TABIO, Colombia -- While the real Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is locked up in a barren, isolated cell in New York, his career as a drug lord apparently over, his fictional counterpart is free and in top form in Colombia, where the Univision network and Netflix are filming a television series about his life.
Ironically, Guzman’s re-arrest in 2016 -- after two dramatic prison escapes -- has created such a bloody power struggle for his Sinaloa cartel in Mexico that the series’ producers thought it would be safer to film in Colombia, the country that used to be the epicenter of the hemisphere’s drug violence.
Guzman was extradited to the United States in January, and his lawyers complain the conditions he faces at a Manhattan jail while awaiting trial are so restrictive they violate his rights.
The filming in Colombia was so cloaked in secrecy that the crew told locals they were filming a mythical TV soap opera, “Dolores de Amor,” roughly “The Pains of Love.” The Associated Press attended one filming session in the town of Tabio, where a half-dozen extras said they didn’t know what the series was about.
Its real title is fairly self-explanatory: “El Chapo.”
At the time filming started, Guzman was still in Mexico and the series’ location was shifted for security reasons, said producer Daniel Posada. “Colombia was a good option, because we have well-trained crews and it is very similar in appearance to Mexico.”
Tabio has a colonial town square, church and park that look like they could be found in rural Mexico. The effect will be completed in post-production by adjusting the intensity of the light to match Mexican skies.
Colombia may also be a little less legally complicated.
Guzman employed a cadre of lawyers to file a seemingly endless array of legal appeals in Mexico. One of the lawyers, Jose Refugio Rodriguez, suggested the producers could suffer legal consequences for using Guzman’s name and story without his permission.
“If they are producing something that he (Guzman) has not authorized, if they start attacking him, or publishing things from his private life, then clearly there will be a legal response,” Rodriguez said.
When Netflix and Univision announced the series last year, they said it is “based on the life story of one of the world’s most notorious criminals.”
Another Guzman lawyer, Andres Granados, told The Associated Press at the time that the two networks would have to pay for the right to use Guzman’s name and nickname, which can be translated as “Shorty.”
“If they air this, they are immediately going to be sued,” Granados said. “They, by necessity, need the authorization of Mr. Guzman, because he is not dead.”
Guzman earlier gave rights to his life story to Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who arranged a secret 2015 meeting with the then-fugitive drug boss and actor Sean Penn. Del Castillo hasn’t said what she would do with those rights.
Posada, the producer, said he hasn’t received any threats.
The series is scheduled to have its U.S. premiere on Univision April 23, and a couple of months later will have a worldwide release on Netflix.
Marco de la O, the 38-year-old Mexican stage actor who plays Guzman, bears an extraordinary resemblance to the drug lord after coming out of a makeup session.
Speaking before a pursuit scene that included gunfire and screeching tires, De la O said: “It was a challenge to play Chapo, because of his complexity.” Guzman, the son of impoverished farmers, rose to a spot on the list of the world’s richest people.
Asked if he plays Guzman as a hero or a villain, De la O said, “I can’t judge him. From an actor’s perspective, you don’t judge whether the characters are good or bad. ... We tell the truth, and that truth can be harsh.”
Research for the script started three years ago, based on meetings with reporters who covered the drug trade, acquaintances, DEA reports and psychological profiles of Guzman drawn up in prison.
“I have never known of a drug trafficker who has had such a long career, and from each stage of his life there are accounts that have allowed us to construct a portrait of his personality and psychological characteristics,” said Gerardo Reyes, the Univision research director who served as an adviser on the show.
The final script turned out to be a mix of reality and fiction. “It’s normal; some things we agreed on, some things we didn’t,” said Reyes.
“We have avoided the Robin Hood image that many have wanted to project on him,” Reyes said. “He came from a poor background and was obsessed with not returning to it, and this obsession was also extremely violent.”
But the story is not just about Guzman’s obsession; it’s also about the government corruption in Mexico that allowed him to flourish. “The series examines the situation in which two types of ambition can coexist and intertwine,” said Humberto Busto, who plays the corrupt politician Don Sol. “It leads the two characters (Don Sol and Chapo) to the same question: ‘For what?’”
“If in the end all of us wind up in a grave and we’re not going to take anything with us, what are we doing all this for?”