Did Sean Penn Inadvertently Have a Hand in El Chapo's Recapture?


It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood film: an actor-turned activist sits in a jungle clearing interviewing the world’s most wanted drug lord, a notorious fugitive who after two decades on the run decides the time has come to tell his life story.

An implausible plot, except it is true: Sean Penn interviewed Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in a remote part of Mexico’s Durango state last October amid a huge manhunt involving US and Mexican intelligence agencies and security forces.

The actor revealed the encounter in an article in Rolling Stone magazine published on Saturday, just a day after Mexican authorities nabbed Guzmán in the Pacific town of Los Mochis – a capture to which Penn may have inadvertently contributed.

In the interview, the Sinaloa cartel leader admitted – boasted – about his underworld empire: “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”

That was a dramatic change from his last known interview, in 1993, when he claimed to be a farmer.

He also told Penn about his humble origins selling oranges, details of his escape from a maximum-security prison last July and that he does not consider himself a violent man. “Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.”

The interview burnished the Mystic River star’s credentials as a part-time journalist who lands big scoops. An outspoken leftwing activist, the Oscar winner has previously interviewed Raúl Castro and Hugo Chávez.

Adding to the collision of art and reality, it emerged that Guzmán wanted to make a biopic about his life and had reached out to Kate del Castillo, a Mexican star who has played a drug queen. She facilitated his meeting with Penn.

With questions about journalistic ethics swirling around Penn and Rolling Stone – it showed the article to Guzmán before publication – the drug lord was back in Altiplano, from where he escaped last July via a motorbike in a tunnel, facing a prospect he has long dreaded: extradition to the US.

Mexican officials said they would begin the extradition process in line with previous US requests. No time frame was given but experts said it could take months.

Penn may also find himself answering questions from the authorities: on Sunday, Reuters cited a law-enforcement official saying Mexico was considering investigating the movie star and Del Castillo.

Asked whether Penn could face charges over his contacts with Guzmán, Peter Carr, a US justice department spokesman, said: “We do not have any comment or additional information at this time.”

Critics, however, rounded on Penn for giving a platform to a bloodstained criminal. Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said allowing Guzmán to boast about smuggling heroin was “maddening”. The Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio accused Penn of fawning over his interviewee. “I find it grotesque,” he said.

El Chapo may use his time to reflect on the possibility that his seven-hour meeting on 2 October with Penn, atop a densely wooded mountain and surrounded by more than 100 cartel gunmen, contributed to his downfall.

Security forces tracked him down to a house in Los Mochis, triggering a battle that left five cartel gunmen dead and Guzmán scrambling through sewers in a doomed attempt to escape, partly thanks to a trail left by his communications with outsiders.

“He contacted actresses and producers, which was part of one line of investigation,” said Mexico’s attorney general, Arely Gómez. She did not mention names but Penn, along with Del Castillo, are the only film people known to have met Guzmán in recent months.

Del Castillo, who played a top narco herself in a soap opera, apparently won the drug lord’s trust and affection in a series of supportive Twitter posts. Penn said he asked her to facilitate the interview, which happened three months after Guzmán’s prison breakout.

Penn said he took elaborate security measures, using disposable “burner” phones. “One per contact, one per day, destroy, burn, buy, balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous email addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form.”

Even so, Penn wrote, he did not doubt the US Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican authorities were tracking him.

Penn’s account of reaching the jungle redoubt reinforced perceptions of complicity between El Chapo and security force elements: he describes being waved through a military road checkpoint, apparently because the troops recognised Guzmán’s son.

While flying in a small plane apparently equipped with a device for scrambling ground radar, an insider assured him the cartel had an informant who relayed details when the military deployed surveillance planes.

When they arrived, the drug lord, according to Penn, welcomed Del Castillo “like a daughter returning from college”. She translated their conversation.

Guzmán was sanguine about his trade: “Well, it’s a reality that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way, and there still isn’t a way, to survive.”

If he disappeared, he said, the narcotics industry would continue regardless.

Guzmán said he had not consumed drugs himself in 20 years. Asked how he envisaged his final days, he replied: “I know one day I will die. I hope it’s of natural causes.”

He shed light on his escape from Altiplano, saying he sent engineers to Germany for specialised training, leading to an elaborate tunnel with a motorcycle on rails modified to run in a low-oxygen environment.

The interview touched on Donald Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner who has railed against Mexican immigrants to the US, calling them rapists and criminals. (Guzmán has reputedly put a $100m (£69m) bounty on him.) “Ah! Mi amigo!” Guzmán responded.

In the article, Penn said the narco boss was less violent than rivals but expressed ambivalence about his assignment: “I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals.”

Rolling Stone prompted widespread criticism when it admitted submitting the story to Guzmán for his approval. He apparently requested no revisions.

Two weeks after the encounter, the Mexican authorities said the cartel leader narrowly evaded capture and suffered face and leg injuries as he fled. On Sunday Reuters cited a law-enforcement official saying Mexico was considering investigating Penn and Del Castillo.

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