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Somos.: An unusual and involving narco series that falls short in ambition

July 24, 2022

Based on a groundbreaking piece of investigative journalism by NYT veteran Ginger Thompson for ProPublica, Somos. (2021) is the unusual series about Mexican criminal organizations that focuses on their victims.[1] In fact one never sees the capos: in this case, Miguel Angel and Omar Treviño, who by 2011 had taken over the notoriously violent trafficking outfit Los Zetas and made the border town of Allende their base. We do see mid-level narcos and the DEA agents on their trail. But mostly we get to know a cross-section of Allende’s citizenry – or rather their fictionalized counterparts, for the screenwriters presumably decided that depicting real people could endanger them or their surviving relatives.

So Somos. is more fiction than docudrama, though the six-part series retains a keen sense of realism in the casting of unknown and in some cases non-pro actors. Mercedes Hernández as the watchful street vendor Doña Chayo and Jesús Sida as her dim-witted son-in-law Paquito are stand-outs, but the whole cast is excellent. Because of the strength of the acting, the characters’ stories are generally involving, although at times it’s hard to recall who is who. The series is beautifully filmed and builds a slow-burning sense of mounting dread.

Less creative are some of the daily dramas the screenwriters have invented for their characters. Checking nearly all the progressive-agenda boxes, these include a kind-hearted grandmother longing to see her gay son and his family in San Francisco; another kind-hearted grandmother procuring an illegal abortion for her daughter; an American football-playing teen called Nancy who likes to initiate sex with team-mates; the son of a senior trafficker who comes out as gay; and saintly sex workers. Perhaps the cross-dressing priest failed to make the final cut. (Apart from one short scene of a quinceañera mass, religion is weirdly absent from this version of small-town Mexico. Nor does the series have anything to say about race or class.)

Somos. was written by veteran Hollywood writer-producer and Ang Lee collaborator James Schamus, the series’ creator (and lead writer on episodes 1, 5 & 6, which are the best-paced), along with screenwriter Monika Revilla and novelist Fernanda Melchor, who are both Mexican. They claim to have spent three years familiarizing themselves with Allende, and yes, there really were girls on its high school football team.[2] But what they’ve come up with often feels pre-fabricated for liberal U.S. sensibilities.

This somewhat formulaic approach would matter less if Somos. had not made two gaping omissions. The first is its failure to comment on the fractured relationship between the DEA and Mexican law enforcement, which is what prompted the real-life massacre with which the series ends. The DEA scenes are mostly reduced to a zealous but cautious junior agent butting heads with his cavalier overseer, as though U.S. carelessness, not senior-level Mexican corruption, were the heart of the problem. Perhaps the writers didn’t mine this seam because it has been displayed many times before, but the theme still merits a fresh, more intelligent take.

The series – more so than Thompson’s article – criticizes the DEA for sharing the Treviño brothers’ whereabouts with Mexican federal police chiefs. But what else were they supposed to do? Undertake a covert operation to grab them? A few years after the Allende massacre, the Treviños were successively arrested, showing that compromising leaks of intelligence even about Mexico’s most fearsome crime lords are not an inevitability.

The second and more troubling omission is the complicity of many Allende residents in the Zetas’ takeover of their town. In her ProPublica piece, Thompson quotes a businessman saying: “even if we weren’t involved with [the cartel], they would establish ties to our families. One of them would marry a cousin, or the daughter of a close friend, and suddenly they’re at the same parties, or holiday dinners. At the beginning we simply kept quiet out of fear. But unfortunately, drug trafficking brings a lot of money with it. And we all like money. So these guys show up with it, and they start spreading it around, and before you know it they’re members of the Lions Club.” She also quotes a victim’s wife, on the topic of the Zetas’ local allies: “The monsters we thought had come from who knows where were monsters who had lived among us, and who were supposed to protect us.”

How are business leaders gradually corrupted? How are police? And mayors? How does a father come to terms with his daughter marrying the kind of man who would kidnap innocents, shoot them, and dissolve their bodies in vats of flaming diesel fuel? (The series only bothers to depict two residents turning to the dark side, one as a low-level gofer, the other as an unwilling goon.) Instead of asking these tougher questions, Somos. settles for a rather Manichaean tale of noble townsfolk falling victim to evil.

[1] Thompson, “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico,” ProPublica, June 12, 2017,

[2] Thompson, “Netflix Is Launching a Series Inspired by a ProPublica Story About a U.S.-Triggered Massacre in Mexico,” ProPublica, May 25, 2021,

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