Tiller Russell (left) with retired DEA agent Hector Berrellez

Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video
July 31, 2020
In The Mix

With Time and Trust

A steadfast director delivers a true tale from the underworld to the screen.

Paula Chin

Tiller Russell has always been drawn to the dark side.

So it's not surprising that the director gravitated to the story of Enrique Camarena, an undercover agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who was abducted, tortured and murdered by drug lords while on assignment in Mexico in 1985.

"I've spent most of my adult life embedded with the criminal underworld," Russell says. "I'm telling the story of both sides — and the porous line between the two."

In The Last Narc, a four-part docuseries now streaming on Amazon Prime, Russell takes a deep dive into the killing, which prompted the largest homicide investigation in DEA history — as well as persistent allegations that DEA and CIA operatives were involved.

"I want to tell stories that are a product of extreme circumstances," he says. "The search is always to get at the raw truth."

Russell, also an executive producer of the series, has wanted to tell Camarena's story for 15 years, ever since he met Hector Berrellez, the intrepid, highly decorated DEA supervisor and agent who led the investigation.

"In a sense, the preproduction lasted all those years I spent trying to get him to feel comfortable enough to talk."

Berrellez, now retired, has long claimed U.S. intelligence operatives were present when Camarena was being interrogated and tortured. "He feared for his life pursuing this case," Russell explains. "To be able to get the story out in an unfiltered way was the culmination of a lifetime's work."

The Last Narc also features riveting testimony from three corrupt Jalisco State policemen; they served as bodyguards to the drug kingpins behind Camarena's murder but eventually became informants.

Gaining their trust wasn't easy, but Russell is adept in the art of persuasion. His 2015 documentary, The Seven Five, unmasked rampant police corruption — including running a cocaine ring — in New York's 75th precinct during the 1990s.

For 2018's Operation Odessa, a true-crime caper about three hustlers who tried to sell a Soviet submarine to a Columbian drug cartel, Russell bribed his way into a Panama prison to interview a Russian gangster.

The Last Narc's most moving moments belong to Camarena's widow, Mika. "After 35 years, the pain was still so close to the surface. Her desire for closure, and her hunger to understand why and how the drug war betrayed and failed her husband, were so clear.

"There are a lot of ways to go about a story," Russell adds. "There's rock 'em, sock 'em, tough-guy storytelling, and then there is a more sensitive, female style. My wife said that Mika was the reason she would watch the show. Mika is the heart of the documentary."

As for the biggest reveal, "I don't want to give things away, but I was shocked by the involvement of certain Americans in the interrogation. We conducted independent interviews and cross-checked the stories and specific details and how they overlapped. It culminated in a revelation that was absolutely explosive."

Russell's next project is The Night Stalker, a Netflix series about the infamous serial killer, another dark true-crime tale. But The Last Narc, he says, is his last drug story. "This experience was raw enough and tense enough that I'd like to be done with it."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2020

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