MEXICO CITY—Playing an imaginary Mexican female drug trafficker has helped blend fact with fiction in the day-to-day of actor Kate del Castillo. And a roiling debate about whether her character Teresa Mendoza in the upcoming third season of Netflix’s La Reina Del Sur, or Queen of the South - is based on a real life narco queen doesn’t help.
There was the time, for example, in Del Castillo’s real life, that Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán reached out to her because he wanted to send her flowers (they never arrived) after comments she made on Twitter, in which she said: “Today, I believe more in Chapo Guzmán than I do in governments who hide the truth.”
Or when Del Castillo ventured into the Sinaloan mountains to meet the fugitive drug lord, who apparently had developed a little crush on her, accompanied by the actor Sean Penn. “It was scary because the whole thing was scary,” she said, adding, “He was a gentleman with me.”
Del Castillo was vilified in Mexico for the stunt, and it has been suggested that it led to Guzmán being caught, for the third and final time, in early 2016.
Famed for his cinematic prison escapes—El Chapo famously made his final prison break via a motorbike on rails through a mile-long tunnel that started in the floor of the shower in his Mexican prison cell—he was promptly extradited to the U.S to avoid a fourth, and eventually sentenced to life behind bars. That was the end of his criminal story (for now).
Kate del Castillo in a behind-the-scenes photo from the filming of "Queen of the South" with co-star Antonio Hill. Photo: Telemundo
Imprisonment is also driving Del Castillo’s character Teresa Mendoza crazy at the start of the latest season of La Reina Del Sur (which goes live on October 18), no matter how many sweaty sit-ups and push-ups she does. Imprisoned in the U.S for her role in the murder of three former DEA agents, a close ally— the Mexican president—finally breaks her out of prison in an escape rivaling that of her male counterparts. But her escape, unlike Chapo’s final prison break, is just the beginning of her latest adventures.
Mendoza, with her six-pack, combat pants and no-nonsense attitude, is a novelty. A female, fictional character, she exists in a genre overwhelmingly dominated by men, or highly-sexualized female characters attached to the drug trade.
And how imaginary she really is is currently up for debate. It has been alleged that her escapades are based loosely around the life of a real drug trafficker: Sandra Ávila Beltrán. Ávila Beltrán was herself in a Mexican prison at the time (she served time on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border) that the popular TV series began, but has since been released, launched her own TikTok account, and wants a slice of the media profits for the series.
Ávila’s attorney, Israel Razo, has alleged that Netflix and co-producer Telemundo should pay 40 percent of the money they made from the series, which he claims used his client’s image without her consent.
But Del Castillo says that her character Mendoza has “nothing to do” with Ávila Beltrán.
“I don't know why she's doing that. But I'm pretty sure she knows it's not her life at all, has nothing to do with her life whatsoever. I have no idea..you know….of … the purpose behind the whole thing,” said De Castillo in a video interview with VICE World News. Netflix agrees with her, and has already declared that it’s not going to give Ávila Beltrán a cent.
Both parties argue that the series is based on the book by Spain’s Arturo Pérez Reverte of the same name, who claims to have never even met Ávila Beltrán and that the plot was inspired by interviewing traffickers around the world. The author even told the magazine Zenda last year that “it was impossible—and that is why I wrote the novel, to make it possible— that a woman could reach such levels of power in such a closed, macho world as the drug-trafficking world was then.”
But Pérez Reverte could be mistaken about the power wielded by female traffickers, a recent investigation by VICE World News suggests.
There are dozens of powerful women in Latin America’s drug trade, including the “Queen of the Pacific,” Marllory (pronounced Marjory) Chacón Rossell, who the U.S Treasury Department once described as one of the “one of the most prolific narcotics traffickers in Central America,” and Guadalupe Fernández Valencia, who was El Chapo’s chief money launderer.
Little is known about Ávila Beltrán’s drug-trafficking life, largely because gender-biased media coverage of her has focused on her botox treatments and the powerful narcos she slept with, rather than her business connections and power.
Yet during the years that she was involved in the drug business—sometime from the late 1980s until her arrest in 2007 in Mexico City—she “was instrumental in building ties between the Sinaloa Cartel and Colombian cocaine traffickers,” according to a Congressional Report.
But the comparison between fact and fiction tends to be the obsession of journalists, not audiences, who will no doubt be entertained by Mendoza’s action sequences and antics. Del Castillo insists that her character, Mendoza “had no options. She didn't want to be a drug cartel woman.
“She didn't want to be a drug lord, but she had to survive. And that's the only option she had at that moment in her life.”