothing if not believable.
“Ingobernable is a fictional story with a touch of reality … nourished by real facts,” Ibarra said. “We speak of a dystopic but real Mexico.”
Indeed, the show coincides with new, real-life developments in a long-running national debate in the country over the role of the military in domestic security. Military units have been “on the street” since former President Felipe Calderón launched his crackdown against drug cartels in 2006. But repeated accusations of human rights abuses and the use of excessive force – including the shutdown of a teachers protest in the state of Oaxaca last June – have renewed calls to draw sharper limits on the military’s activities. A controversial law laying out their role in domestic policing, which is likely to be approved by the Senate this month, would ostensibly define what the military can and can not be used for; critics say the law would instead open the door to an even more liberal use of the armed forces in public security.
The series also attempts to highlight the ways in which the appetite for drugs north of the border should be held responsible for the violence south of it. Ibarra told AQ that a goal of the show was to focus on the source of the violence, rather than its symptoms, and to that end U.S. interests had a significant role to play.
“The drug traffickers are always surnamed Guzmán, Escobar, Martínez,” he said. “We consider it vital to speak of capos who can be called Smith or Johnston … the ones that handle the big drug hubs that supply New York, Chicago or Los Angeles and are never talked about.”
This focus on U.S. involvement – and other touches on reality, such as the fictional president’s physical resemblance to the real President Enrique Peña Nieto – could be taken as provocative. Viewers expecting pure entertainment or the guilt-free treatment of the drug war offered in Narcos, another Netflix series, may not be in the mood for the occasional civics lesson. But there is more than enough drama and excitement in Ingobernable to go around, even if one headline-making politican is conspicuously absent: the current occupant of the White House has no corrollary here, but with a second season seemingly in the offing, perhaps there’s still time for President Donald Trump to make his soap opera debut.
The first season of Ingobernable is available in its entirety on Netflix worldwide.
Already binged your way through 15 episodes? Here are 5 Latin American movies AQ recommends this holiday weekend (available on Netflix U.S.).
Russell is a senior editor for Americas Quarterly
Tags: Kate del Castillo, Mexico, Netflix, telenovelas