In The Mix

Got Shorty

For its first scripted series, Univision Story House breaks down the saga of the breakout king.

Malcolm Macdonald
  • Story House Entertainment

The exploits of Mexican drug lord El Chapo are fairly well known, thanks to investigative reports seen both north and south of the border.

But no outlet has aired more thorough coverage of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán — until his arrest and recent extradition to the U.S., the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel — than Univision Communications.

So it’s not surprising that the first scripted series from the network’s in-house production unit, Univision Story House, is El Chapo, a drama series coproduced with Netflix and debuting April 23.

“The series was organically developed,” says Christian Gabela, vice-president and general manager of Story House. “We wanted to utilize all of the in-house assets we had. This story, which is inspired by true events, is one that we felt we had the authority to tell.”

Mexican actor Marco de la O was cast as El Chapo (the name means “Shorty,” as Guzmán stands five-six) in part because he was not widely known. “We had an opportunity to show a new face,” Gabela says, “and wanted to bring a fresh look” to a story already familiar to many viewers.

Fresh, indeed. De la O had not previously auditioned for television.

“Everybody knows who El Chapo is, but almost nobody knows his real story,” the actor says. “The difficult relationship with his father… the mental, emotional, visceral side of the man — there are things that aren’t visible on the surface, but will erupt in certain situations from the darkest recesses of his being.”

The series will launch on Netflix following its initial run on Univision, where it will air in Spanish with English subtitles. It will span three decades in Guzmán’s bloody career, from his early days in narco-trafficking to his ascendance to “godfather of the drug world” (as the DEA labeled him) and  finally to his re-arrest in 2016 following an astounding escape from prison. 

Production is expected to roll out in three installments, with the first  consisting of nine episodes.

Over the course of his career, Guzmán reportedly amassed a personal fortune in excess of $1 billion and his cartel became responsible for one third of the illegal drug traffic in the U.S. (Chicago declared him Public Enemy Number One). Yet, in Mexico he is something of a legend, admired for his ability to elude authorities, his sudden appearances and disappearances — and for breaking out of maximum-security prisons not once but twice.

But for all the drama of Guzmán’s story — Sony has announced a feature biopic — the series is careful not to mythologize the kingpin, who reportedly admitted killing between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

“He’s not a Robin Hood,” Gabela says. “But this is a story about the political realities of Mexico. Sometimes it is not clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017