el chapo
Alejandro Edda portrays Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán on Narcos: Mexico (Photo: R.AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo, File;L. Juan Rosas/Netflix)

What Happened When the Real El Chapo Met the ‘Narcos’ Actor Playing Him

Alejandro Edda stars as Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in Narcos: Mexico. So he went to see the drug lord on trial.

MEXICO CITY—Alejandro Edda was cast as the world’s most famous living drug lord on Narcos: Mexico but he had few personal details to portray Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán: some articles, books, a photo, a short video. Until one winter day in a New York courthouse. 

It was near the end of the 2019 trial that would send El Chapo to prison for life and Edda was in the audience at the Brooklyn federal courthouse. He watched in awe, studying El Chapo’s mannerisms—how he walked, the sound of his voice when he briefly addressed the judge, the way he touched his face. 

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Then came a “surreal” moment. Word had spread that morning that Edda was in the courthouse and one of Guzmán’s lawyers pointed the actor out to the kingpin.  

“He looked at me, and smiled, then went like this,” said Edda, imitating El Chapo's broad grin and waving in an interview with VICE World News. “I didn't even blink. I just looked at him, staring. It was just like, ‘oh shit, this just happened.’”

Edda’s El Chapo has been a bit player in the first two seasons of Netflix’s hit series about the Mexican drug wars in the 1970s and ‘80s but as Season 3, which drops Nov. 5, moves into the ‘90s, the character takes center stage as the man who would come to dominate Mexico’s drug wars. 

The series began with the tale of the founding, rise, and shattering of the Guadalajara Cartel, which is generally considered to be the country’s first modern drug cartel. El Chapo then emerged from it to become the world’s most infamous narco: he escaped prison twice, drank tequila with actor Sean Penn in a mountain hideout, and faced justice in one of the biggest drug trials in U.S. history. 

Along the way, he grew the famous mustache that became his signature look. Now, in the third season, Edda finally got to grow out his own. “With Chapo’s mustache, that was all my own,” the 37-year-old actor said.

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Alejandro Edda finally got to grow out his mustache in Season 3 to portray Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. (Photo: Nicole Franco/Netflix)

As his role evolved, Edda said he tried to think about how a young El Chapo, who started out as a driver for the Guadalajara Cartel in the series, was pulled deeper into the drug trafficking world.

“El Chapo was more like someone who had to do a job and he was the victim of his own circumstances. You know, being born and so poor in that part of Mexico,” said Edda. “So I wanted to show him from a humanistic point of view: how he behaves with his mother, how he behaves with his friends, how he behaves outside of the whole glamorized narco world and the narco culture.”

The actor called the experience portraying El Chapo the most joyful of his career, but he also said it was important for him not to “glorify” the trafficker, who is now serving a life sentence at the federal supermax prison in Colorado. El Chapo’s violent history is personal for Edda: He's known several people who “died because of the war on drugs, because of drugs, because of the cartels.”

The glorification of the narco lifestyle has become a prominent trope in Spanish-language telenovelas and films. Many depict the gangsters as handsome anti-heroes, criminals with a heart of gold.

“In reality, that's not what [the narco lifestyle] is. And the best thing is that Narcos never did that. It never glorified them,” said Edda. “The people who want to make glorification a business, that’s wrong, because then you’re glorifying death, glorifying violence. You won’t understand until you lose someone to the war, to a femicide, to this unstoppable bullshit.”

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But walking the line between glorification and reality doesn’t mean that scenes can’t be visually “badass,” said Edda.

“It's just that these guys' lives can be really cinematic. So of course, it’s very appealing, for an audience, appealing for the creators,” Edda said. “However, Narcos, even though it is very stylish and really cool, it digs deeper on the origin [of the drug war].”

Narcos: Mexico has received critical acclaim for highlighting the root causes of drug war violence by exploring the connections between the U.S. demand for drugs and the Mexican government corruption that allowed cartels to take control in parts of the country. 

Edda’s childhood in the central Mexican state of Puebla was far from the narco violence of the ’80s and ’90s, although the state has become much more dangerous in recent years. 

Instead, his experience was common in another way for many Mexican families.

In the late ’80s, his single mother moved to the United States to find work while he stayed behind with his grandmother and great-grandmother. He never knew his father. His mother worked as a cashier at a California gas station and then moved into jobs at restaurants and hotels. The money she sent back paid for Edda to attend a private school in Puebla, where he dabbled in the drama program. 

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When he graduated high school, Edda moved to Mexico City and attended an acting school that focused on the Russian Stanislavski method, a technique that teaches actors to put themselves in the character’s shoes. After three years, he decided to follow his mother to California and try to make it as an actor.

Edda said his experience studying the Russian method, combined with its American adaptations that he later learned in California, is what allowed him to “empathize and humanize” El Chapo. The drug kingpin is believed to have committed and/or ordered many more murders than those that were described at the trial. But the series doesn’t include that violence, which Edda said made it easier to try and put himself in the place of the ambitious young criminal.

“They didn't write El Chapo killing people, torturing, doing drugs,” he said.

During the trial, a former associate testified that Guzmán had beaten two men with a branch until their bodies were “like rag dolls,” then shot them and ordered their bodies to be destroyed in a bonfire.

Edda said that one of the most important lessons he learned from his acting preparation was to “shake off the character.”

“I don't judge my characters, I don’t judge if he's a good or a bad person,” Edda said. “I’m just trying to be the most accurate I can as an actor and portraying him within the pages I’m given for the sake of the show.”

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The road to playing El Chapo in Narcos: Mexico began years before. Edda had auditioned unsuccessfully for various parts in the original Narcos series, which depicts the rise of Pablo Escobar and the rival Cali Cartel in Colombia.

When the Mexico series was announced, he auditioned again and thought he might have a shot at the role of doomed U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, or drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero. He never thought of playing El Chapo.

He was surprised when he got the role, especially after the series cast three of the biggest contemporary Mexican actors in the roles of the Guadalajara Cartel founders: Diego Luna as Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, Joaquín Cosío as Ernesto Fonseca, and Tenoch Huerta as Caro Quintero.

“These were my idols,” said Edda. “I grew up loving their work, and suddenly I'm like the new kid in school.”

Edda had already appeared in a few prominent roles, most notably in AMC's apocalyptic drama Fear the Walking Dead and in the film American Made, starring Tom Cruise. But because he got his first break after moving to California, Narcos: Mexico was the first time he’d ever acted in a project on his native soil.

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Season 2 ended with Diego Luna’s portrayal of Guadalajara Cartel boss Félix Gallardo behind bars, ominously telling a DEA agent that with the fracturing of his organization, “the madness has begun and no one can stop it.”

Edda refused to divulge any spoilers for Season 3, which Netflix has said will be the series’ last. One of the principal plotlines, though, will certainly be the war that broke out between El Chapo's Sinaloa faction and the Arellano Félix family, who controlled Tijuana. Season 2 showed the brewing hatred between them.

Two incidents in particular, which are hinted at in the latest preview, will likely be featured. First is the high-profile shootout at the Christine nightclub in the resort city of Puerta Vallarta where eight people died after El Chapo and his men dressed up as police and attempted and failed to murder the Arellano Félix brothers. But perhaps more interesting will be how the series addresses one of the most egregious moments in the early years of the drug war: the murder of Mexican Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo.

Posadas Ocampo was gunned down in a shootout outside the Guadalajara airport on May 24, 1993. The Mexican government has said that the bishop was mistaken for El Chapo and murdered accidentally by hitmen connected to the Arellano Félix family. But the series has leaned into many of the more salacious theories of the drug war during previous seasons, such as the rumors that the CIA involved members of the Guadalajara Cartel in arms trafficking during the Iran-Contra affair.

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Narcos: Mexico may choose to speculate again. A few Mexican journalists have claimed that Posadas Ocampo was set up by members of the Mexican government after the bishop had uncovered information that linked senior officials to the drug trade. That theory describes the hyper-violent Arellano Félix family and El Chapo as scapegoats in the murder.

The airport gun battle made El Chapo national news for the first time. He escaped to Guatemala, where he was caught a couple of weeks later, returned to Mexico, and imprisoned. Although the drug lord escaped prison in 2001, allegedly in a laundry cart, that and his ensuing exploits won't make it into Narcos: Mexico.

Edda admitted he was “disappointed” that the series was ending before many of El Chapo's most notorious escapades. But he hopes that one day, like El Chapo escaping prison, “someone wants to open the cage” and bring Narcos: Mexico back to life.

“I have a fire in my tummy,” said Edda. “I believe, maybe, that someone’s going to want to use those keys to open that lock hopefully. I want to and I’m ready to unleash that fire.”