Truth Endangers Fiction: Netflix ‘Narcos’ Location Scout Murdered in Mexico’s Cartel Country – Daily Beast

It’s a tragic case of life imitating art—a scenario that might seem over-the-top if it were scripted. But in Mexico truth often out-stranges fiction. And so it is with the mysterious case of Carlos Muñoz Portal, a location scout for the Netflix program “Narcos” who was found shot to death under unexplained circumstances last week along a nameless dirt road in Mexico State.

Muñoz, 37, was an industry veteran who had worked on several blockbuster productions filmed in Mexico, including “Sicario,” “Man on Fire,” and “Apocalypto.”

Then came the painful denouement. Muñoz and his car were found riddled with bullets in a rural region of the Temascalapa municipality, near a village called San Bartolomé Actopan about 40 miles northeast of downtown Mexico City. The community sits less than two miles from the border with Hidalgo State, which the Mexican government touts as a success story in its war against the cartels. (Even so, 11 people, including a public security official, were hacked to death with knives during a gang attack on a children’s birthday party in Hidalgo earlier this year.)

Mexico State, where Muñoz was killed, is home to one of the nation’s higher murder rates. There were 118 killings there last July alone, according to Variety, making for a homicide rate of 12.2 per 100,000 inhabitants.

“We are aware of the passing of Carlos Muñoz Portal, a well-respected location scout, and send our condolences to his family,” reads a short and somewhat perfunctory statement issued by Netflix. “The facts surrounding his death are still unknown as authorities continue to investigate.”

Clumsy Cops and Cartel Clues

Whether or not that continued investigation will lead authorities to uncover any new leads remains in doubt. Only a tiny fraction of murders are ever solved in Mexico. And the circumstances surrounding Muñoz’s death appear particularly murky.

Police found his compact car embedded in roadside nopal scrub on September 11, as reported by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. This led investigating officers to conclude he was being pursued at the time of the crash. However, the lack of witnesses leaves law enforcement unable to answer some of the most basic questions surrounding the case—most critically, who was after him. Common thieves? The cartels? The cops?

Strangely, Mexican authorities seem to have kept Muñoz’s murder under their collective hats for almost a week. His body was discovered by municipal security forces last Monday—apparently five full days before information concerning the homicide was leaked to the press.

“Here anything regarding police procedures is suspicious,” says Emmanuel Gallardo, a journalist based in Mexico City. “Mexican police are not famous because they are so efficient and clean. It’s the other way around. They’re famous for corruption. And for being unprepared and poorly trained.”

The region of central Mexico where Muñoz was found is disputed territory for several large organized crime groups, including the paramilitary Zetas. The Zetas were founded by former Mexican army officers and are infamous for brutal tactics and massacres of innocent civilians.

A relative newcomer to the criminal infighting in this state is the New Imperial Cartel, which is led by an enigmatic figure called Comandante 7 who’s known for targeting outsiders in his plaza, or zone of influence.

A friend of Muñoz’s who asked to remain anonymous told El Pais that he thought the presence of an unknown stranger taking pictures could have aroused suspicion among local residents who might have something to hide.

“Maybe they thought he was collecting information and they started tracking him in a car,” the unidentified friend said.

“I think the producers must answer that question.”

Muñoz grew up in the Mexican state of Puebla and attended the University of the Americas. He had almost fifteen years of industry experience, working on major franchise projects such as James Bond’s “Spectre” and the fourth installment of the “Fast and Furious” series.

In an ironic twist, the scouting gig that cost Muñoz his life was meant as prep work for the upcoming season, and change of focus, in the cartel crime drama “Narcos.” Although the first three seasons of the Netflix hit dealt with Pablo Escobar and the Colombian mafias, production was intended to shift north next year to focus on Mexico’s notorious Juarez cartel.

That plan might now be in jeopardy. If Netflix cancels its Mexico project over the killing, as some media insiders have speculated, hundreds of potential jobs would be lost.

But grip positions and plot lines aren’t the only things at risk. The scout’s murder also highlights the physical dangers facing freelancers and members of the media in Mexico. In addition to Muñoz, the New York Times reports 11 journalists have been killed so far in 2017.

Muñoz was working for Netflix through an American-owned subcontractor called Redrum, headquartered in Mexico City. Such companies tend to provide workers with basic travel costs and a variable salary, but little else.

“It’s very tough to be a freelancer now,” says journalist Gallardo.

Although he doesn’t know the specifics of Redrum’s contract with Muñoz, Gallardo explains that many within the industry skimp on safety precautions to maximize profits. (Redrum did not respond to interview requests by the time this story went to press.)

“If you don’t have enough funding in a conflict zone, you are risking your life,” says Gallardo, who specializes in covering Mexico’s cartels. “You need to follow a security protocol,” which includes “being able to hire a fixer, a guide . . . You don’t go by yourself.”

The fact that five days passed without media attention to Muñoz’s disappearance or whereabouts could also indicate a lack of proper oversight from the scout’s supervisors.

“Why wasn’t anybody checking up on [Muñoz]?” Gallardo says. “I think the producers must answer that question.”  

In addition to receiving adequate means for local liaising, precautions for media workers in remote or violent areas of the country should also include regular calls, texts, or emails going back and forth.

Otherwise, Gallardo says, “There’s a good chance you’re going to get killed.”

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