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Sean Penn's Latest Role: Fast Times with El Chapo

A person could not turn on a television or go online over the past six months without seeing news clips about Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who escaped from a Mexican super-max prison last July 11 through a mile-long tunnel. Months went by with no word of El Chapo’s whereabouts. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Sean Penn showed up at his Sinaloa hideaway and interviewed the elusive, dangerous yet diminutive drug lord for Rolling Stone. Right on the heels of that meeting, El Chapo was recaptured on Jan. 8, after a fierce and deadly gun battle.

It’s a darkly entertaining spy thriller, a John le Carré or Robert Ludlum novel, brought to life. Penn’s long and sometimes rambling screed for Rolling Stone describes the convoluted trail that lead to his face-to-face with El Chapo. Popular Mexican actress, Kate del Castillo, who had an in with the most wanted fugitive on the planet, helped get Penn his exclusive. Then came the explosive finish, with the Mexican marines going in, guns a-blazing, to capture Guzman, thanks to surveillance of Penn and Castillo. Mexican authorities are saying it was due to the back and forth communications between El Chapo and del Castillo that allowed them to track down and capture the cartel leader.

Now, a week after publication, Penn’s expressing regret, not for having interviewed the drug lord, but because he feels he’s failed in his desired goal of getting a public discussion started about the War on Drugs. In an interview with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes, Penn states:

'I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to contribute to this conversation on the War on Drugs.'

“We all want this drug problem to stop. We all want them—the killings in Chicago to stop. We’re the consumer. Whether you agree with Sean Penn or not, there is a complicity there. And if you are in the moral right, or on the far left, just as many of your children are doing these drugs... And how much time have they spent in the last week since this article came out, talking about that? One percent? I think that’d be generous.” 

Penn dismissed the suggestion that his interview somehow led to El Chapo’s capture: “There’s this myth about the visit my colleagues and I made to El Chapo, that it was – as the attorney general of Mexico is quoted [as saying] – ‘essential’ to his capture. We had met with him many weeks earlier… on October 2, in a place nowhere near where he was captured."

Penn: 'We’re not smarter than the DEA or the Mexican intelligence. We had a contact upon which we were able to facilitate an invitation.'

Penn landed himself a genuine journalistic coup. He managed to meet and pose questions to a man every law enforcement official across the world was struggling to get their hands on, and lived to tell the tale. Unfortunately, not everyone has been so lucky, with too many real, professional journalists in Mexico having found themselves at the wrong end of the guns and other weapons Penn saw brandished at different points of his journey.

“Any info about El Chapo is useful, but when you have a bear hug with him, considering what he’s done to journalists in Mexico, well, that’s disturbing,” Drug Policy Project director Sanho Tree tells CelebStoner. “Close to a hundred journalists have been killed or are missing in Mexico, killed while covering the cartels and the War on Drugs. Penn had himself celebrity protection.”

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Penn’s well aware of the incredibly bloody violence committed by El Chapo and his Sinaloa cartel and many other Mexican traffickers, noting in the article that he’d “seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike,” and that he “was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who’d lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.”

Despite this, Penn writes that he “took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo’s reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico: that, unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.”

El Chapo told Penn: 'All I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.'

This comes across as somewhat disingenuous. After his arrest in February 2014, he told law enforcement officials that he's “killed two or three thousand,” that although he’s a “drug trafficker [he doesn't] kidnap or steal or extort or anything like that.”

Tree agrees that there are some slight differences between El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel and some of the other cartels currently operating in Mexico, like Los Zetas. “The Zetas are probably one of the most vicious cartels, trained by US Special Forces originally,” he says. “Though they do occasionally use violence, the Sinaloa cartel usually will stick to business, classically preferring silver to lead,” which means they’ll make an offer to someone – a rival trafficker, a law enforcement officer or judge, whoever they might need cooperation from – giving them the choice between taking a payoff of cash or getting a bullet to the head. Obviously though, the lead is all too often the route they go. Tree believes the way the Mexican and U.S. governments are waging the War on Drugs is counterproductive: “You take out the head of a cartel, you incite violence, stirring up a hornets' nest.”

DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann concurs with Tree about the effect El Chapo’s recapture might have. “It will have little to no impact on the flow of illegal drugs to the U.S.,” he tells CelebStoner. “Illicit drug markets are like other global commodity markets; whenever one source or distributor is knocked out, others take their place. So long as there’s a demand, there will be a supply."

Nadelmann: 'The risk is that El Chapo’s capture will result in more violence and more drugs as others vie to do what he did. That’s often the result when a top crime boss or organization is displaced from the market.'

El Chapo is reportedly being moved from cell to cell within the high-security Altiplano prison he last escaped from. If he does wind up extradited to the States, it could take up to a year or more, according to some Mexican officials.

El Chapo is a folk hero to many who are upset not because he might spill the beans but because they see him as a benefactor to the poor and defenseless. There are many in his home state of Sinaloa who would like to see him go free. Like Pablo Escobar before him in Colombia, the people he’s helped along the way admire El Chapo. The flashy Barabas shirt he wore in Penn’s article has become a hot-selling item. Narcocorridos are being sung about him. El Chapo himself was caught up in the idea of a Hollywood version of his life, which is reportedly what lead to his capture this time.

Unless El Chapo has another escape plan in the works, whether he is extradited to the U.S. or not, it looks as though he’ll be in prison for the rest of whatever years he has remaining. With El Chapo, however, it behooves all intersted parties to stay alert and be ready for anything. The man is full of surprises. 

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Preston Peet

Preston Peet

Editor of "Under the Influence, the Disinformation Guide to Drugs," former editor of DrugWar.com, and writer of numerous articles around the globe.