The actor and the drug lord: how Sean Penn met 'El Chapo'

Sunday January 10 2016

Newspapers in Mexico City show pictures of drug kingpin Joaquin

Newspapers in Mexico City show pictures of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman on their frontpages on January 9, 2016 a day after he was recaptured during a military operation in Los Mochis, Sinaloa State. US actor Sean Penn met secretly in the Mexican jungle in October with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, conducting an explosive interview released a day after the drug kingpin's recapture. PHOTO | AFP 

By AFP
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WASHINGTON

In a cloak-and-dagger plot fit for a Hollywood movie, US actor Sean Penn met secretly in the Mexican jungle in October with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, conducting an explosive interview released a day after the drug kingpin's recapture.

The astonishing story of Penn's encounter with the world's most wanted criminal was published by Rolling Stone magazine on Saturday, the day after Guzman's arrest following a deadly military raid in Los Mochis, a coastal city in the drug lord's native northwestern state of Sinaloa.

After months of secret negotiations to establish contact and win the fugitive's trust, Penn was granted a "seven-hour sit-down" with the capo — presented as his first-ever interview outside an interrogation room — followed up in subsequent phone and video conversations.

"Not since Osama bin Laden has the pursuit of a fugitive so occupied the public imagination," Penn wrote in a Rolling Stone article recounting the extraordinary sequence of events.

A social activist and fierce critic of the US war on drugs, Penn — who had help from Mexican actress Kate del Castillo in arranging the meeting — said he felt compelled to seek El Chapo out of a sense of America's complicity in the drug violence plaguing its southern neighbours.

"As an American citizen, I'm drawn to explore what may be inconsistent with the portrayals our government and media brand upon their declared enemies," he said.

CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE

When they finally met in a Mexican jungle clearing, he said the 58-year-old Guzman — on the run since escaping from the Altiplano maximum-security prison in July after just 17 months — gave him a brotherly embrace before introducing him to his crew.

"He pulls me into a 'compadre' hug, looks me in the eyes and speaks a lengthy greeting in Spanish too fast for my ears," Penn said.

Rolling Stone published a picture showing the actor in a black shirt shaking hands with the cartel leader, dated October 2.

During their meeting Guzman agreed to a filmed interview at a later time, but a face-to-face meeting proved impossible, so the drug lord provided responses via videotape to Penn's questions, without the Hollywood star present.

In a two-minute video clip posted online by Rolling Stone, a clean-shaven Guzman dressed in a blue collared shirt is shown in what appears to be a yard, as a rooster crows in the background.

"It's a reality that drugs destroy," Guzman says in Spanish.

"Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn't a way to survive."

He responded to questioning about his responsibility for massive drug addiction and the prevalence of narcotics, calling such accusations "false."

"The day I don't exist, it's not going to decrease in any way at all," he said of the drug trade.

In a stunning admission of his criminal enterprise, Penn says Guzman told him over sips of tequila that "I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world."

"I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats," Guzman said.

Penn described him as "entirely unapologetic. Against the challenges of doing business in such a clandestine industry he has built an empire."

Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez had revealed Friday that Guzman met with unnamed actors and producers in the hope of making a biopic about himself.

Penn said he believed prior to the meeting his movements were likely being tracked by Mexican and US authorities, and a Mexican federal official told AFP on condition of anonymity that the meeting had helped lead to Guzman's recapture.

The actor also said he entered into the interview project fully aware of the dangers involved.

UNIQUE REPUTATION

"The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with," Penn wrote.

"I'd seen plenty of video and graphic photography of those beheaded, exploded, dismembered or bullet-riddled innocents, activists, courageous journalists and cartel enemies alike."

But he said he was emboldened to seek the meeting by El Chapo's "unique" reputation.

"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," Penn wrote.

Mexican authorities have said they will begin the process of extraditing Guzman to the United States, a reversal from President Enrique Pena Nieto's refusal to send him across the border.

In the video interview, Guzman is asked about the notion Mexican authorities want to kill him instead of taking him alive.

He responds: "No, I think that if they find me they will arrest me. Of course."